Saturday, February 25, 2012

Sending Bright Kids From Harlem To Prep Schools

"No education and lack of preparation for the working world does eliminate competition. We are well aware of this, and we let those who criticize the program know it."--Edouard E. Plummer, Director, Wadleigh Scholarship Program, Harlem, New York ("Wadleigh Scholars: From Harlem to Hotchkiss," Independent School, February 1983)

This fall [1984] the A.B.C. (A Better Chance) Scholarship Program, at Harlem's Wadleigh Junior High School 88, will be 20 years old. During those years, the program, administered by Edouard E. Plummer, a Wadleigh math teacher and guidance counselor, has placed academically promising youngsters from the school in 68 preparatory--or independent--schools across the United States. "No school in the country," boasts Plummer with ample justification, "has sent as many people to preparatory school as we have at Wadleigh. Nobody." To prove the success of the program, Plummer points out that these students have gone on to major universities such as Princeton, Dartmouth, and the University of Massachusetts and enjoy careers as doctors, lawyers, engineers, bankers, and so forth. "[W]e have lost no more than three per cent," he writes in Independent School magazine. "Because many of those who drop out do finish in public schools and universities, we do not consider them a complete loss."

It all began in the summer of 1964 when Plummer (who came to Wadleigh in 1960) was vacationing in the South of France. He read an article in Time magazine about a scholarship program called A Better Chance, which had been set up by a group of preparatory schools to increase their minority enrollment. "I talked with a friend of mine," he recalls, "who taught at a preparatory school in Connecticut and I was going to make arrangements with him to get somebody in his school. He told me how to do it with scholarships. When I saw this article, it just put everything in perspective. I called Time magazine from the South of France [and asked them] to send me the information. When I arrived back in the city, everything was waiting for me. I read all this information and said [to myself], 'This is what I want.' I wrote to the people [at A Better Chance]. They sent me everything I wanted. After studying it, I asked my colleagues [what they thought about it] and they said they liked the idea."

When Plummer approached the principal with the idea, the principal's reply was "Do you think you can get these children in these schools?" Plummer, understandably upset by such a question, especially from a fellow educator, "looked at him and shook my head. All of my insides began to boil. All of my African, my English, my French, my German, and any blood I had in me. To me, he was underestimating his teachers and the pupils and the community. And that was a put-down. I said, 'I have never been in a flop in my life. I only have hits and I know I'll get someone in those schools.'" Plummer, by this time, had already gotten assurances from other teachers that they would sponsor a child by paying the seven-dollar fee for the secondary School Admission Test (SSAT). The test, now $21, is, says Plummer, "very important. Anyone who is going to a prep school must take that test. That score that you get can determine whether you're going to a prep school or not." By 3 o'clock that afternoon, Plummer, as he was about to leave the building, met the principal, who had changed his tune. "'Oh, Mr. Plummer, I like your idea,'" recounts Plummer. "'I'd like to support one of those children, also.' Every teacher that I named was black. So this thing about black power, I showed him where black was before the others knew it was chic."

Plummer's determination to see that the program survives and remains successful is rooted in his belief that "there is a conspiracy, overt and undercover, to sabotage our children. I had seen too many bright children just lost. They went no place afterwards. No one kept in touch with them. No one directed them. I said that 'This is going to change.' That's why I started this program."

To date, 210 kids have gone through the program from its inception. (There were 14 kids in the program during the 1983-84 term.) Out of a total student population at Wadleigh of between 500 and 600, those who become A.B.C. students is comparatively small. "We have worked with as many as 27. Some years we have had 20. We can accommodate 10 to 25. I'd like to have at least 25 children."

These young scholars, who are in the top five per cent, are selected because they meet certain tough criteria. "We look at their reading levels. We look at their math levels. We look at their academic potential, their attitude, and their response when we tell them about the program and the sacrifices they have to make. And if they have a great deal of drive, I-will, an ambition, have a positive attitude toward school, and a goal, a sense of direction, and willing to take advice, and willing to listen and to put forth extra time and effort when the others are out there playing. They sit in here twice a week, from three to five o'clock in an enrichment program: mathematics, English, skills in test-taking, discussing what preparatory schools were like, what it will be like once you leave this area and go to one of those predominately, or all-white, communities, white schools. How are you going to deal with this and things of that nature."

