Biking for mothers2mothers

MeganIn mid-October, my niece Megan Guzman left Cape Town to bike 100 miles to South Africa’s Eastern Cape in an event named Cycle2Zero.  She and riders from all over the world did this to raise money for mothers2mothers, the wonderful NGO working with HIV positive moms.  The VIDEO below shows a few moments from the ride, on which Megan raised nearly $6400 of the more than $200,000 raised for m2m. She’s m2m’s Senior Programme Manager for the Cape Town area.

In an email she sent to let her sponsors know she survived, she says, “It was a true group effort with families and individuals from all over the world coming together.  While m2m staff and participants rode during the day and made site visits to clinics with m2m programming, kids did service projects and experienced the lovely (if very hot), Eastern Cape Province of South Africa.”  She also adds that on the last night of the ride a board member pledged to match any more donations. So go HERE to donate more!

The m2m website says, “mothers2mothers believes in the power of mothers to help end paediatric AIDS. We train, employ, and empower mothers living with HIV to bring health and hope to other mothers, their families, and communities.”

Megan3mothers2mothers South Africa was formed in 2001. Since then, m2m has grown to include three affiliated nonprofit organizations based on a common, shared vision and mission. m2m South Africa, based in Cape Town, is the global headquarters.  There’s also m2m International in Los Angeles and New York, and m2m United Kingdom in London.

Megan got her masters in public health at Columbia University and has since lived in Uganda, Swaziland, Mozambique, and South Africa, and backstopped programs in Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, and Rwanda.  When I first wrote her about the ride, I told her I’d been riding 3 miles up hill 3 times a week in the Arizona summer heat—a ride you can see a VIDEO of Here—so I knew she could do Cycle2Zero.  But, of course, 3 miles isn’t 100 miles, and I guess the Eastern Cape is no slouch for heat, either.  In my biking video I talk about Emmanuel House (now The Neighbor Project), and it’s been great learning about mothers2mothers and Megan’s role there, building relationships, managing programs, and biking miles and miles for all those mothers and kids.

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The “Intercollegiate Wonder Book” and the “New Negro”

“Realizing the need of an organization to bring together the few colored students attending the college and universities of Chicago in summer and living in various parts of the city, two social workers, Miss Mary McDowell and Mrs. Celia Parker Wooley, along with Mr. George Arthur, Executive Secretary of the Wabash Ave. Dept. Y.M.C.A., assisted in establishing the first meeting of its kind about 1909.”  Thus begins one section of the “Intercollegiate Wonder Book.”  Printed in 1927, the book was compiled and much of it written by the Intercollegiate Club’s then-president Frederic H. Robb, who graduated from Hartford Public High School in 1920.  His brief biography on page eight lists such impressive accomplishments as graduating from Howard in 3 ¼ years, obtaining a Northwestern J.D., and winning 13 and tying two of 16 debates in Chicago.  It ends with the words “It can be done” in quotes.  Those four words are the real purpose of the “Wonder Book:” to be an ode to, and a goad to, getting into college and accomplishing great things.   In my book Black Writing from Chicago, I included three short pieces and a remarkable cartoon related to that third piece.  Bill Moore’s cartoon—six panels, the first two reproduced below—is said to have been “inspired by Horace Bond’s Address at the Intercollegiate’s Grace Lyceum Program” and is titled “The Intercollegiate’s New Negro.”


In the middle of the “Wonder Book”’s title page is this description: “Survey of the Negro’s Educational, Athletic, Civic and Commercial Life from 1779 to 1927.  History, Who’s Who in Chicago, Directory, Facts and Figures About the Negro for 8000 years.”  In its own way it just about delivers all this, providing a remarkable window into a rising segment of Chicago black life in the late ‘twenties, and testifying to Robb’s and others’ efforts to draw black students into a powerful, organized community.  Between inspirational and historical essays and pages of facts and figures are lists upon lists: of Chicago civic leaders, of Chicago musicians, even of suggested events the Intercollegiate Club can plan for the future to entertain its members, to urge them to travel, to highlight avenues to community involvement, and to “Encourage Students to Take Part in Extra Curricular Activities.”

