Hundreds of published book present the lives and accomplishments of historical African Americans. Many of the figures undertook great efforts for the betterment of the people, themselves being immortalized for making positive change and for being the first, or simply the best, in their field. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the artistic lives of African Americans, whose historical narratives range from times of slavery through the modern day. The books featured in the Biographical Sketches: Art portion of Telling a People’s Story feature women, men, children, young and old, from many walks of life. Individually and collectively, their stories illustrate the depth of character and determination to follow dreams and overcome prejudices, all while creating master works of art from theatre to music, radio to film, and everywhere in between.
Ashley Bryan’s The Gospel Train #1, from the book I’m Going to Sing: Black American Spirituals, Volume Two, explores the art of recitation of spiritual hand-downs by way of music. Bryan’s piece becomes enigmatic of the influence of artistic storytelling in African American culture, which provided the roots, and later the foundation, for storytelling in the arts. His book Walk Together Children: Black American Spirituals, Volume One, builds on the same notion. African-American spirituals developed out of a need for communal, easily understood, easily perpetuated communication among slaves in the South. Spirituals have roots in slave gatherings in outdoor meetings, referred to as “camp meetings.” These meetings began in the eighteenth century and continue in great numbers today as a matter of tradition, primarily in the rural regions of the American South. Participants are known to sing, clap hands, and break out in ecstatic bouts of “circular dancing.” Many aspects of these meetings are adapted from traditional dances and chants popular in African communities prior to the occurrence of the Middle Passage. As Africans were introduced to Christianity and forced into conformity and assimilation of their master’s beliefs (partly as a means of separating a people from their heritage) many religious elements became the foundation and impetus for preserving the true spirituality of the African people, devoid of apparent meaning to an outsider.
Of note as well is R. Gregory Christie’s piece Juke Joint, featured in Roots and Blues: A Celebration, written by Arnold Adoff. In the Southeastern United States, Juke Joints were a popular nightlife venue for African Americans. These often rowdy institutions were commonly filled with sharecroppers who sought out places to unwind after a hard week of agricultural work. Some of the most well known music to come out of Juke Joints is the Blues. Adoff’s prose captures the intertwined nature of both music and the African American experience and heritage, and highlights its indisputable contribution to the music culture of the United States. To continue the theme, Carole Boston Weatherford’s The Sound That Jazz Makes follows the invention of jazz from Africa through the Middle Passage to the Americas, where slavery ensued, all the way through the Jazz Age and into the modern era of hip hop. Music has been a perpetual and integral component of African-American history, and Weatherford’s story illustrates music as a source of strength through the challenges and hardships inflicted upon the African-American people. She argues that the sound that jazz makes “is one of strength and determination,” and those of us at the MUAM couldn’t agree more.
Mahalia Jackson had a life full of tribulations beginning from the time she was a young child. Her love for singing and gospel music prevailed, however, becoming the currency of her life. She was never happier than when she sang in church, and was able to lift the spirits of everyone around her with her voice. Nina Nolan’s Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens, highlights the trials of Jackson’s life and her ultimate perseverance, resulting in a recording contract and ensuing fame. As she continued, she went on to sing for some of the most influential leaders of the day, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to political figureheads in Europe and beyond. Most notably, Jackson sang during the historic March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his I Have a Dream Speech, forever cementing her place in history, and the story of African-American artistic culture.
Also shown in this section is Benny Goodman & Teddy Wilson: Taking the Stage as the First Black-and-White Jazz Band in History, written by Lesa Cline-Ransome. In the 1930s, jazz music was all the rage. Integration, however, was not. Benny Goodman, one of the most prominent names in the big band and jazz industries, saw the critical importance of selecting the best musicians regardless of skin color. But, audiences weren’t ready for ideas of integrated bands. For some time, African-American jazz pianist Teddy Wilson performed with Benny Goodman in rehearsals and in the studio. In 1936, after years of waiting, Goodman, Wilson, and drummer Gene Krupa formed the Benny Goodman Trio. Together, they broke the color barrier. Audiences who loved the sound on recordings came to love the band, one and all.
Becoming Billie Holiday, also written by Carole Boston Weatherford, is a compilation of nearly one hundred poems both “insightful” and “illuminating.” According to Weatherford, they capture the feel of the melodies that listeners came to appreciate about Holiday’s great skills as a singer. Each poem is written in response to a title of one of her songs, and evolves to become a biographical study of Holiday’s life as the tumultuous consequences of poverty, prejudice, success and acclaim come to light, capturing the essence of one of the greatest jazz singers of all time. So, too, is Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of Vocal Virtuosa written by Andrea Davis Pinkney. She tells the story of Ella Fitzgerald, the “Queen of Scat,” and later the “First Lady of Song,” through a charming narration. Pinkney pairs the rhythmic language of the singer with her talents, examining the setbacks and prejudice faced by African Americans like Fitzgerald herself, but also how she was able to overcome those setbacks by way of pure virtue and talent, and an original style of music in a period of cultural evolution. Fitzgerald broke the color barrier at many places of nightlife and was not only highly sought after by her contemporaries, but deeply respected.
Finally, The Legendary Miss Lena Horne, also written by Carole Boston Weatherford, portrays the life of the acclaimed actress and singer while bringing to light the intense bigotry Horne faced on a national scale. She was widely acclaimed as a performer, but that did not stop some from discriminating against her. Horne lost movie roles to white actresses, was forced to sleep in separate (and often inferior) arrangements from her bandmates while on tour, and was blacklisted during the Red Scare of the Cold War and McCarthyism. Despite setbacks, Horne did her part in the Civil Rights Movement, becoming a monumental figurehead for change, by marching and singing for racial equality while putting her own life, and success, on hold to fight for the greater good. Horne was instrumental in helping to break down racial barriers so that African Americans of today’s artistic culture could have equal opportunity in all endeavors. Her legacy, and the legacies of all the African-American artists featured in Telling a People’s Story, is enduring.
I’m Going to Sing: Black American Spirituals. Written and illustrated by Ashley Bryan. Atheneum,1974.
Walk Together Children: Black American Spirituals. Written and illustrated by Ashley Bryan. Published by Atheneum, 1974.
Roots and Blues: A Celebration. Written by Arnold Adoff. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Clarion, 2011.
The Sound That Jazz Makes. Written by Carole Boston Weatherford. Illustrated by Eric Velasquez. Walker, 2000.
Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens. Written by Nina Nolan. Illustrated by John Holyfield. Amistad, 2015.
Benny Goodman & Teddy Wilson: Taking the Stage as the First Black-and-White Jazz Band in History. Written by Lesa Cline-Ransome. Illustrated by James Ransome. Holiday House, 2014.
Becoming Billie Holiday. Written by Carole Boston Weatherford. Illustrated by Floyd Cooper. WordSong/Boyds Mills, 2008.
The Legendary Miss Lena Horne. Written by Carole Boston Weatherford. Illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon. Atheneum, 2017.