Prep school, explains Plummer, is equivalent to senior high school. The length of time one attends prep school can range from "three to four years, sometimes five."

Most of the A.B.C. students enter the program in the 9th grade. "Our first group [came in] in the 10th grade. We've had some who've gone in the 8th grade. They can spend one to three years here. If they leave after the 7th grade, that means they spend one year here. If they leave after the 8th grade, they spend two years here, after the 9th grade, they spend three years here. Some have left us and gone to high school in the 10th grade."

Plummer, has over the years encountered many parents who were unwilling to, let their children experience the "new demands, new challenges, and new avenues of learning" that prep schools provide. "I have a very good example," he says. "A couple of years ago, the mother of the top girl in the class refused to even talk to me. She wasn't going to let her daughter come here. Another young lady's mother sent her here. The number one girl who did not come here was sent by her mother to another junior high. She did not make Bronx Science or Stuyvesant. She's now in a regular high school. The other young lady who came to me is in a preparatory school. One parent had confidence in us, the other one didn't."

Teachers can also be stumbling blocks to the program and to the kids it tries to help. "There have been teachers who have been very supportive. There have been those who have not been supportive. They, white teachers, have hurt the program and do not care about hurting it. This is bad. I'm aware of this and the young people are aware of it. We know why they're doing it. We're here to serve the children. If you're not going to serve the children, get out. If you don't save them, what are we going to have for the future, especially for minorities? Why are they building more jails? Why aren't they building more schools, giving us more teachers? Who are they building the jails for? I can go to Rikers Island [a detention center in New York City] and have a class reunion of young people who attended this school. But I'd rather go to Harvard and have that class reunion."

Doris Brunson, an English teacher at Wadleigh and a longtime participant in the program, recognizes the "very powerful negative influences" of the area surrounding Wadleigh, despite the efforts of parents and educators "to turn all that negativism around." She also recognizes the unlimited, and untapped, potential of the young people she sees hanging out near the school every day. She, no doubt, taught many of them. "The youngster who can remember all the numbers for an entire block and whose number is the favorite one, isn't that child a math genius? You have children who are involved in the drug racket who can cut drugs and so forth. That's a future chemist."

These kids who, Plummer admits, are "envied and admired at the same time" by their peers, have become "an inspiration to all young people, especially minority children."

"Support within the community," writes Janice C. Simpson, a former A.B.C. student, in New York magazine, "slacked off during the heyday of black power. There were complaints that the Program was elitist, that Plummer was sending the best talent away from the community." In his Independent School article, he says he answered critics by saying to them: "'Do you have something better to offer these students?' To this we get no reply or anything to substitute for what the child has been offered."

He further states, in my interview with him, that the prep schools these young people attend are not elitist. "People made them elite. They never wanted that type of [label]. The people who did that could not get in and were jealous and envious of [those who did]. They [prep schools] downplay all of this. That's why they call themselves preparatory schools, not private schools. They prepare you for life. Everybody's the same up there."

Plummer sees himself as "their advisor, their teacher, and their friend." The 48-year-old bachelor instructs the students, past and present, that if they have a problem to "call me anytime they want to, 24 hours, and reverse [the] charges."

But Plummer is not their only friend. The others range from Lena Horne and Carol Burnett to ordinary folks [90 per cent of them white] who, hearing about the program, have sent financial contributions. (Lena Horne, who Plummer calls the "godmother of our program," has been a supporter since the program's inception.)

"I can get ten basketball players in one minute," says Plummer. "How many scholars can I get up in ten hours? We're looking for scholars, people of the future. We know all blacks can sing and dance. They can all play ball. We want to do something else. What about our mental ability? Why can't we use that and excel? These schools are going to make demands upon these young people. We have to be sure that we have children that can stand the pressure. It's not easy sending a child out there in that situation. It's easier now because others had gone and opened the doors for them and paved the way."

This article was originally published in the newspaper, the Harlem Weekly, in 1984.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Una Mulzac & The Gay Book Controversy

Recently an unsigned letter was circulated among black gay men which called for a letter-writing campaign against Harlem's Liberation Bookstore because it "steadfastly refuses to stock any books by black lesbians and gay men," books that would offer a "positive artistic depiction."

