Friday, November 30, 2012

My Mother & The Thinkers

Fine art appreciation, classical music and reading neutralize the sting of Jim Crow discrimination.

Rodin the Thinker Statue
Rodin the Thinker Statue

When I was nine, my mother brought home a book on the French sculptor, François-Auguste-René Rodin (1840-1917). 

My mother loved art, any art--books, literature, paintings, sculpture, music, film, dance, photography, architecture, history, philosophy and intelligent conversation. But I was as confused about her handing this book over to me after she had read it  as I was about her making me take ballet and piano lessons, which I am now convinced she insisted upon so that I could notate music to songs she wrote.

I remember the cover was Rodin's The Thinker, a bronze and marble sculpture, which is now in the Musée Rodin in Paris"Why do I have to read this book about Rodin?" I asked, mispronouncing his name in my childish innocence and ignorance.

Rodin Museum in Paris, France
Rodin Museum in Paris, France
When Rodin was 76 years old, he donated his own works of art and his art collection by other artists to the French government. My mother told me about his donation, which is now in the Rodin Museum.

"Because I said so," my mother said. "And so that you will learn to say his name correctly. Rodin," she pronounced it for me and made me repeat it. "You can't go to college mispronouncing famous names." I knew I did not dare argue with her or just pretend I read the book because she would quiz me on it like she did everything else. So, I read it as part of my general education outside of regular school.

Rodin Museum: Le Baiser
Rodin Museum: Le Baiser

Littie said people who create, participate in and appreciate art are better thinkers than those who do not. 

"Those interested in literature, music and art can handle conversation," she said. "It has to do with the way their brains work and how they decide to live; maybe because they use their minds in a different way."

Auguste Rodin by Mayo Roos
Auguste Rodin
by Mayo Roos
Contrary to what I thought before starting the book about Rodin, I did find it interesting. Rodin's early education was not considered good enough to gain him entrance into the elite art academy and still he went on to be a foremost figure in the development of modern sculpture. His piece, The Thinker, became my favorite work of art, representing a superior intellectual quality like my mother's that I wished to possess. 

Could Littie have known this book and sculpture would have that impact on me? Or was she teaching me something about my own intellect, also considered inferior because I was attending a Jim Crow school at the time? And my mother knew the book about Rodin was not the type of reading material our school library offered. She wanted me to know about people and places far away from my Jim Crow world, one of the reasons we traveled to other states where I could see what the rest of the world had to offer me. "Do not be afraid to explore ideas through art, film, books and traditions of other cultures," she always said. "That's how you learn." My mother believed in a global education.

While reading the book on Rodin, I learned that he was born in 1840 in Paris, France, while on this side of the Atlantic, slavery in America was at its height. Even as the Civil Rights Movement was in progress, it was unlikely that a little black girl would have been able to discover this genius Rodin or others without someone like my mother to make the suggestion. At my mother's insistence on exposing me to higher concepts, I was reading about Rodin during the civil rights movement when a Jim Crow education would have completely prevented my introduction to them. . 

There were people whom Littie admired in the world who were not directly associated with the sciences or the arts, but she believed if she could get inside their homes, she would find art hanging on the walls, many shelves of books and the music of the master playing. "Most people do not know Albert Einstein was also a musician," she said.

The Musical Mind of Albert Einstein:  Great Physicist, Amateur Violinist  and Devotee of Mozart
The Spring before I started first grade, Albert Einstein died. My mother was anxious to have me understand not only what the world had lost when this genius died, but also what the world had with him. "He played violin, you know," she said. "He loved Mozart and used his music to help him develop his theories." There she goes again, I thought. I didn't understand what all of it meant. I was only five years old. 

And my mother's intellectual admiration did not stop at theoretical physicists. "I'll bet Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King have books, art and fine in their homes," my mother said. "It shows in the way they carry themselves."

Rosa Parks ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott at the end of 1955. My mother kept up with all that news the same way she had kept up with the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v the Board of Education. She bought magazines and newspapers on her way home from work.

