Monday, August 31, 2015

Barack Obama Is NOT From Kenya

For Black History Month in 1991, St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Budweiser beer, published Black Facts Booklet which was small enough to fit into a shirt pocket or purse.

Among a handful of glaring errors was a factual one that would have delighted today's conservative pundits: "Barack Obama," noted the booklet, "the twenty-eight-year-old law student from Kenya [emphasis mine] became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review." (And later the first black president of the United States.) First of all, Obama would have been closer to thirty years old in 1991 and secondly, he was born in the state of Hawaii, not Kenya, which would make him an American citizen and eligible to run for president. His father, on the other hand, was the one born in Kenya. He met Obama's mother when he was an exchange student in Hawaii.

So the Black Facts Booklet was not as factual as the title would have readers believe.

Friday, August 28, 2015

William F. Buckley's Aboveground Bike Lane Proposal

Conservative pundit and National Review founder and editor William F. Buckley, Jr. unsuccessfully ran for mayor of New York City in 1965. Kevin M. Schultz in his riveting book, Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship That Shaped the Sixties (W.W. Norton, 2015), writes that Buckley "proposed cutting down traffic by building a huge aerial bike lane twenty feet above the ground and twenty feet wide, above Second Avenue from First Street all the way to One Hundred Twenty-Fifth. All this biking would cut down traffic and get New Yorkers healthy."

Today there are bike lanes throughout the five boroughs as well as bike rentals made available via CitiBikes. So Buckley was about fifty years ahead of his time. The proposed aerial bike lane on Second Avenue, however, seems a bit preposterous.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Correcting A Museum Error

 I wrote and e-mailed the following letter to Stephen Petrus, the curator of the "Folk City" exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York on August 19, 2015. This exhibition focuses on the folk music scene in New York in the 1950s and 1960s:

Stephen Petrus, Ph.D
Museum of the City of New York
1220 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10029

Dear Mr. Petrus:

In the "Mapping Folk City,1935-1965" section of the "Folk City" exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, I noticed a factual error. The address of Pacifica radio station WBAI was given as 359 East 62nd Street, which was an old church building. As someone who became involved with WBAI in the late '60s, I can tell you that the station did not move to that location until sometime in the mid to late '70s.

In 1968 when I produced two half-hour black history programs, WBAI was located in a cramped town house on East 39th Street, near Park Avenue. From there it relocated (very briefly) to 62nd Street, then to 505 8th Avenue, and finally to 120 Wall Street (alas an address I never got to visit).

The station is now in Brooklyn after operating for several months out of City College's campus station WHCR [in Harlem] due to its evacuation from the Wall Street area after experiencing the wrath of Hurricane Sandy.

Sincerely yours,
Charles Michael Smith

P.S. A heartfelt thank you for putting together such a beautiful and informative exhibition. I hope a lot of people get to see it before it closes next year.

Note: The blog post about the "Folk City" exhibition was published on August 1, 2015.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Farewell To Novelist John A. Williams

RIP John A. Williams, the African-American novelist, who wrote The Man Who Cried I AmSons of Darkness, Sons of Light; The Junior Bachelor Society (later made into a TV miniseries called The Sophisticated Gents), among other books. He died July 3, 2015 at the age of 89. The headline on his New York Times obituary called him an "Underrated Novelist."

Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Baldwin's Heir?

One writer on the Internet has called Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of the bestselling memoir Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015), The New James Baldwin (TNJB). A lot of critics think he is, too. The trouble with this label is that it tends to pigeonhole a black writer, especially one who writes nonfiction. And since Baldwin wrote mainly about race and race relations in America, and was a firebrand on those issues, the TNJB label says to Coates, a gifted writer, that he should write about race and only race.

There are, however, some black writers like Stephen L. Carter, Malcolm Gladwell, and Hilton Als who have thankfully managed to sidestep this situation to a large extent. Black writers should not be discouraged from writing about race when it is necessary but no one should expect them to be One Note Johnnys.

 Global warming, nuclear proliferation, and other important issues affect black writers as well and these are subjects they should be invited to participate in discussing.

John Hope Franklin, for instance, wrote about black history but he also cultivated orchids in his spare time. How many journalists interviewed him in depth about this hobby? None, it's safe to bet.

 I wanted to interview Gordon Parks, the noted photojournalist, film director, and autobiographer. And to get away from the racial angle, I suggested to a USA Today editor an interview with Parks exploring his views on aging. The idea was shot down. I regret not pursuing it anyway.

 It's the 21st century and black people have other things on their minds besides racism, discrimination, and what white people think of them.

Thursday, August 13, 2015


The blog post titled "Folk Music In New York" that was published on August 1, 2015 has been revised.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Farewell To Novelist E. L. Doctorow

RIP E.L. Doctorow, the author of Ragtime, World's Fair, and other historical fiction. He died, according to the New York Times Book Review, on July 21, 2015 at age 84.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Folk Music In New York

After seeing the "Folk City" exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York this past Wednesday, and subsequently browsing through a display copy of its print companion, Folk Music: New York and the American Folk Music Revival by Stephen Petrus and Ronald Cohen (Oxford University Press, 2015), I want very much to read the book and learn even more about this exciting and influential period in music history when, to quote an exhibition poster, "folk music enjoyed unprecedented popularity in the United States." This popularity continued until 1964 when the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Herman's Hermits, the Dave Clark Five, and other British groups arrived during what was then called the British Invasion, which dominated the pop charts.

"Folk City," beautifully arranged in an attractive black and red color scheme, traces the roots of folk music all the way to the 1920s and is grouped around such themes as "Becoming Folk City, 1948-1958" and "The Politics of Folk." As an overview of the folk music scene in New York, it spotlights the entrepreneurs, musicians, venues, and songs that brought it into existence. This is done through the display of such items as photos, videos, record album covers, and artifacts like Leadbelly's 12-string guitar from 1937 and the sign from the Greenwich Village performance venue called Gerdes Folk City. Walking around the exhibition room, a museum visitor will feel as if he or she has taken a giant leap into the past.

One interesting feature of "Folk City" is the ability to hear songs that were recorded by Odetta; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Pete Seeger; Richie Havens; Harry Belafonte, and others. There are about four listening stations at different locations in the exhibition room. At these spots, one can put on a pair of recording-studio-quality headphones, and by pushing one of about eight buttons, hear songs like "Day-O" by Harry Belafonte and "If I Had a Hammer" by Peter, Paul, and Mary played in their entirety.

Also on display is a large wall map of Manhattan titled "Mapping Folk City, 1935-1965" that pinpoints the location of various record companies, organizations, radio stations, residences of musicians, and performance venues during those years.

On the evening I visited the museum, I attended one of the two mini walking lectures given that day by author and exhibition curator Stephen Petrus. As a handful of museum visitors followed him around the room, he highlighted important information about the period, giving some historical context, and explained New York's role in helping to popularize folk music throughout America and the world.

The "Folk City" exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York closes in January 2016.

Note:This blog post has been revised.