Baldwin-UncTomOne cannot not be in wonder of the Wonder Book’s shining vision and feel encouraged by its courage.  But every moment up to its publication and since has shown that vision to be perhaps too naive: racism in America is an issue seemingly incapable of being solved by showing off the accomplishments of Blacks.  The New Negro movement, centered in 1920′s Harlem, held out the hope that if blacks fought hard enough and accomplished outrageous feats of social and cultural greatness racism would fall away.  Again, it’s a vision one cannot not be thrilled by; and its goals and sentiments are understandable for its time and something to be aspired to today.  Yet the New Negro movement came under intense criticism from many, perhaps especially in Chicago, where the question of whether one could be Black and become a full-fledged, respected member of society was a central debate, one that is at the heart of my Black Writing from Chicago book, which I signified by the book’s subtitle, a question: In the World, Not of It?

The cartoon above testifies to one of the central problems of the New Negro: it often created a split between the supposed New Negro and “less progressive members of his race.”  Racist jokes couldn’t possibly apply to the New Negro, could they?  They targeted his superstitious, less progressive, low-down brothers and sisters.  In a later chapter of Black Writing from Chicago, I included an excerpt from Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, which details his first meeting with Rev. Jeremiah Wright.  In that excerpt, Obama comments on a brochure listing the core beliefs of Wright’s church, Trinity Church.  Obama is particularly captured by the belief titled “A Disavowal of the Pursuit of Middleclassness.”  It explains that while it’s permissible to chase middle-incomeness, Blacks must avoid “the psychological entrapment of Black ‘middleclassness’ that hypnotizes the successful brother and sister into believing they are better than the rest and teaches them to think in terms of ‘we’ and ‘they’ instead of ‘US’!”  It calls Blacks to disavow the very sentiments of the cartoon above.  Other writers in Black Writing from Chicago—Leanita McClain, Hoyt W. Fuller, Ronald L. Fair, and more—express their disgust with Black middleclassness in much, much stronger terms.

Though I paint this “In-the-World-Not-of-It” tension as centered in Chicago, of course reaction against the New Negro concept—a concept that birthed a large portion of the Black middle class—was widespread.  Perhaps its most acute critic was James Baldwin, who owed much to Chicago but was a son of Harlem, where The New Negro concept took its most potent form.  In his great essay “Many Thousands Gone” Baldwin writes:

“Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom are dead, their places taken by a group of amazingly well-adjusted young men and women, almost as dark, but ferociously literate, well-dressed and scrubbed, who are never laughed at, who are not likely to ever set foot in a cotton or tobacco field or in any but the most modern kitchens.  There are others who remain, in our odd idiom, ‘underprivileged’…Before, however, our joy at the demise of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom approaches the indecent, we had better ask whence they sprang, how they lived?”  Baldwin goes on to directly criticize “the gospel of the New Negro,” saying in essence that  jests upon “the stupidity of the less-progressive members of his race” are misplaced. Those members, not the New Negro, hold more power over, and more understanding of, whites and racist culture.

  I write more about Baldwin’s “Many Thousands Gone” Here (link goes live when article becomes available).

  See also my article on Marita Bonner.  I  write about her in Black Writing from Chicago, though did not include any of her work.  She both embraced and questioned—from a gender, class, and multicultural perspective—the New Negro concept, as did James David Corrothers, a writer I did include in Black Writing from Chicago.

  Go to the Teaching Diversity main page, and to a list of Black Writers on this site.

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Marita Bonner: Escaping Imposed Identities

Word comes from Don Evans, founding director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, that Marita Bonner is to be inducted into the CLHOF this November.  He said I was the “most knowledgeable” person he knew on the subject, though that’s not saying much.  In my book Black Writing from Chicago, I did not include anything from Marita Bonner, though I did write this paragraph in the Afterword, which, more than anything else, is a list of regrets about people I wanted to include but just couldn’t for one reason or another.

Bonner“Of Chicago’s many fine short story writers, I would highlight here Marita Bonner, whose work has been collected by Joyce Flynn and daughter Joyce Occomy Stricklin in Frye Street & Environs.  Though her vision of the possibilities Chicago offered Blacks had turned quite pessimistic by 1940, her 1926 story “Nothing New” introduced her mythical Frye Street as a vision of the multi-ethnic neighborhood that held hardship, certainly, but also promise.  Bonner’s work set tones and themes that deeply influenced writers like Alice Browning and Era Bell Thompson, and echoes of her work can be heard in younger writers like Audrey Petty.  Bonner also wrote plays, perhaps most famously the reader’s play The Pot Maker.”