I knew who Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were. My mother took periodicals to keep up with current events. 

Rosa Parks Booking Photo, Montgomery Bus Boycott
Rosa Parks Booking Photo, Montgomery Bus Boycott
"You can hear that culture in their voices and in the way they use the language. Reserve and elegance are always present in them. Those people are the thinkers among us and the thinkers become the doers." As history records, both Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote books about their lives and experiences during the Civil Rights Movement, documenting those thoughts and the resulting actions.

I saw television news broadcasts covering the social activism of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. However, Littie restricted my television viewing to her approved list of programming--news and information shows; and radio was restricted by the local radio stations available in our area, mostly country music with little national news coverage of such topics as Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement.

Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King booking photos
Rosa Parks & Martin Luther King

My mother received this news through delivery of national black publications to our home on a weekly basis. She required me to read the articles and then discuss them with her afterwards. These topics were confusing to me and not always a pleasant experience. I always enjoyed our discussions of art history more, perhaps because, as a child, I understood art history better than civil rights

When my mother made me read articles she had selected about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, I read them to be ready for her quizzes about the Civil Rights Movement.

I read books and articles, and examined art because my mother said a person could not be just a collector of books and art. Art hanging on walls or books on shelves did not pass Littie's sniff test. The person who possessed the books and art had to know something about what was in the books, know about art or know how to produce art. She was an amateur artist herself. She painted animals, birds and landscapes and wanted me to be interested in some form of art. 

Brownie Hawkeye Camera 1950s
Brownie Camera
My grandmother bought me a Brownie camera when I was nine in exchange for not bothering her gun again. Everybody got really upset when I sneaked the gun out of the house and tried to buy bullets at the corner store. But the storekeeper called the house on me. I tried to explain that I had a good reason, but no one would listen. My grandmother said my punishment was to use the camera to shoot what I needed to shoot but not without getting people's permission first. 

Littie told me not to photograph people; she felt I would not be sufficiently respectful of their privacy and she was probably right, although I wouldn't call what I was doing photography. It was awful is what it was. But my mother was delighted that I was interested in photography. "It's kind of a fine art," she said. 

I wrote a story, Shooting Without A Gun, in my book, Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's, about Bigmama's gun and the camera. Take a look and join my channel.

My mother didn't say much about the incident with me and Bigmama's gun, but I am certain she had all to do with my grandmother giving me that camera.

Ansel Adams: Moon and Half Dome,  Yosemite National Park,  California, 1960
Littie was particularly fond of sunsets, water, night skies, old buildings and sand. When I was about 11 years old, my mother bought postcards with Ansel Adams photography, saying I should model my own style of photography on his style, which she thought was magnificent. 

I had no photographic style. "Aim high!" She scolded. "And be sure and pack your camera when we go to the beach next weekend." My mother had a friend in Houston who was from a wealthy mortuary family with property in Galveston and one son my age. During the season, we often met her and her son at their beach cottage for weekends. My mother was always happy when her friend's older son, who was a professional photographer, joined us at the beach and let me tag along while he photographed nature scenes and explained lighting and photo composition. 

Reflections in Black: A History of Black  Photographers  1840 to the Present
Reflections in Black:
A History of Black 

 1840 to the Present
The summer of my 15th birthday, Aunt Clara took me to the mountains, where I wasted rolls of film trying to take shots as my mother had instructed, only to find out after the photographs were developed that I was no Ansel Adams, nor was I even close. When I got home from vacation, my mother and I reviewed my shots and I realized the photography exercise was for my benefit. She was trying to help me develop an eye for art. 

I did eventually develop an eye for photography. My images were published in a significant reference book on the history of  photography. 

My photography has been collected by a number of prestigious museums and libraries, published in books, newspapers and magazines, and exhibited around the world with a Smithsonian Exhibition, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present. I credit Littie for my success by insisting that I take all those terrible pictures when I was a kid.

