ST. ALBANS – Two performers shared pieces on the harshness of racism in America at the St. Albans Historical Museum on Friday evening as part of the “Black True-Story Month” event, a special presentation in the museum’s Local History Lecture Series.
Organized and sponsored by the self-described grassroots organization the Racism Kills Dreams in Vermont Network, more than 30 spectators of assorted ethnicities and a wide age range – including young children – were in attendance.
The compositions performed touched on themes from pride in one’s race to the evils of the slave trade to the harsh bigotry faced by African-Americans in an allegedly “post-racial” America.
“This evening is going to be a festivity,” noted hostess Ebony Nyoni, “But it’s also an evening of remembrance.”
Guest speaker Reuben Jackson, jazz enthusiast and formerly the curator of the Smithsonian’s Duke Ellington Collection (he is now a mentor with the Young Writer’s Project), took a very personal approach with his performance. Jackson fluidly combined his poetry with anecdotes about his life and childhood in Washington, D.C.
“I’m going to take you through bits of my growing up,” he remarked beforehand, “and vignettes based on people I knew.” His accounts were frequently amusing and always heartfelt – and occasionally jokingly self-deprecating.
As Nyoni introduced him, searching for a descriptive term, he laughed and quipped: “I’m a nerd!”
Jackson made a point of highlighting the more interesting events of his formative years. “I’d tell my mother I was going to the library after school, but I would go to the Black Panther headquarters … I would go with a peanut butter sandwich and hang out!”
Before introducing a brief poem titled “The Little Boy With the Sad Eyes,” he explained his first day of school: “My parents never told me that I had to go to school one day. I just kind of hung out with my father a lot … and suddenly that routine was broken.”
His love of jazz often showed during his presentation here – pieces included references to Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles, and lines such as: “High nicotine smoke rose from their lips like music I was not to play.”
A few of the verses Jackson performed shared humorous accounts of people he knew as a teenager. “The neighborhood girls claimed Sparky could sing all of The Temptations’ top 10 songs in Swahili. It was probably true.”
Another piece focused on Jackson’s mother’s hatred for the Boston Red Sox: the last Major League baseball team to allow African-American players on its roster and which only integrated in reaction to the growing threat of legal action by the NAACP.
Performer Rajnii Ebbins was less intimate in his performance, but no less powerful. Where Jackson focused on his childhood in the segregated District of Columbia, Ebbins focused on somewhat loftier topics, such as spirituality.
He also incorporated song into his pieces, making use of his soulful tenor voice. His first performance was a memorial to those that were killed in the horror of the Middle Passage (the route of the Atlantic slave trade from Africa to the Americas), and opened with a heart wrenching sung portion: “There should be oceans of tears.”
Ebbins also addressed pride in his race and in African-American culture, and how many youth of color are taught through popular culture that whiteness is preferable.
Introducing a introduction to a piece titled “Blackness,” he explained, “When I was teaching, there was a student who said that she’d rather have blonde hair than her own hair, and I was very struck by this because I think it’s so vital that we love ourselves. … I think the Creator made us all really beautiful and amazing in our own uniqueness.”
The most emotional of Ebbins’s performances, however, was a piece dedicated to Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin, two African-American youths tragically killed in 2012. Martin’s killer was acquitted last year, and Davis’s killer was convicted in February of the attempted second-degree murder of Davis’s companions, though not of the killing of Davis himself.
Ebbins’s piece focused on the obvious racial aspects of the deaths of both teens, and the injustice that the families of the two suffered. “Lynching is not dead. It’s done in broad daylight, under the hot lights of media frenzy, for black blood, white guilt, white fear, and white privilege.”
The evening’s proceedings were dedicated by Nyoni to two revolutionaries: former South African President Nelson Mandela and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Mandela passed away due to a respiratory infection in December of last year. Nyoni’s opening speech also mentioned a somewhat dark stain on Vermont’s racial history – “While Vermont was the first state that abolished slavery, … the law stated that slavery was illegal once a man became 21 and once a woman became 18, so it took at least 60 more years for Vermonters to stop having slaves.”