The title of this article I write here is a riff on a passage from Emily N. Hinnov’s “Manneuvers of Silence and the Task of ‘New Negro’ Womanhood” in the Spring 2012 Journal of Narrative Theory, where she comments on Bonner’s use of silence “as a means to maneuver among the various identity positions that comprise the interstices of ‘New Negro Womanhood.’”  Initially, I didn’t include Marita Bonner in Black Writing from Chicago because she is perhaps first identified with the Harlem Renaissance, a period and movement I wanted to challenge a bit in my book.  I wanted to show that Chicago Black Writing was as rich, and in many ways more important than the more acknowledged writers from Harlem, an effort writer/scholar Carla Cappetti noted when she said my selections celebrated “the vital traditions of African American writing in Chicago as an important counterpoint to African American Writing in New York and the Harlem Renaissance.”

Yet, while identified with the Harlem Renaissance and the “New Negro” movement, Marita Bonner escaped these identities in all sorts of ways, even geographically. She was born (1899) and went through high school in Boston, then taught in West Virginia before moving to Washington, D.C., where she was an integral part of poet/playwright/composer Georgia Douglas Johnson’s S Street Salon, a major gathering place for writers and artists of the New Negro Renaissance movement.  While in D.C. she met William Almy Occomy. Shortly after marrying, the pair moved to Chicago, where her greatest period of writing success occurred, and where she died in 1971.

FryeStreetIn her 2008 book Race, Gender, and Comparative Black Modernisms, Jennifer M. Wilks studies four writers, two from the U.S.—Marita Bonner and Dorothy West—and two from the Carribean—Suzanne Lascascade and Suzanne Césaire—as writers who tried continually to escape identities imposed on them by race and gender.  Yes, Marita Bonner embraced the New Negro* concept and was part of the Harlem Renaissance, yet seems just as ambivalent about both—even, like me, wanting to de-center Harlem.  In her 2009 review of Wilks’ book Patricia Burns writes that Bonner, who resisted the suggestion “that women should fold themselves into the imagined black collective in order to advance black manhood (and, ostensibly, the whole race), neither celebrates intraracial harmony nor excludes interracial community. Wilks portrays Bonner’s work as multiethnic, gender- and class-focused, and experimental—qualities not often associated with the concept of the New Negro. Wilks writes, ‘for subjects whose experiences of race, gender, and class are not found in representations of model modernity, Bonner’s work proposes an alternative modernist cartography, one that ‘removes Harlem from the center of African-American modernity and places multiethnic and multiracial concepts before ‘race’ and ‘nation.’ By depicting communities with ‘multiple boundaries,’ Bonner, Wilks argues, like Lacascade, Césaire, and West, challenges constructions of ‘archetypal blackness’ by interrogating and redefining the tropes of model modernity.”

So Marita Bonner turned to multi-ethnicity, to a deep faith in diversity, as ways to escape identities imposed by race, class, and gender.  She explored both the possibilities of escape and the continual dangers of entrapment through creating a mythical Chicago neighborhood, Frye Street, which she introduces this way in her story “Nothing New”: “You have been down on Frye Street. You know how it runs…from freckled-faced tow heads to yellow Orientals; from broad Italy to broad Georgia, from hooked nose to square black noses. How it lisps in French, how it babbles in Italian, how it gurgles in German, how it drawls and crawls through Black Belt dialects. Frye Street flows nicely together. It is like muddy water.”  The nice flow is still a dream, one glimpsed poorly through very muddied waters.

The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame has made a stunning choice for its 2018 class of inductees, which will include, besides Marita Bonner, Robert S. Abbott (publisher of The Chicago Defender) and fiction writer Henry Blake Fuller.  Wanting to keep a Chicago focus, in the paragraph I wrote about her in Black Writing from ChicagoI mentioned how Marita Bonner’s work echoes in Alice Browning, Era Bell Thompson, and Audrey Petty—all writers firmly associated with Chicago.  But just as her geography ranged more widely, so does her influence, and I should mention at least one person to whom some have linked her as a fore-mother: Toni Morrison, our country’s most recent Nobel Laureate, an author obsessed with shape shifting, with how races entwine, and with flowing away from the multitude of things—including gender and blackness—that lay in wait to trap us.

* I write about the “New Negro” in my expanded introduction to “The Intercollegiate Wonder Book,” a selection I included in Black Writing from Chicago.

  Go to a list of Black Writers on this site.

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