My mother was totally absorbed in art--the art of others in galleries, her own art creations, my crude and amateur photography or pictures in books. And she liked volumes, not just for the quantity, but for the matching binding. "Sets of books make you feel like you're in a library. The feel of art history books and the smell of them make me want to paint or get knee-deep in some clay," she would say. "You can't pretend to love art or know what's in books. Love and knowledge of these subjects come out in your conversation, and if you're pretending, you will soon look the fool. Anybody with money can be advised on what art pieces to buy," she said. "The real test is finding a way to surround yourself with art if you are on a tight budget.And a tight budget was something my mother knew all about. "But we can't let the lack of money keep us from enjoying the finer things," she said. "People need art in their lives, all people--rich and poor!" 

When I was a little girl, our small Jim Crow town did not allow African Americans to use the segregated public library in the 1950s. Instead, the city's Jim Crow laws ordered the library to send a bookmobile into certain neighborhoods to discourage African Americans from using the downtown library. But times do change. A bookmobile was a converted bus with rows of shelves with books, mostly outdated and tattered. The bookmobile was most active in summer and parked in public places where African Americans were allowed to gather. Today, things have really changed. My hometown library has hosted celebrations of my career and is an active collector of my work. 

However, back then, until we were allowed to use the facility, my mother and I took a Greyhound Bus 100 miles away to Houston to use the Houston Public Library. The trip to Houston was an all day affair, but worth it, even if we didn't qualify for library cards because we were from out of town and not because we were black. We sat among all those art books on the shelves and read until it was time for us to catch our bus back home. At the time, we concentrated on art because there wasn't a great deal written in books about African Americans or pictures of people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King in books and magazines, unless they were black publications. At that time, my mother and I never imagined that I would write books and take photographs chronicling African Americans that would be collected by the Houston Public Library or my hometown library; or maybe Littie did imagine that.

My mother used those books in the library to imagine places we had never been, to see images from faraway places that one day we might see and to teach me to see myself as the Jim Crow south could not. My mother took me to the movies often, starting when I was four years old. We would lose ourselves in the beautiful clothes and exotic locations. 

From those movies and books, she imagined scenes, learned to paint oil landscapes and restored damaged art she bought in second-hand stores. She collected art, museum, gallery and exhibition books and often dragged me to out-of-town galleries and museums that allowed African Americans to enter and we could afford to attend. Afterwards, she bought the greeting cards and exhibition books that were not too expensive and she required me to make detailed critiques of shows we had seen.

Littie collected interior design,  architecture and art magazines, too. "Be careful with those," she told me. "They're not cheap." Sketching out plans for our home improvement projects was a favorite past-time that my mother loved. Using her architecture and art magazines, and Vogue pattern decorating book, she measured and made multiple drawings before presenting them to my father to see if he could build whatever it was she wanted. 

Usually, he couldn't or wouldn't  produce her final design or, if he did, she wasn't satisfied with the shortcuts he took. So, she went on to construct whatever small project she wanted to create, like her dressing table, another story in my book. She got her idea for the dressing table, bench and window curtain from a McCall Magazine. Later, after making her own lavish vanity table, she made a small one for my room, similar to the one in the picture below. It was a month-long project of planning, locating and cleaning cheap pieces and, finally,  painting, which Littie closely supervised.

Here is an excerpt from my story, The Dressing Table: Before the old rough wooden sideboard became my mother's dressing table, it sank with every rain into the dirt of the backyard of our new home. One day she cleaned the weather-worn table, knocked its legs back into place, and took it into her bedroom. The table and a bench, rescued from the garage, waited for weeks while she embroidered a crisp white pillowcase and sheet to create a seat and matching table cover. Pink roses and green stems swirled into lush bouquets and spilled to the hems of the floor-length bench and table skirts. I looked into the mirror, retrieved from an old dresser whose drawers no longer fit. Though the glass had a few spots around the edges, my mother had repainted its chipped frame. 