Instead, continued the letter, some of the titles the store chooses to carry "reinforces negative stereotypes." thereby giving the black community reasons to believe that black gay men and lesbians are not a legitimate "part of African-American culture and history."

However, Una Mulzac, Liberation's owner, disputed the letter's claim. "I'm not anti-gay. I've never attacked gay people publicly. I have books in here by gay people." She then cited examples: James Baldwin, poet Audre Lorde, and the lesbian-feminist anthology Home Girls.

The letter-writing campaign came about when a young black gay man visited the store and asked for a copy each of The Road Before Us (which will be published in October) and Brother to Brother, both black gay anthologies. According to one source, Ms. Mulzac told the visitor they didn't carry gay books because they didn't sell well.

Ms. Mulzac confirmed the visit. She added that "the brother's manner was so aggressive, a strong-armed kind of thing. He wanted us to make another category for black gay men and women. We have about 40 categories. It's a small store. We are jammed to the hilt. We specialize in African history and culture. That means every aspect of it that we can. We can't make another category. After 24 years I am not going to start a new category and particularly now when they've put out a letter condemning us. I really don't appreciate the strong-arm tactics. There was a magazine we had in here for over a year, Other Countries. I put it in a prominent place; it did not sell at all. People do not come here for gay books. If it's about that subject, they do not buy it. I've had that experience."

Since the young man's visit, Liberation Bookstore was sent a letter from a feminist publisher who informed Ms. Mulzac that she was told the store didn't "need her books in here. We never said anything like that. How can she say that when we have her books in here." Ms. Mulzac went on to say, "It's my preference that we have what we have--James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Langston Hughes, who one brother told me was also gay. You can't accuse us of discrimination against gay writers. What they want and what I want as a bookseller is not for them to say. Censorship is entirely different from being selective."

Ms. Mulzac concluded the phone interview with this warning to those behind the letter-writing campaign: "If there's going to be a public outcry against this store, they are the one who are going to be criticized for telling lies on us. This is harassment for nothing. When they attack this store publicly, they're starting something."

This article was originally published in the New York Amsterdam News (September 12, 1991)

Una Mulzac died January 21, 2012 (see "Una Mulzac, 88, Bookseller With Passion for Black Politics, New York Times, February 5, 2012.)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Essex Hemphill, Black Gay Bard

Essex Hemphill, revered by many in the black gay community and considered the foremost black gay poet in America died November 4, 1995 at the age of 38 in Philadelphia, where he lived.

His untimely death due to complications from AIDS silenced an influential literary activist whose poems and essays are uncompromisingly frank about what it means to be black and gay in a racist and homophobic society. "I have not chosen to isolate myself from my friends and community," he wrote in an essay in Essence magazine. "There are valid reasons for doing so, but I feel that would contribute to the absence of visible, positive homosexual images...."

To the late filmmaker Marlon Riggs, in whose controversial PBS documentary on black gay life, Tongues Untied, Hemphill appeared, Hemphill's poetic talent was "Astounding." Riggs further stated that "No voice speaks with more eloquent, insightful, thought-provoking clarity about contemporary Black gay life."

Those are the characteristics that struck a chord with Steve Langley, a young African-American poet/singer from Washington, D.C. When he first read Hemphill's poetry he was riding the Metro, D.C.'s subway system, and the words "brought tears to my eyes. here was finally someone who was writing about my life. As a writer, he was a role model. He encouraged me [through his example] to write."

Don Jackson, a writer from Durham, N.C., is another individual Hemphill inspired. "We spent many occasions on the phone talking about books, [James] Baldwin, music, and our lives. It was an electrifying experience. He gave me a surge of confidence."

Hemphill, Chicago-born and D.C.-raised, began writing poetry at age 14. In an interview with Joseph Beam in Au Courant, a Philadelphia gay newspaper, he revealed what led him to poetry. "I was a loner and I am still very much a loner." he attended "a predominantly black, urban high school rife with all kinds of problems--gangs, drugs, etc. My quietness probably kept me out of a lot of trouble. I had friends, but the kinds of things I needed to communicate, or say to someone else seemed best said to myself on paper, so I started writing poems."

