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They had come from far and near to be present and to be counted among the 1.8 million.

The youngish man in front with the dreadlocks flew all the way from Japan, and the woman

behind me had a friend who had come from Israel to bear witness.



 Books by Miriam DeCosta-Willis

Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers (2003  / Singular Like a Bird: The Art of Nancy Morejon (1999)

  The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (1995) / Erotique Noire/Black Erotica  (1992) / Homespun Images ( 1989)  / Notable Black Memphians

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New Day A-Dawning

By Miriam DeCosta-Willis


January 20, 2009 dawned cold and blistery as thousands of us boarded the Metro, heading to the Mall to witness the advent of our prayed-for Prince of Peace.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose

            over conflict and discord. [Obama]

So, in hope and unity we gathered, my Memphis buddies, Sandra and Gwen, and I. At 7:30 a.m., we pushed our way into a car at Takoma Park and were quickly absorbed into a mass of coats, gloves, legs, faces, and hands holding on to each other for dear life, as the red line train sped toward Judiciary Square, packed from door to window with Inauguration goers. We disembarked into a mighty multitude: fur-coated elders creeping along on walkers, their steps tenuous and uncertain; Proud Marys in short skirts and knee-high boots flaunting their stuff; babies bundled papoose-style in heavy woolen blankets, bright eyes wondering what was going on; and vendors, young and old, hawking their wares—tee shirts, pins, posters, woolen caps, and coffee cups, all bearing the dark eyes and broad smile of The Anointed One.

“Need some toe warmers?” asked one vendor, while another called out, “How bout water?” The sight of steaming cups of Starbucks coffee and the smell of hot smokes and chili dogs reminded us that it would be a long day with very little food or drink. Tour buses were lined up outside of Union Station, limousines were parked on New Jersey Avenue, and rows of people descended the Third Street Tunnel, like thick rows of ants, intent on reaching the other side of the Mall, where the entrance gates for blue and silver ticket holders were located. My friend Smitty had arrived at 1:00 a.m. and was number six at the security gate, way ahead of us. “Can you tell me where the gate is for people with purple tickets?” I asked an indifferent policeman, who waved me down a street clogged sidewalk to sidewalk with thousands of people.

I clutched the two prized purple tickets–two of only 198 allowed each legislator—that I was promised after many calls and e-mails to Congressman Steve Cohen’s office. The day before, I had stood for over two hours in a line, four to five folk-wide that circled the block, to claim my tickets in the Longworth House Office Building, but we were a happy bunch of comrades, braving the winter winds to witness history. 

“Here, put these toe warmers in your boots,” insisted a pretty blond from Wisconsin, who saw me stamping my feet. “I wanted to get tickets for my friend, an African American,” said a petite campaigner from New Jersey, “but, when I learned they weren’t transferable, I jumped on the train and came my damn myself.” Three guys looking out of place in tuxedos and bow ties at one in the afternoon explained, laughing, “We won’t have time to get back to Herndon, so we dressed for the ball tonight.”

A sassy, fair-skinned, eighty-something Black woman, with Nice N Easy blond hair, kept us in stitches: “Honey, they had a lottery in New York, but I told em, ‘Look a here, I called yall back in February of ‘08 and I want my two tickets NOW!’” Her quiet, pint-sized husband just shook his head in embarrassment. I reached Cohen’s office before the 3:00 p.m. deadline, picked up tickets from Randy Wade, spotted Memphis City Council Chairman Myron Lowery, hugged my stepson Archie Willis, and dashed to the Capitol South Metro to face another two-block line.

“Yesterday was worth it,” I thought as we crossed over to Louisiana Avenue, where our gate was located. “What color ticket do you have?” Sandra asked a young couple from Chicago. “Yellow,” they responded, so we walked on. Yellow. Yellow. Yellow. No Purple in sight. It was now 8:30, and the gates were supposed to open at 9:00. After standing in line for half an hour, someone said, “The purple entrance is over there,” and the throng shifted in that direction. By 9:15, we had moved, inch by inch, only ten or twelve feet and were penned against the fence that circled the Capitol. We couldn’t see the security gate because the three of us were only five feet high, but the six-foot, loud-mouthed guys behind us kept us informed and in stitches. “Hey, we see you breaking the line up there. You in the red cap, get the f— back.”

They also rattled the fence and shouted to the one or two unconcerned security guards: “Let us in, dammit. We’ve been standing out here in the cold since six o’clock.” Sandra and I concluded that guards from Bush’s Department of Homeland Security—the same ones that messed up in New Orleans—must be manning the gates, so at 10:45, when the voices of the choir signaled the beginning of the ceremony, we gave up and forced our way back through the crowd to the Metro stop. Fortunately, we reached our hosts’ homes in time to watch the Inauguration on television.