Art, music and literature were my mother's weapons against excuses, which she refused to accept. "Most often," she said, "You get what you give."

Auguste Rodin:  Master of Sculpture
Auguste Rodin: 
Master of Sculpture

I searched the Internet and could not find a copy of the Rodin book my mother gave me all those years ago. Perhaps the book about this master of sculpture is out of print. But I found some other interesting selections devoted to Rodin and others that trace art history from the Renaissance to Rodin and the birth of modern art.

Over the years, my mother's interests and book collection changed and I do not know what happened to the book about Rodin that she made me read. The book was probably not responsible in itself for getting me a college scholarship or even getting me through Texas A&M University's Department of Journalism and Broadcast Communications. But my mother knew Rodin would have an influence on me at a time when I needed it most. 

© 2012 Sunny Nash. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
~Thank You~

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Sunny Nash is a writer, producer, photographer and leading author on race relations in America. 

Sunny Nash produces blogs, media, books, articles and images on history and contemporary topics, from slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow and civil rights to post racism, social media, entertainment and technology using her book, Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s, as a basis for commentary and research.

Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s by Sunny Nash on Amazon

by Sunny Nash
Sunny Nash's book was selected by the Association of American University Press as a resource for understanding U.S. race relations and recommended for Native American Collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System.

"My book, 'Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's,' began in the 1990s. I was writing for Hearst and Knight-Ridder newspapers. The stories are about my childhood with my part-Comanche grandmother, Bigmama, my parents, relatives, friends, and others; and my interpretation of the events surrounding the Jim Crow South before and during the Civil Rights Movement.

Robin Fruble of Southern California said, "Every white person in America should read this book! Sunny Nash writes the story of her childhood without preaching or ranting but she made me realize for the first time just how much skin color changes how one experiences the world. But if your skin color is brown, it matters a great deal to a great number of people. I needed to learn that. Sunny Nash is a great teacher," Fruble said.

My Zimbio

Sunny Nash – Race Relations in America

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Wilma Rudolph Ran for Freedom

At the 1960 Rome Olympics, Wilma Rudolph became the first U.S. female in Olympic history to win three gold medals. 

Wilma Rudolph 1960 Rome Olympic Gold Medalist, Track and Fiend, Fraternal Order of Eagles Award
Wilma Rudolph
Fraternal Order of Eagles Award 
Wilma Rudolph

In 1960, Wilma Rudolph of Tennessee State University made national headlines on radio, television, black media and mainstream newspapers when she became the first U.S. female to win three gold medals in track and field at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

With all that gold being earned at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, we should remember the first African Americans to win Olympic gold medals, lest we forget that in 1960 Wilma Rudolph fought Jim Crow and helped lay the groundwork for black gold medalists in the 2016 Summer Olympic in Rio.

Wilma Rudolph had Polio

Wilma Rudolph (1940-1994)
Wilma Rudolph was a four-and-a-half-pound premature baby born  in 1940 in Clarksville, Tennessee. She did not go to traditional school for one year, but was home schooled due to infantile paralysis, caused by the polio virus, which she contracted at age four. Still a sickly child at age seven, she was enrolled into a segregated and underfunded Tennessee school by her parents who did not have the best jobs or health insurance. By age 12, Rudolph's treatments at the Fisk University Medical College Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, had straightened her twisted leg and given her the normal physical health she had never enjoyed before. 

Wilma Rudolph - College Graduate 1963

Wilma Rudolph
Tennessee State University 1963
Wilma Rudolph had overcome childhood polio and fought her way to good health by the time she reached her teens. Her athletic abilities made her a high school basketball star, garnered for her attention from college coaches, gained her a college education and eventually placed her in the history books alongside Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists.

Wilma Rudolph was a track and field athlete and an activist for civil rights. During the time of her victories, the United States was in the midst of a bloody civil conflict on the streets of southern cities. Politicians were grappling with the notion of granting African Americans civil rights, voting rights and civil justice. In the light of this national turmoil, all African American achievements were being sought by the Civil Rights Movement to further the cause of social change.

