February 1st - The Glory of Negro History
The Glory of Negro History - Langston Hughes, 1955
One thing that made me very excited about this project was the sheer depth of the material about the African-American experience in the Smithsonian Folkways archive. While there is some material that could be considered a little patronizing, there is a ton of stuff created by black people that is simply fantastic, and I would like to take a closer look at the works on offer during Black History Month. I'm not sure if I will just be doing albums about black history and culture but I'm pleased to note that I could very easily do so and not exhaust the store of albums for the rest of the year.
"It is glorious, this history of ours," Hughes intones at the start of this album of social history and biography peppered with poems, recitations and snippets of music, and that assertion - that black history is not shameful or a footnote - rings through the entire album. Intended, I would assume, for young people - and as a corrective to the implicitly and explicitly racist history education that still warps our perspectives today - the album begins not with slavery but with the first explorers of African descent as they arrived in the New World. The album is divided into pre- and post-Emancipation, in segments entitled "The Struggle" and "The Glory"; on the first, emphasis is laid on sites of black resistance, from slave revolts to a telling of the Civil War focused on black participation. On the latter half of the album black excellence is on offer, from Booker T. Washington to Ella Fitzgerald.
It's incredible document and a great tool, with pearls for any listener - I knew about Paul Laurence Dunbar from his association with the turn of the century black comedian duo Williams and Walker, but I didn't know he was better known as a popular poet at the time, and I hadn't heard any of his work - performed here by Clayton Corbin. Moreover, I have written before about my affection for the hope present in black media from the 60's to late 70's. How could I not love an album that so assuredly speaks of the bright future of African-Americans from 1955?
The stories of resistance, perseverance and success are inspirational but honestly the inspirational statements at the end - from Dr. Ralph Bunche and Mary McLeod Bethune - are honestly a little difficult to listen to at a time when we have an actual white supremacist running the White House. I don't know how I would explain to Langston Hughes how we replaced the first black president in American history - and for all of the warranted criticisms you can have about him, President Obama was the best president of my lifetime so far - with the least qualified man in American history.
But perhaps he would understand perfectly fine how it happened. Hughes speaks very clearly about Reconstruction and how the rights that many African Americans gained at Emancipation were torn away from them afterwards - a subject that I didn't learn about in elementary school in the 1990s. More and more white supremacy feels like the murderer in a series of horror movies, popping back up whenever progress is made. I don't know how we kill it for good but we (and I am very much speaking to my fellow white people) really, deeply have to. It has cost us so much already.
Click here to read liner notes and purchase this album from Smithsonian Folkways