Every year, many thousands of visitors to Washington DC make their way to the crossing of 8th and F Streets, to an enormous building with many columns. Once it was the US Patent Office Building. Now it’s the Smithsonian American Art Museum. And there, up on the third floor, those visitors might well admire a BIG statue of Egypt’s Cleopatra VII, at the moment when she was dying in the summer of 30 B.C. She was carved in Italy, out of snow-white marble.
When people first saw it in Philadelphia, in 1876, at America’s big 100th birthday party, they were so surprised to discover that the sculptor was a woman! Still more unusual, she was an African American. Her name was Mary Edmonia Lewis.
Her ancestors came from Africa, Haiti, and the Native American Ojibwa (or Chippewa) tribe. She grew up in western New York. With money her big brother made mining for gold out west, talented Edmonia went to Ohio’s Oberlin College, but not for long. Two white girls there lied, saying she tried to poison them, then a bunch of people beat her up. So her brother helped her settle in Boston, where she learned to sculpt. By age 20, Ms. Lewis had her own sculpture studio. She was so successful that she was able to leave racist, Civil War-torn America in 1865, to sculpt and study in Rome. When she heard the glorious news that the war was over and America’s slaves were emancipated, she celebrated by sculpting an African American man and woman, unchained.
In the years after she created her dying Cleopatra, both the artist and her masterpiece were lost to history. But now we know that Ms. Lewis ended her days in England, in 1907. Her Cleopatra wound up in Washington DC.
But there’s a little more to tell.
About the time Ms. Lewis left for Italy, President Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Ball was held, March 6, 1865, at the old Patent Office Building when it was new. Little did he know that, in about five weeks, he’d be mortally wounded over at Ford’s Theatre. Or that the building where he and his wife were dancing would be a treasure house of art, including a dying queen sculpted by a great African American artist.
The multi-talented hands of Cheryl Harness create another winning combination of history, biography, and illustration in George Washington Carver and Science & Invention in America, the inspiring story of a man who rose from slavery to worldwide fame as America’s plant doctor. Cheryl Harness’ lively narrative follows Carver as he pioneers hundreds of new uses for plants and revolutionizes American agriculture. Her vivid illustrations are an invitation to step back in time and become an active participant in this compelling story.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Edmonia's Statues." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 29 May
One reviewer claimed that my book, The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip Hop, surprised him. “I didn’t take Carole Weatherford for a hip-hop head,” he confessed.
Maybe not. But I have designed and taught a hip-hop course for college students. I write poetry and stories steeped in oral traditions. And I was raised on family lore; street, playground and handclap rhymes; proverbs; spirituals; and the call-and-response of the black church. As a child, I also read Langston Hughes poems and chanted James Brown’s anthem, “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud.” I later tuned into Gil Scott Heron’s spoken word manifesto, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
Back in the day, I partied to Whodini, the Fat Boys and Run DMC, but did not fathom the power of rap until 1981 when I heard “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The song confirmed for me that rap is rooted in resistance.
Rap originated in the late 1970s among alienated black and Latino youth in the Bronx, Harlem and Brooklyn. The genre has since come of age, and rappers have won Grammys for best album (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1999) and best song of the year (Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” in 2019). In 2017, Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer prize for music, a first for rapper.
Today, hip hop is the language of global youth culture. Rap reveries have replaced hoop dreams, especially as a male rite of passage. A vehicle for self-expression, hip hop gives youth validation and agency. Despite rap’s rebellious vibe, the genre has form and makes use of figurative language.
Here’s how I harness the power of hip hop in the classroom. I discuss rap’s roots in oral traditions and its use of poetic elements. I show documentaries on the pillars of hip hop: graffiti, breakdancing, deejaying and emceeing. We study how rap influences pop culture, politics and commerce. Finally, I get students to write homages, confessional lyrics, social commentary and/or advertising jingles. My son and collaborator, poet/illustrator Jeffery Weatherford, amps up the excitement with a mini-studio that lets students download beats, record lyrics and mix audio. Mobile apps can produce similar results.
Like the genre itself, rap workshops convey to students that their voices deserve to be heard.
Carole Boston Weatherford has written many books inspired by oral traditions, including The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip Hop, illustrated by Frank Morrison. Here is Vicki Cobb's review.
Carla Killough McClafferty
Illuminating lives from the past,
impacting lives in the present
The shady spot overlooking the river didn’t look like a cemetery. Nothing marked it as a burial ground - no flowers, no grave markers, not even a sign. Yet buried there lay the remains of enslaved people of Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate.
Even knowledge of the cemetery’s location might have been lost to time if The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association hadn’t bought Mount Vernon in 1858. Just a few years later, the Civil War brought an end to slavery. At last, men, women and children would no longer be enslaved - or buried - at Mount Vernon.
Years passed and the memory of who was buried there and where they were buried faded away. By 1929, The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association realized that even the location of the cemetery might soon be forgotten. They installed a marker to identify the site of the cemetery. More years passed. Weeds and underbrush grew over the unmarked graves-and the 1929 marker.