Wilma Rudolph - Fastest Woman on Earth in 1960

Wilma Rudolph, fastest woman on earth 
after returning from Rome Olympics in 1960
Just as television was beginning to become the main bearer of news and celebrity, Rudolph's track victories helped her to pick up the civil rights struggle against Jim Crow when she got the chance to run track in college. She became an important vehicle for the Civil Rights Movement while she getting college education, which she would use later to influence a new generation of track stars and school students. The most important vehicle out of poverty and low-paying jobs was education, one of the primary goals of 1950s civil rights efforts by Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.

Civil rights and women's rights pioneer, Wilma Rudolph did her part to break down racial and gender barriers, inspiring women and African Americans when she protested that her hometown victory parade in Clarksville, Tennessee, after the 1960 Olympics, be an integrated event and not segregated, as Jim Crow laws had previously dictated.

Wilma Rudolph's 1960 Rome Olympics track victory came after Alice Coachmen's track and field victory in the 1948 London Olympics was announced on radio: Coachman became the first African American woman to win a gold medal in the history of the Olympics.

In tenth grade, Wilma Rudolph became a record-setting Burt High School basketball star. Tennessee State University (TSU) track coach, Ed Temple, invited her to put on her running shoes and come to a summer track camp at TSU, where she received a full college scholarship after graduating from high school. At TSU, Rudolph earned a place on Temple's track and field team, the Tigerbells.

When Wilma Rudolph competed in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, her first Olympic competition, she won a bronze medalDuring the Melbourne Olympics in November 1956, 16-year-old Rudolph's attention was also on civil rights at home, where Jim Crow laws prevailed in education, housing and jobs. In June 1956, the Montgomery Bus Boycott ignited by Rosa Parks (article) ended in victory and hurled Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (article) and his movement of peaceful protest into the national spotlight. The Civil Rights Movement was in causing a nationwide tide of protest.

Greensboro Girls Protest at Woolworth's Sit-ins
Female Students Woolworth's Sit-ins
Seven months before Rudolph 1960 Olympics victory, North Carolina black female college students protested with male students against segregated lunch counters in Woolworth's sit-ins (article), solidifying women's participation in racial protests nationwide and joining Rosa Parks in the female civil rights legacy. 

Wilma Rudolph was invited to the White House by President John F. Kennedy after her victory at the 1960 Rome Olympics. 

Wilma Rudolph and President John F. Kennedy
President John F. Kennedy & Wilma Rudolph
Oval Office, The White House, 1960
All eyes--young and old, black and white--were on Wilma Rudolph, considered to be the fastest woman on earth at the time. Rudolph returned from Rome in 1960 a television and media celebrity.

Nicknamed, "The Tornado," Wilma Rudoloh was the first woman to win the James E. Sullivan Award for Good Sportsmanship (1961), Rudolph was the first U.S. female athlete to win the European Sportswriters' Award, Sportsman of the Year. She won the Christopher Columbus Award for Most Outstanding International Sports Personality (1960), The Penn Relays (1961), the New York Athletic Club Track Meet and The Millrose Games. In 1962, she retired from track at age 22 and graduated from college in 1963 with a degree in elementary education.

Wilma Rudolph was a school teacher and inspiration to the generation of track stars who followed her to the Olympics and beyond.

Florence “Flo Jo” Joyner  & Wilma Rudolph
Florence “Flo Jo” Joyner  
and Wilma Rudolph

In 1963 Wilma Rudolph was selected to represent the U.S. State Department as a Goodwill Ambassador at the Games of Friendship in Dakar, Senegal. Later that year, she was invited by Dr. Billy Graham to join the Baptist Christian Athletes in Japan. Rudolph taught school, became a sports media commentator on national television and inspired a new generation of American girls and female runners like Florence Joyner. 