At the University of Maryland, he met a young woman named Kathy Anderson. She turned him on to the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka). They later co-founded and published Nethula Journal, a black cultural magazine.

Over the years, Hemphill was widely anthologized and was the recipient of numerous awards, including the National Library Association's New Authors in Poetry Award for his book of prose and poetry, Ceremonies (Plume) and a Lambda Book Award (Lammy) for Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men (Alyson), which he edited.

In addition, Hemphill was selected in 1993 by the Getty Center for the History of Art and Humanities in Santa Monica, California to participate in its Visiting Scholars Program.

If Hemphill had been a speaker at the Million Man March in Washington in October 1995, these words from his poem, "For My Own Protection," would have been appropriate as well as uplifting: "I want to start an organization to save my life./If whales, snails, dogs, cats, Chrysler, and Nixon/can be saved,/the lives of Black men/are priceless/and can be saved./We should be able/to save each other."

Hemphill--who, at the time of his death, was survived by his mother, three sisters, and a brother--was buried in Washington, D.C.

This article was originally published in the New York Amsterdam News (November 18, 1995).

Friday, February 3, 2012

Finding Literary Treasure On Upper Broadway

It's amazing how things happen unexpectedly. I recently put in my pink and lavender Gay & Lesbian loose leaf binder this quote from gay author Gavin Lambert: "In movies then [the 1950s], you had to be discreet [regarding one's homosexuality]. You still have to be." I copied that quote from the book Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2005).

The next day I found a yellowed paperback edition of Gavin Lambert's Inside Daisy Clover (Bantam, 1964, 75 cents) among a pile of discarded books at the corner of 113th Street and Broadway, near Columbia University. (The book was made into a movie, released in 1965, starring Natalie Wood, who co-starred in Rebel with James Dean and Sal Mineo.)

If I had been looking specifically for Lambert's book, I probably would have had a tough time finding it since it was published more than 40 years ago.

Black & Blue At Blue's

Village Voice
842 Broadway
New York, NY 10003

October 8, 1982

Dear Editor:

The vicious police raid of Blue's, a black gay bar in the Times Square area, last week (September 29) showed New York's Finest at their very worst. As reported by WBAI and the Village Voice ("Black Tie and Blood," October 12), this raid involved the beating and robbing of patrons, the destruction of bar property, and the use of anti-black and anti-gay language--by the men in blue.

I think an immediate investigation should be initiated by Police Commissioner Robert McGuire. And those officers found guilty of abusing their authority during the raid should be dismissed from the force as unfit. We are not yet a police state.

One officer quoted in the Voice piece said that "Blue's is a very troublesome bar. There are a lot of undesirables who hang out there." That may be so, but lashing out at the bar and its patrons with such brute force is not the way to alleviate the problem. And it certainly isn't the way to win the police department any friends among the black gay community. This sort of police abuse, if it is allowed to go unchecked, will lead to an eventual bloodbath. People will tolerate only so much abuse.

If the higher-ups in the department ignore what happened, it is a clear message to the community at large as well as to the cops on the street that police abuse of gay men--especially if they're black--has been given official sanction.

How can the police department apprehend civilian gaybashers with a clear conscience when many of its own people are no better? Fortunately for both sides there were no deaths. But what about next time?

Sincerely yours,

Charles Michael Smith

(An unpublished letter-to-the-editor.)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Night They Raided Blue's

The vicious police raid at Blue's on the night of September 29, 1982 showed New York's Finest at their very worst. It is certainly a night patrons of the black gay bar on West 43rd Street will not soon forget. Since the raid, business has fallen off one-third to one-half. That should attest to the brutality that was meted out.

The police story is that they were responding to a ten-thirteen--an officer in trouble call--when six of their men were beaten up inside the bar after arriving there to stop a fistfight. Lew Olive, the bar manager on the 8 pm to 4 am shift, was there that ill-fated night and denied there was a fight and that there were six cops in the bar. He said that from different sources he found out that "One or two drag queens did beast up one or two policemen out there on the street" and to retaliate, the police raided Blue's. But, continued Olive, a friend of his was told by a policeman that "those drag queens do not come to this bar and he knows that as a fact."