At last in 1982 a memorial was installed to honor the people who were enslaved at Mount Vernon. For the first time the public had a place to pay their respects to those buried there. The gray granite column in the center of the memorial reads:
Then in 2014, archeologists at Mount Vernon began an exciting new project. A multi-year archaeological dig that would answer three questions:
To accomplish the dig, archeologists remove six to eight inches of soil - only enough to determine if a grave is present. No human remains will ever be disturbed in the process. So far, more than 70 graves have been located – some of them graves of children.
Like other slave owning families, the Washingtons did not keep birth, death or burial records of the people they enslaved. Today, it is impossible to know the identities of the individuals who lie in each grave. But this archaeological dig will at least allow us to know, and honor, the location of their final resting places.
The individuals buried there may remain nameless, but they are not forgotten.
Do you want to find out how an archaeological dig works? In Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon you will discover how they uncovered graves in the cemetery at Mount Vernon-and about six, specific real life enslaved people who served the Washington family. You can read Vicki Cobb's review here. It won the National CDA Young Reader Book Award in 2020.
Stories that Surprise and Inspire
The song “We Shall Overcome” was an important part of the civil rights movement of the 1960's. It gave hope and courage to thousands of blacks and whites who protested peacefully against unfair treatment of African Americans. The song is easy to sing, but its words carry a powerful message. Here’s its main verse:
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome some day,
Oh, deep in my heart I do believe
We shall overcome some day.
Often protestors faced hostile crowds, were arrested, or even beaten up when they took part in nonviolent demonstrations that called for all Americans—no matter their skin color—to have the same right to vote and be treated fairly in restaurants, stores, businesses, schools, buses, trains—and even amusement parks.
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a main leader of the civil rights movement, urged demonstrators not to fight back, no matter how badly they were treated. This song helped them do that. Holding hands and joining their voices in “We Shall Overcome” during demonstrations—or in jail—helped them feel they weren’t alone and that despite the danger, their efforts would lead to a better America.
The protests did indeed lead to new laws being passed. The 1964 Civil Rights Law makes it illegal for any business that serves the public to discriminate against people because of race, religion, gender, or national origin. The 1965 Voting Rights Law outlaws rules that make it hard for blacks to vote.
News about these nonviolent protestors—and their song—spread around the world. Before long, people protesting for fair treatment in other countries began singing “We Shall Overcome” in their own languages. It has been sung by demonstrators in such varied countries as India, Czechoslovakia, Romania, China, and Britain.
While I was doing research for a book on civil rights, a man told me how the song helped him when he was surrounded by a hostile mob that hurled insults (and some rocks) during a 1963 demonstration at an amusement park that refused to let in blacks. When police arrived to arrest the protestors (not the stone thrower), the demonstrators held hands and sang the song as they walked through the mob to the police van. Their voices were shaky as they sang the verse “We are not afraid,” because they were very afraid, but the song gave them the courage to keep going.
Click here for source notes on this article.
Amy Nathan is the author of Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round into the Civil Rights Movement, which tells the tale of the nearly ten years of protests that were needed to finally end segregation at an amusement park, placing the story of the park—and its merry-go-round—within the context of the civil rights movement as a whole. For more information on the book, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "'We Shall Overcome': The Power of a Song." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 23 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
When seamstress Rosa Parks boarded a bus after work in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955, she had no idea she was about to make history.
At that time, Montgomery buses were strictly segregated. According to city law, whites had the right to the first few rows of seats. Under a long-standing custom, blacks had to give up their seats as additional whites boarded. So when that happened, the driver ordered Parks and three other blacks to move further back. The other three did. Parks didn’t. The driver repeated his order. Again Parks refused. She was arrested.
Years later, a legend grew up that she was tired from a long day on her feet. But as she explained, “No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Black leaders, who had long shared her frustration, sensed an opportunity. They quickly formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and selected a young minister who had just moved to Montgomery as leader. His name was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Under his leadership, Montgomery blacks ordered a boycott of the bus system. They used many methods of alternate transportation, sometimes walking for an hour or even more. Despite whites’ burning of several churches and an explosion that destroyed Dr. King’s home, they persisted: day after day, week after week, month after month. Since blacks formed about 75 percent of the normal ridership, the loss of their fares began crippling the system. Finally, on December 20 the following year Montgomery repealed the law requiring segregated buses. The victory also catapulted Dr. King to national prominence.
Parks didn’t fare so well. She was fired from her job and received numerous death threats. She and her husband moved to Detroit.
Honors began pouring in. In 2000, Time magazine named Rosa Parks—often called the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement”—as one of the 100 most important people of the twentieth century.
Parks had another honor that year. In 1994, the white supremacist group Ku Klux Klan had announced a plan to clean up a portion of Highway I-55 near St. Louis, Missouri under the federal Adopt-a-Highway program. That meant signs would be posted to acknowledge the Klan’s “public service.” The Missouri Department of Transportation objected, but a series of court cases concluding in 2000 deemed the objection as unconstitutional. The state quickly responded by naming that portion of I-55 the Rosa Parks Freeway. The Klan never did clean it up.
On the morning of December 1, 1955, hardly anyone in Rosa Parks s home town of Montgomery, Alabama had heard of her. By the time that night fell, she was on her way to becoming a household word all over the United States. Jim Whiting tells the story in his book What's So Great About Rosa Parks? For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 26 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
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