Wilma Rudolph died of brain cancer in 1994 at age 54. The Clarksville, Tennessee, portion U.S. Route 79 was renamed in her honor and, in 1997, Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist set aside June 23 as "Wilma Rudolph Day."

© 2016 Sunny Nash. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
~Thank You~

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Martin Luther King and Jim Crow Laws

When I learned about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, civil rights and Jim Crow laws, American schools, movies, television and politics were also black and white in racial terms.

Jim Crow Laws in America
Jim Crow Laws in America

Martin Luther King changed television pictures of black America by helping place racism in the 1950s and '60s in every living room in the United States 

Black children my age being abused by southern white law officials like Bull Conner did not stop me from watching fifteen-minute national news broadcasts on television. That's what television was for me back then, a medium that led to change in the Jim Crow laws in America. 

Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks taught nonviolence in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a tactic used later on television.

What I realized over the years is that black and white people were set in their ways of thinking. And their behavior was based on their ways of thinking. Whites were accustomed to being considered by society as superior; blacks in society were forced to pretend they were inferior. It takes a lot of energy and creativity on both sides of an issue to break old habits. But it can be done.

Martin Luther King is responsible for the change. His articulateness, education, polish, and do not forget confidence, made black and white America take notice. A new day was on the horizon. I looked at myself honestly when I first took notice of this man and asked myself, "Can I continue to be forced into a certain behavior?" Others, black and white, probably asked themselves the same question?

Television and movies were a big part of shaming people into changing their behavior and changing the way the America looked at itself. Even the staunchest haters and believers in inequality cringed at the sight of themselves and those who represented their views on screen. 

As a little girl watching the television images with a family trying to reassure me, I cringed, too. There were days when I was afraid to leave the house. I feared that I would be attacked by a mob. I had never seen a mob except on television. But mobs were real. My Jim Crow school district provided black students no school buses, so we walked to school in groups for security. Going to school and getting whatever education available to African American was never questioned. Education was the way in and the way out--the way into  a better life and the way out of a bad life. Even better than primary education was a college education. 

College was the goal during Jim Crow laws and still the lesson today.

After school, when one of us turned off alone to go home, as I did with no sisters or brothers, we ran as fast as our legs would carry us until we reached the front door. Yes, those old days frightened me deeply. I'm not sure when I grew out of that fear. In fact, I don't know that I ever did. I simply turned the fear into something I could use--courage not to be chased through my entire life by the ghost of Jim Crow dying before my very eyes on television when we were still Jim Crow's children.

Television meant that other Americans were seeing what I saw when Martin Luther King spoke on television or little children were attacked by police dogs and high-powered water hoses. Television meant change. Things had to change--change the way we went to school, change the lessons in the school books, change the politics of education and entertainment, change the way we were treated when we went outside our neighborhood. One reason my mother took me to the movies was to illustrate a different lifestyle, not the lifestyle of people I knew, but the lifestyle of people who did not have to worry about being spat upon or police dog attacks initiated by law enforcement officials.

Segregated Movie Theater

Segregated Movie Theater

Before the movie theater lights dimmed, as we were settling into hard, splintering veneer seats, I looked down below and saw red velvet draperies held in place by gold ropes, shiny like the long shimmering hair resting on the backs of soft upholstered chairs.

Taking me to the movies, traveling with me to other parts of the nation and reading about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and civil rights were my mother's insurance against my being satisfied with Jim Crow.

My mother took me to see all kinds of movies--"white movies" as well as "race movies" that featured black casts. She believed in knowing "what the world was up to out there." A lot had to do with fashion we saw in the movies, although some of her interest in movies was related to her interest in books, literature and media. For the same reasons, my mother had also arranged to buy a television on credit, but early television was still mostly Jim Crow like film and radio with African Americans being portrayed as servants and nannies or ridiculously inferior characters with speech difficulties. Before we had a television, we regularly listened to music and other programs on the radio.

