Thursday, April 30, 2015



From time to time it's a good idea for readers of this blog to go over past blog posts since I frequently make editing changes to correct factual and grammatical errors or typos.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Remembering Broadcaster Pepsi Charles

The recent passing of historian and Egyptologist Josef ben-Jochannan caused me to wonder what became of Pepsi Charles, a former host and producer at WBAI, the Pacifica listener-supported station in New York. It was on her show that I first heard Dr. ben-Jochannan. I later interviewed him for a class assignment in 1975 when I took an evening course in magazine writing at Hunter College.

In December of that year, I did a one-hour program called "Langston Hughes: The Man and the Writer" for Pepsi Charles' weekly radio show. The guests I invited to speak on Hughes were Raoul Abdul, a former Hughes editorial assistant and at the time a music columnist for the New York Amsterdam News and Milton Meltzer, a friend of Hughes and a biographer. I was supposed to get a copy of the tape but, alas, she never provided one to me.

Doing a Google search, I learned that Pepsi Charles, a resident and community activist in Plainfield, New Jersey, died in 2002.

The Plaintalker II, a hyperlocal blog about Plainfield, in a March 12, 2009 post, had this to say about her: "Pepsi's interests and concerns ranged from cultural advancement of the community, recognition of African history and symbolism, the needs of urban youth, appreciation of all the arts and a deep spirituality that was an example to her friends and acquaintances."

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Nobelist Wole Soyinka's Prostate Cancer Cure?

The banner headline on the front page of the African Sun Times (December 1-7, 2014) announced: "Soyinka: How I Survived Prostate Cancer." Wanting to know how Nigerian playwright/poet/essayist Wole Soyinka achieved this medical miracle, I immediately went to the story, which reported on remarks he made  at a press conference in his hometown of Abeokuta, Nigeria.

According to the article, Soyinka, a 1986 Nobel laureate in literature, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in December of 2013. (Soyinka a few paragraphs later stated it was in November.) He claimed he was cured in October of 2014. But the article neglected to give specifics about Soyinka's treatment other than to quote the 80-year-old luminary as saying "There are many ways of managing cancer; even diet. I have had to drink a lot of water and as many of you know, water and I are not really friends."

He went on to state that "It [prostate cancer] is not a death sentence and it is curable. I have undergone the treatment."

If Soyinka, a brilliant and articulate man, went to the trouble of giving a press conference about his prostate cancer cure, he must have given the attendees more information about his treatment options than was reported in the article. The African Sun Times, published in East Orange, New Jersey, has unfortunately done its readers a disservice by publishing what can only be called shoddy and incomplete journalism.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

An Architect In Harlem

When Percy Charles Griffin was growing up in Mississippi, he was always painting pictures. So much so that his mother told him he was a born architect. She knew, says Griffin, 39, that "I couldn't make any money at painting , so the next thing to that was be an architect." Although at the time Griffin "didn't know what the word 'architecture' meant. When I came up here [New York], I wanted to be an engineer." But math--a subject he was good in during his high school days--became a stumbling block when he got to City College because he had lost interest. He told one of his professors this and he was told to switch his major from engineering to architecture. "There too," recalls Griffin, "I was pathetic."

During his second year at  the college he began to perk up and the attitude of those professors who thought he was wasting his time went from "sympathy to admiration." His scholastic improvement took him to the top of his class.

Griffin, the first in his family to go to college, eventually won an architectural award at City College for his thesis design--a cardboard model of a four-story, block-long , multi-service cultural center that included a 300-seat theatre, art gallery, and restaurant.

Griffin's decision to attend college came after landing a job in the office of the famed architect Philip Johnson, who is responsible for the AT&T Building in Midtown Manhattan. "I went to school because everyone [in Johnson's office] was a college graduate. Princeton, Harvard, all over. I really wanted to complete my education." Johnson, knowing this, made it possible for Griffin to attend school by allowing him to have a flexible work schedule where he could take off "one, three days every week" without deducting "any money from my salary. I was doing regular architectural development, drafting, design development. Same as anyone else. Griffin gives Johnson credit for evaluating his school projects. After graduation in 1972, Griffin took the architecture licensing exam which he passed.

To Percy Griffin, who teaches at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), architecture is the best of two worlds: aesthetics (how a building will look) and technology (how the building will be built and how well it can stand up to stress from weather, aging, weight, etc.) "It's very artistic. You have to have imagination and then you turn right around with this imagination, understanding the technical part of [architecture], which is the engineering, the structure, the mechanical, the electrical, and energy conservation. It's a mixture of many different fields. Not only the design or the technical but sociology, philosophy, history. I feel that history is a major part of understanding architecture. Where it came from, the different periods it went through. Without the history, you would not have very much depth as an architect."