I felt better after reading the headline in The Post, “Gates Clang Shut on Holders of 'Sacred' Tickets,” that described how 4,000 people (though it was many, many more) with blue or purple tickets were blocked from entering the Capitol grounds. Some of those were celebrities like Marian Wright Edelman while others, like my stepson, who “bailed out around 11:00 after standing in line for four hours,” were ordinary folk who had traveled many miles to witness history.

Archie and his daughters had traveled by car, but hundreds of thousands came by bus, plane, train, and even cruise ship to attend the Inauguration. On Friday, I flew out of Memphis, with a connection in Detroit, where the plane was full of Black folk—joyous, talkative, and gregarious–on the way to one of the most important events of their lives: witnessing the election of the nation’s first African American president. “Are you a Morehouse man?” I asked the guy across the aisle wearing a college blazer, and he beamed “Uh huh” in response. “Vanessa, do you have a ticket?” I asked my California seat mate, who replied, “No, but I’m gonna be down there on Tuesday waving my flag.”

They had come from far and near to be present and to be counted among the 1.8 million. The youngish man in front with the dreadlocks flew all the way from Japan, and the woman behind me had a friend who had come from Israel to bear witness. Whites and Blacks, Asians and Latinos, parents with children, and Boomers with their grandmothers, they had come to mark the passing of the torch to a new generation, for, according to the Post, this was “A Moment That Will Define A Generation.” 

 . . . we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true

            to our founding documents.

                        So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans. [Obama]

According to our new president, “We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth,” for we are a nation of immigrants. And so I went to Washington to share the inaugural experience with people whom I love, with friends that I’ve acquired in the twenty-five years that I lived in Dee Cee–with Brits, Bajans, Haitians, Guatemalans, and Trinidadians—who gathered in art-centered, music-filled homes throughout the capital. The ironic thing was that few of my Washington friends planned to view the Inauguration on the Mall; they knew that it would be a hassle and, so, made the wise decision to stay home and watch the ceremony on television. Meanwhile, Bill Hasson organized a Progressive Inaugural Party Schedule, with “no gowns or tuxedos,” that kicked off on Friday night with Jazz at Westminster, a church in Southwest D. C. that has offered live jazz, with a menu of fried fish, collards, mango tea, and sweet potato pie, for the last nine years. 

That night, Antonio Parker—mellow D and soulful on his sax—attempted to blow the house down and damn near succeeded. The next night, forty-or-so globe trotters cooled out at the Sebrons’ pre-inaugural party, sipping rum, eating exotica, doing an Obama line dance, and limning (talking s—, Caribbean-style) in front of the fireplace. One thing is for sure: Black folk around the world do know how to partee! Everyone kept asking, “Which ball are you going to?” and I answered, “Chile, I don’t DO balls. All that standing around,’ watching the people come and go, talking about Michelangelo.’”

Sunday was an all-day kind of thing. Acklyn, my long-time friend, former colleague, and Inauguration host, headed over to Howard at 10:00 a.m. to hear the Reverend Jeremiah Wright (yes, That One), who packed Cramton Auditorium, the Ira Aldridge Theater, AND Rankin Chapel to overflowing. He did not talk a great deal about Obama but spoke, primarily, about our responsibilities and challenges in the new world order, and he suggested, provocatively, that the next African American president would be a woman. Lordy, Lordy, Lordy, Miss Claudy! (Several nights later, Acklyn, Derek, and I had a heated discussion—a sho nuff limn—about the Wright factor in Obama’s election.)

A fête, hosted by Acklyn and his Lady, Duane, Len and Judy, started at 5:00 Sunday afternoon, and guess who came to dinner? Jeremiah Wright, his wife, three daughters, and two grands.

In spite of my preconceptions, I found the right reverend to be a sweet man—quiet and subdued on that occasion—as we talked about mutual friends in Memphis. Later, Nora, a former student of ours at UMBC, arrived with her husband and two small kids after attending the free concert on the Mall. “The performances by Usher, Beyoncé, Stevie Wonder, and Springsteen, accompanied by a red-robed gospel choir, were wonderful,” she  reported.

Rev. Gene Robinson asked the attendees to pray “for understanding that our president is a human being and not a messiah.” Amen to that! By the end of the night, over than one hundred folk filled up the first floor and basement of Acklyn’s house, watching the football game, listening to reggae and jazz, discussing the upcoming Inauguration, and sipping and supping.

Miriam, Acklyn and friends

The food, whipped up by Judy, Acklyn, and Duane, was fabulous: callaloo, jerk chicken, curried shrimp, geera pork, peas and rice, corn soup, and curried chicken–all Trinidad-style. The parties continued: on Monday night, Bill, from the Southside of Chicago, served pig feet, fried catfish and collards; Lawrence kicked off Inauguration Day with a 5:30 a.m. breakfast, followed by a watch-the-parade gathering that afternoon; and there were invitations to an open house at Bettye’s and a Chew and Chat at Amy’s.