Olive said he told one policeman at Midtown South, "If your story is correct and if we did beat up six police, that's a felony. You had us against the wall. You could have identified the assailants of those six police." Olive accused the cop of dereliction of duty for not arresting the assailants if they knew them to be in the bar at the time.

"We know as a fact," said Olive, that they [the cops] did gather in Smith's Bar [located at 44th Street and Eighth Avenue] and they proceeded from Smith's Bar to here after drinking in Smith's Bar. Those are damaging facts and that's no way to answer a ten-thirteen."

The raid "left at least ten people seriously injured," said Olive. Among them were two young black men, one of whom had four teeth knocked out. Olive would like the two men to get in touch with Blue's to get medical and/or legal assistance. (Olive himself was hit on the head two or three times with a blackjack.)

Olive showed displeasure with the lack of interest on the part of the Daily News and the Times--which is across the street--to sens a reporter and a photographer over to cover the story when they were notified of the raid. He also had some harsh words for Arthur Bell's piece in the Village Voice. He called it "irresponsible" and "poor journalism" because Bell published a couple of quotes he didn't bother to substantiate. For example, "When he talked to the New York Times lady out on the street, the lady says she was called certain names and said things [to] by patrons from this bar. Bell's question should be, 'How do you know they were patrons from this bar?' Now this white woman saw black people and they associate all black people to this bar and that's ridiculous. All black people in this area do not come in this bar."

In fact, said Olive, Blue's despite its predominately black clientele, is open to anyone wanting to buy a drink there. "We insist that they be treated as they act. And we do not allow any customer here to tell another they don't belong here because they aren't this, that or the other. We don't care whether they're lesbian, gay, drag queen, or what."

At the present time, there are several agencies conducting separate investigations into the raid, among them the FBI--Olive called them in because "I'm not comfortable with the police investigating police."--the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the Police Civilian Complaint Review Board. "All the agencies that we can get involved in this case," said Olive, "we want to be involved in this case. The management of Blue's intends to pursue the legal battle even if it takes five years.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Gay Paree In Words And Pictures

Our Paris: Sketches from Memory by Edmund White (Knopf)

One day I hope to visit Paris; it is a city that has always fascinated me. Part of my fascination has been sparked by accounts by and/or about famous American writers who once lived there: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, et al. Now it's Edmund White's turn to bedazzle me with the sights, sounds, and smells of that fabled city.

Our Paris: Sketches from Memory is a collaborative project he worked on with his now deceased (from AIDS) lover, Hubert Sorin, the French architect turned artist. It combines words and pictures.

White's descriptions of Parisian life, which includes anecdotes involving an array of characters (a few of whom are bizarre), are vivid and often funny. Like the one about the sixty-something prostitutes who "clobber stiffly down the stretch of cobbled street in their high heels." White surmises that "prostitution is just an innocent excuse for hanging out and chewing the fat with the girls."

Sorin's black-and-white storybook-like drawings superbly complement White's prose and are themselves evocative and humorous.

Throughout Our Paris, White is an unreluctant name dropper and gossipmonger. For example, he outs a grandson of the super macho Hemingway. The grandson, Ed, "wears the same clothes every day and rarely bathes," but is otherwise "a nice, normal homosexual."

Unfortunately, White is not unreluctant to let his class-consciousness and snobbery show. In one of his descriptions of the upscale Marais district, the neighborhood bordering his own, he refers to it as "a magnet for gay Parisians," who include "[w]olfpacks of guys in leather or jeans, their hair long and silky on top, shaved military style below all the way up to the temple." For White, these gay clones or "Kiki Boys" stir little, if any, interest "unless they're walking a dog--which already sets them apart as neighbors, not Bad Boys, as nice quiet bachelors." (White and Sorin had a basset hound named Fred.) Then they become "men with whom one can have a pleasant chat about the hardheaded (tetu) basset hound versus the crazy (fou-fou) terrier."

"I hope," writes White in the introduction, "at least a few readers will recognize its subtext is love." In 142 pages White succeeds in conveying not only his love for Sorin but also his love for Paris.

Overall, Our Paris will be a delightful reading experience for francophiles and non-francophiles alike.