Benjamin Banneker, First Black American Intellectual: Part 1, Measuring the Past

The box was heavy, both because the man inside was large and because his passing made his bearers heavy of heart. Old Benjamin was a good neighbor, always one to help and share advice. He gave to everybody, though most of those standing around the muddy grave today were dark-skinned as he was. A good man and a religious one–he loved his Bible, as the preacher noted. “A little too much,” thought 12-year-old Elijah, sighing to hear yet another homily from the Old Testament. He scratched another circle in the mud with his toe, as Ben had taught him, a line equidistant around a center point. His eye wandered again over the tops of the trees in the gray October morning, watching the weak sun trying to peer through the clouds. Or, was that a glow? Then, he smelled the smoke.

Banneker’s statue at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History, photo by Frank Schulenberg.

Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) was a mathematical genius, a polymath some would say, who taught himself astronomy and trigonometry and put them to work on his behalf. He was a surveyor who provided data for the layout of Washington D.C. He was a farmer who understood crop rotations and season fluctuations. He published six years of almanacs which were widely distributed across the mid-Atlantic states. He built his own clock simply from looking at the parts of a borrowed watch. And Benjamin Banneker was Black. He told Thomas Jefferson where to get off; Jefferson, apparently, didn’t like it.

Banneker’s story is so remarkable–so American in its expression of the pioneering spirit and search for freedom–that it’s going to take two posts to tell it. The more I started peeling the onion, the more there was to find. His family story is fascinating in its own right. There is also a mythology that has cropped up around him, where exaggerations have obscured the truth, and created a backwash of clarifications and reductions.

Then, there is the funeral. On the day he was buried, Banneker’s cabin with all his belongings was burned to the ground. Hard enough, for an intellectual Black man in 1790 to gain celebrity for his activities. Much harder, if most of the evidence is destroyed.

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Lucy Harris: A Whole Lot of Firsts

Center Harris, helping Delta State win its 1st of 3 titles. Photo from The New York Times.

Author’s Note: Ha! Now add Oscar winner to the resume…hers, the director’s, Steph Curry’s, everybody involved! I say let’s have more Oscar-winning documentaries about women–woohoo!

Lucy Harris died about a month ago, but the “Queen of Basketball” seemed the perfect subject to cap off Black History Month, with a tribute to her remarkable career. She won three national championships before NCAA women’s basketball became the commercial juggernaut it is today; she excelled in the Olympics in the days before Team USA dominated women’s Olympic basketball as it does today; she competed when she was the only Black face on the team, on the court, or practically in the building.

Whenever someone is the first, it always means more than a note in a record. There are stories under the stories.

Tall Family, Tall Dreams

Harris is the subject of a delightful but unfortunately short biopic making the rounds on ESPN, produced by Shaquille O’Neal. Ben Proudfoot’s film is narrated by Ms. Harris, who talks about her basketball days with a smile.

Harris was the 10th of 11 children, born to sharecroppers in the deep South of the Mississippi delta. Her idols as a teenager were the basketball heroes of the late 1960s: Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and especially Oscar Robertson, her favorite. She spoke of sneaking TV after light’s out–I had one of those 9-inch sets myself–so the family was not dirt poor, even with so many mouths to feed. By the time Lucy was old enough to watch basketball under the blankets, her siblings may have been working as well as babysitting her.

All her elder brothers and one sister played basketball at Amanda Elzy High School, where they all went to school. They were coached by Conway Stewart, whose team went to multiple state championships, winning one with Harris’ older brother. The year that Harris came along, the team won every game until its last, missing the opportunity to go to state her first year. They fixed that the next year. She broke the school record, scoring 46 points in one game, and captaining the team back to the state championships.

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Lois Malou Jones: An Afro-Cubist-Modernist American Treasure

“The Ascent of Ethiopia,” 1932, Lois Malou Jones, Milwaukee Museum of Art.

Cubists were old white French dudes who painted blocky shapes in gray and brown, and there’d be a guitar in there, somewhere. They all seemed to have an African period, where they became enamored of African masks and imitated by flattening the faces in their paintings; then they moved on to something else. The impressionists used pastels, rarely vibrant colors. Didn’t the Harlem Renaissance meant jazz flowing from a briefly opened door in an underground speakeasy during Prohibition–maybe there was a gay poet in there, somewhere?

Lois Malou Jones has enlightened me.

I probably know a little more about modern art than the average person, as my mother taught classes on the subject, and our house was filled with Pollock prints (mine has O’Keeffe and Hopper). But I recently took a refresher class on modernism (OLLI is America’s best-kept secret and Jannie Dresser is the bomb-digitty of teachers). When we covered the Harlem Renaissance, I realized I knew very little about Black American modern artists and appallingly nothing about our American jewel, painter Jones.

Cultured, Educated, Ignored

Jones was born and raised in Boston; her parents were educated, and they, in turn, encouraged both her education and artistic development. She sold her bold and beautiful designs to department stores; she had a solo exhibit in Martha’s Vineyard at the age of 17. She apprenticed with designer Grace Ripley, and eventually created costume designs for the Denishawn dance troupe (Martha Graham was one of the students). After completing her degree at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, however… you can guess the rest. One decorator told her that a “colored girl” couldn’t possibly produce such designs.

“Symbols d’Afrique,” 1980, Lois Malou Jones.
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