Although I woke up that night with a stomach ache from too much rum and callaloo, I struggled out at noon to my old stomping ground—Seventh Street on the Mall, between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Until last year,  I lived on that street, which meandered from the Potomac River, past the Mall to Chinatown and up to Howard University, where it became Georgia Avenue. The words of Jean Toomer still capture the images and urban rhythm of the thoroughfare: “Flowing down the smooth asphalt of Seventh Street, in shanties, brick office buildings, theaters, drug stores, restaurants, and cabarets.”

The Mall was now deserted except for an occasional tourist. Gone were the throngs, the Jumbotrons, and the t.v. cameras; the only reminders of yesterday’s ceremony were the fences, Asian vendors, and lines of Porta potties. The National Mall, for me, has always been a sacred space, like Morrison’s clearing in the woods, where our cultural ceremonies and the rituals of our democratic republic are enacted.

Miriam and Jeremiah Wright

 I remember taking my children to watch the Bicentennial fireworks in 1976, and to see Robert Guillaume in Othello by the Washington Monument. I remember thousands of Native Americans, in splendid outfits, marching and dancing at the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian.

There is the yearly Black Family Reunion. The annual Folk Life Festival. The Million Man March. I remember marching in support of women’s rights and gay rights in the 1990s, joining the anti-war demonstrations and protesting the government’s criminal negligence of Katrina survivors, and shouting “Sí, se puede” in support of immigrant rights in 2006. Most of all, I remember Senator Obama calling for action against genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan at a rally on the Mall in April 2006. Less than three years later, many of us returned to the National Mall to enact another ritual “by the dawn’s early light”: the inauguration of Barack Obama as our 44th president.

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Notable Black Memphians (Miriam DeCosta-Willis)This biographical and historical study by Miriam DeCosta-Willis (PhD, Johns Hopkins University and the first African American faculty member of Memphis State University) traces the evolution of a major Southern city through the lives of men and women who overcame social and economic barriers to create artistic works, found institutions, and obtain leadership positions that enabled them to shape their community. Documenting the accomplishments of Memphians who were born between 1795 and 1972, it contains photographs and biographical sketches of 223 individuals (as well as brief notes on 122 others), such as musicians Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin, activists Ida B. Wells and Benjamin L. Hooks, politicians Harold Ford Sr. and Jr., writers Sutton Griggs and Jerome Eric Dickey, and Bishop Charles Mason and Archbishop James Lyke—all of whom were born in Memphis or lived in the city for over a decade. . .  .

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



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The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michele Alexander

Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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The Last Holiday: A Memoir

By Gil Scott Heron

Shortly after we republished The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, Gil started to tell me about The Last Holiday, an account he was writing of a multi-city tour that he ended up doing with Stevie Wonder in late 1980 and early 1981. Originally Bob Marley was meant to be playing the tour that Stevie Wonder had conceived as a way of trying to force legislation to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday. At the time, Marley was dying of cancer, so Gil was asked to do the first six dates. He ended up doing all 41. And Dr King's birthday ended up becoming a national holiday ("The Last Holiday because America can't afford to have another national holiday"), but Gil always felt that Stevie never got the recognition he deserved and that his story needed to be told. The first chapters of this book were given to me in New York when Gil was living in the Chelsea Hotel. Among the pages was a chapter called Deadline that recounts the night they played Oakland, California, 8 December; it was also the night that John Lennon was murdered. Gil uses Lennon's violent end as a brilliant parallel to Dr King's assassination and as a biting commentary on the constraints that sometimes lead to newspapers getting things wrong. —Jamie Byng, Guardian / Gil_reads_"Deadline" (audio)  / Gil Scott-Heron & His Music  Gil Scott Heron Blue Collar  Remember Gil Scott- Heron

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Hopes and Prospects

By Noam Chomsky

In this urgent new book, Noam Chomsky surveys the dangers and prospects of our early twenty-first century. Exploring challenges such as the growing gap between North and South, American exceptionalism (including under President Barack Obama), the fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S.-Israeli assault on Gaza, and the recent financial bailouts, he also sees hope for the future and a way to move forward—in the democratic wave in Latin America and in the global solidarity movements that suggest "real progress toward freedom and justice." Hopes and Prospects is essential reading for anyone who is concerned about the primary challenges still facing the human race. "This is a classic Chomsky work: a bonfire of myths and lies, sophistries and delusions. Noam Chomsky is an enduring inspiration all over the world—to millions, I suspect—for the simple reason that he is a truth-teller on an epic scale. I salute him." —John Pilger

In dissecting the rhetoric and logic of American empire and class domination, at home and abroad, Chomsky continues a longstanding and crucial work of elucidation and activism . . .the writing remains unswervingly rational and principled throughout, and lends bracing impetus to the real alternatives before us.—
Publisher's Weekly

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 17 April 2012




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