In 1939, Ethel Waters, star of movies, radio and stage, became the first African American to appear on television, in her own special, "The Ethel Waters Show."

Ethel Waters First Black Woman on Television

Ethel Waters (Article)

In the early days of television, when the medium was still an experiment, radio was still the primary vehicle for popular dramatic programs and music distribution by jazz vocalists like Ethel Waters. That was before investors thought of television as a profitable new industry to rival radio. There were exceptions. Star of film and radio, Ethel Waters, became the Rosa Parks of television, opening doors for the generation of black actors and filmmakers.

But soon after Waters' television debut, Jim Crow invaded television as it had radio. Many black actors like Ethel Waters either left television and radio in protest or settled for demeaning roles as kitchen help, who sweated over household chores by hand and were the butt of jokes.

My mother subscribed to national news, homemaking and fashion magazines, and newspapers from around the country. That's how my mother was--curious. But more than that, she wanted me to know as much about the world in which I lived as possible, using movies, media and travel to other parts of the country to accomplish her goal. However, when we first started going to the movies, there were white movies in which black actors played subservient roles to white actors; and there were nationally distributed Black Hollywood movies, known as race movies with black casts produced by black filmmakers. 

One of the movies my mother and I went to see in 1963 was To Kill a Mockingbird

I'd already read the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, the year before when I received a copy for my birthday. I loved the way Harper Lee wrote the story of a white father, who was a lawyer, defending a black man who had been accused of raping a white woman. I must confess, though, I hated the theme of the story. Even as a child, I knew of cases where black men were accused of some insult to a white woman. 

One year after the 1954 Brown v the Board of Education ordered southern schools to cease its Jim Crow education, some white southern residents became angry, so angry, in fact, the life of the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Earl Warren, was threatened. All of this anger against changing race relations in America poured out on innocent black people and caused the massacre of a Chicago boy, Emmett Till, not much older than me at the time of his death. I was horrified to hear of this murder in 1955. My mother did not show me the pictures in the magazine, but I sneaked a peak while she was at work and saw them anyway, looking at her stash of books, which she kept under her bed. If this could happen to Emmett Till, what insurance did I have against that kind of violence happening to me? The signs were all around me, colored and white only. In the music I heard on the radio, blues singers moaned about how unfair and unhappy life was. 

Lynching and other forms of violence exemplified the lives of many African Americans in the United States during the era of Jim Crow laws, as late as the 1960s, nearly one hundred years after the Civil War was fought to end slavery. Emmett Till was just one of those cases that received national attention from the black media and ignited feelings of horror that led to an inquiry of his murder in the black community when photographs of the Till's brutalized body were published in the black magazine Jet. The NAACP was outraged. Look Magazine brought further attention to the case. 
Emmett Till had been beaten and tortured. When he was found, he had a heavy cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire before being tossed into the Tallahatchie River

Martin Luther King jailed
Martin Luther King

Four months after the Emmett Till case, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955 and started the Montgomery Bus Boycottunder the supervision of Martin Luther King The Montgomery Bus Boycott, too, was under the heavy scrutiny of television, magazine and film. This protest and others to follow were spurred into action by the Till case.

In his speech on May 12, 1963, Martin Luther King preached about, ‘‘the crying voice of a little Emmett Till, screaming from the rushing waters." The Emmett Till case was reopened by the Justice Department in 2004.

My family tried to protect me from the harshest of it all but there was no insurance against it. As a result, there were places we didn't go. And that, I learned later, was to avoid the shame of it all. My mother only took me to segregated places that were absolutely necessary to my life--the doctor, bus station, movies, school and other public facilities where I needed to go. We didn't eat out very often. Restaurants required us to enter through a rear door, sit in an inferior location or walk up to an outdoor window to order and receive food with no place on premises to eat. My cousin, Joyce, reminded me the other day that at the bus station in her hometown required African Americans to eat their orders in the baggage room sitting at discarded desks retrieved from a local school.