A majority of Griffin's clients--75 percent to be exact--are black. Most of his projects involve home renovation. He also does design work for churches (such as the cultural and community center at the Thessalonia Baptist Church in the Bronx). Some of his clients include Sylvia's Restaurant on Lenox Avenue and actor Irving Lee of the daytime soap opera The Edge of Night.

Griffin feels, however, that the black community--particularly its leaders--do not make adequate use of "the professionals that are available to them. How many projects that I see going up in Harlem, the Bronx, Chicago, all over and no black architect  [is involved]. [Black architects] could survive pretty well if we could get our ten percent or fifteen percent of the money for construction." He wonders how a black community leader can be a leader without knowing that "it's a hard struggle for black architects."

This excerpt is from an article that was originally published in the Harlem Weekly in 1984. A longer version of this article was posted on November 1, 2012.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Saturday, April 18, 2015

James Baldwin Went To School Here

Yesterday (April 17), I was strolling down Lenox Avenue, near 140th Street, in Harlem, when a school building caught my eye. As I stood across the street from the building I saw carved  into the facade above the entrance the words "Public School 139." It dawned on me that this might be the school that James Baldwin attended in the late 1930s before he moved on to DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. When I got home, I looked through my Baldwin biographies and confirmed that it was. P.S. 139, also known as  Frederick Douglass Junior High, was where Baldwin became the editor of The Douglass Pilot, the school magazine. It was also where poet Countee Cullen became one of his teachers as well as the faculty advisor to the literary club of which Baldwin was a member.

The five-story, red-brick  building is now the property of the New York City Housing Authority which has transformed the building from a place of learning into a senior citizens residence.

There's a sign on the building that states "Welcome To...P.S. 139 Senior Citizens Building," but I didn't see one commemorating James Baldwin as an alumnus of P.S. 139.

If Baldwin were alive today he would be almost 91 years old and eligible to live in the building where he once attended school.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Three Milestone Events To Revisit

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, the 50th anniversary of the Watts Riots in Los Angeles, and the 30th anniversary of the police killing of the 17-year-old Harlem honor student Edmund Perry, a case which became the subject of a nonfiction book and a 1991 TV movie called Murder Without Motive: The Edmund Perry Story. This would be a good time to commemorate these events by reading books written about them.

 Two books I own and plan to read are Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness by Robert Conot (Bantam, 1967), which is about the Watts Riots and Best Intentions: The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry by journalist Robert Sam Anson (Random House, 1987).

 The Chicago Tribune called Conot's book "something Capote's will never be--a work of potentially historic importance." The reviewer was probably talking about Truman Capote's crime classic, In Cold Blood.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

An Early Biography Of James Baldwin

James Baldwin is one of my all-time favorite writers. I can never read enough by or about him. So I was delighted to find sitting on a public library shelf a copy of The Furious Passage of James Baldwin by Fern Marja Eckman. The book was originally published in 1966. It has been referred to in later biographies of Baldwin but I was never able to obtain a copy until now. The new edition was published in 2014.

The back jacket copy states that Eckman, who at the time was a reporter for the then liberal New York Post, "based this book on hours and hours of taped interviews with Baldwin and with the people who are significant in his story" and is "a profile told largely in his own words."

Because this biography was the first one written on Baldwin, his later years, covered in subsequent books, are missing. But nevertheless it gives readers an insight into Baldwin's early life, writing career, and personality. (The first few pages of the biography seem to be psychoanalyzing Baldwin and his rocky relationship with his stepfather.) At this writing, I am still reading the book which is riveting, although it reads more like a memoir than a standard biography.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Maya Angelou, Renaissance Woman

"Singer, actor, activist, reporter, poet, author, screenwriter, director, songwriter, teacher, producer, lecturer, entrepreneur--she's a woman with many hats, and wears them all with style, always looking for a new one to try on."--from Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration by Marcia Ann Gillespie, Rosa Johnson Butler, and Richard A. Long (Doubleday, 2008).

Today is the birthday of renaissance woman Maya Angelou (1928-2014). She would have been 87 years old. In Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration, her inspiring life story is told via text, photographs, correspondence, press interviews, and excerpts from her writings.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Beware Of April Fools' Day Pranksters!

Today is April Fools' Day. Beware of pranksters!

When I was in junior high school in California, the two days I dreaded most were St. Patrick's Day and April Fools' Day. St. Patrick's Day because if I forgot to wear something green, I would have to endure being pinched all day long and April Fools' Day because classmates would play a prank on me and other classmates when our guards were down.