Colored Sign, Movie Theater Austin Texas 1930
Movie Theater 
Austin, Texas
One sacrifice my mother would not make was the movie theater. On Saturday mornings we got dressed in our best clothes and walked the couple of miles downtown. Now, we didn't dress like movie stars, but my mother liked nice clothes. In fact, my mother bought nice furnishings and other elements of home decor, and was the cleanest and most organized person I ever met. "Just because someone is poor doesn't mean they have to live in squalor," she always said. 

In summer, we had several floral sundresses each. In winter we snuggled into coats or rain gear and boots my father bought. My father worked on Saturday mornings and my mother had no drivers license at that time. Movies did not interest my father. He was an outdoors person and said, "I wouldn't sit that long in a dark room, even if I could sit downstairs with the white folks.". By the time my mother and I walked downtown our feet hurt. I felt like Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott protesters. the difference was, we didn't have a public transit system in our town. 

My mother and I climbed up the back stairs and went into the little blue door. We welcomed bad seats biting into our butts, stale seedy popcorn and no restroom a human being should be forced to use, so we could be transported into fantasies film created for a couple of hours.

Book: Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's by Sunny Nash
Bigmama Didn't Shop
At Woolworth's by Sunny Nash

Excerpt below from “Movies—Not Just Black-and-White,” an essay in my book, Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s (Texas A&M University Press).

I write about the first time my mother took me to lunch and the movies. It was about to rain that Saturday but my young mother agreed to take her little daughter to the movies anyway:

Without reply, my mother dug into her tiny cloth coin purse and paid. Time passed as slowly as it could before her change and our food arrived. “Y’all can’t eat in here,” the cook said. Without a word, my mother grabbed my hand and dragged  me to the back door. As we stood outside and ate in silence, I thought I saw a tear sparkle on my mother’s cheek as the day’s last sunlight stroked her face. With a few drops of rain falling on us, we took the short walk to the Palace Theater and stood at the ticket window outside the main lobby. The aroma of buttered popcorn floated through the little round hole in the glass where the ticket woman worked. To avoid getting wet in the shower, the moviegoers dashed through a glass front door into a dry, comfortable lobby filled with tiny white lights, velvet draperies, and red carpet. By the time my mother and I got our tickets, big drops of rain were splashing down on our heads. With her hair heavy with water, sliding into her face, my mother dug into her tiny cloth coin purse and paid. The little blue door on the outside of the theater slammed us inside the darkest place I’d ever been—like a coffin, I thought, holding my mother’s hand. 

Littie Nash

Littie Nash

My mother, Littie Nash, wrestled with Jim Crow laws during the 1950s and 1960s, while giving me the life of a little princess with imagination and without the luxury of having a lot of money for stylish fashions...Littie, the ultimate stage mother,  did not waste compliments on me or anyone else. She reserved accolades to celebrate real accomplishments, not just because I dragged myself out of bed before noon on Saturday or because I made an 'A' on my report card. "Some things you have to do," she said. "And those things pass, not without notice, but without an all-day hullabaloo."

To support my efforts, my mother sponsored piano, ballet, tennis and swimming lessons, dance performances, recitals, literary and classical music club memberships, summer camps, school trips and science fair exhibits, still managing to squeeze out of our tight budget money for the dentist to install braces on my teeth and pay for my health insurance. It took a great deal of courage to live with dignity and raise me to have aspirations. About my upbringing, Littie got it right, although I took detours of my own along the way. Read more atGreat Mothering in Jim Crow's World 

Sunny Nash

Sunny Nash

Sunny Nash—leading author on U.S. race relations--writes on U.S. history and contemporary American topics from Rosa Parks and Jim Crow laws to social media networking, using her book, Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's, chosen by the Association of American University Presses for understanding of U.S. race relations; listed in the Bibliographic Guide to Black Studies by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida.

© 2012 Sunny Nash
All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

Sunny Nash – Race Relations in America My Zimbio