Yesterday I had the privilege of delivering the commencement speech for Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
Wilson College President Barbara Mistick presents the honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree to A’Lelia Bundles. (Credit: Public Opinion News)
Founded in 1869, Wilson has been a pioneer in women’s education for almost a century and a half. Like many other women’s schools, it faced challenges during the 1970s as more and more colleges and universities went co-ed. But its alumnae and many of its trustees rallied to keep the school open, emerging with innovative new programs in adult education and developing a stellar initiative that embraces mothers with children who live on campus while earning their degrees.
Wilson also is a leader in environmental stewardship and organic agriculture through the work of its Fulton Center for Sustainable Living and is a founding signatory of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment with its pledge to make itself Carbon Neutral by 2040.
My invitation came from Wilson President Barbara Mistick, whom I’d met at a White House women’s event during the Clinton administration and then again some years later in Pittsburgh, where she was president of the Carnegie Library, the city’s large public library system. An entrepreneur and former professor of entrepreneurship and public policy at Carnegie Mellon’s H. J. Heinz School of Public Policy, she is leading a transformation that has included a new science, math and technology center, restoration and expansion of the historic library and a move to coeducation.
Wilson College embraces single parents in an innovative program that allows children to live on campus while parents earn their degrees. (Credit: Public Opinion News)
I was so impressed with all I saw — from the parents who were determined to earn college degrees as a way to set an example for their children to graduates who are headed to law school and to careers in early childhood education, from the Hankey Center and Archives to “Washed Up,” the Alejandro Duran exhibition in the Sue Davidson Cooley Art Gallery.
Here is my commencement speech.
Strategy, Service and Serendipity: Mapping a Life that Matters
GREETINGS Class of 2016!
Thank you so much, President Mistick.
Good morning Trustees, Faculty, Administration. Good morning Marybeth, Katelyn and Mit.
I am honored and humbled to receive this honorary degree from Wilson College.
What a glorious day! And finally! Sunshine! Though I could use some gloves and socks right now.
Congratulations Class of 2016!!!
You made it!!!
Congratulations to all the parents and grandparents. Sisters and brothers. Godparents. Aunts and Uncles. Your love and sacrifice made today’s celebration possible. All those hours in mini-vans. All those diapers. All those snarky, annoying teenage conversations when you refrained from going off because you were the adult. Today is the day when all that feels worth the effort!
Holding on to my hat! The wind was pretty fierce during commencement at Wilson College!
So I read about Sarah Wilson Week! I heard about the Evens and the Odds. The close ties and the friendly rivalries. The song competition that I understand has become more like a shout competition! Class of 2016, you are now officially and forever in the Alumni Society of the Evens! And by the way, I’d love to learn more about the hayride and what goes on at Sarah Wilson’s graveside. I understand there are lots of secrets around that activity!
From the vision of those two Presbyterian ministers in 1869 and the generosity of Sarah Wilson, you now are part of a legacy that has championed women’s education for almost a century and a half. You also are part of an institution that has had the wisdom to evolve by pioneering education for adult learners, by creating a program that embraces single mothers with children and now by welcoming men in full co-education.
Rejuvenation is all around us. The redesigned John Stewart Memorial Library. The beautiful plaza that joins the library with the Arts Building and the Science Center.
As Wilson graduates, you join esteemed alumnae like Attorney Patricia Vail, Class of 1963. A role model for life long learning, she had the confidence to study a new language at 55 and the courage to reinvent herself as an advisor to the Kasakhstan Parliament. She is the personification of a Wilson alumna.
You follow in the footsteps of geneticist Xandra Breakefield, Class of 1964. A professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, she discovered the first marker for the dystonia gene. But what I also love about her story is that she wasn’t afraid to seek the advice of mentors early in her career.
You have the example of Dr. Barbara Tenney, a pediatrician and chairman of Wilson’s board of trustees, who told us last night about her shoestring budget while she was in medical school and how she talked her way into getting free room and board by offering to help her landlord. That kind of persuasiveness is what being a Wilson student means.
Confident. Curious. Smart. Brave. Receptive to new ideas.
Wilson College Commencement in Chambersburg, PA on May 15, 2016 (Credit: Public Opinion News)
Look around you and see the alumni who are here for their 5th and 10th and 25th and 50th reunions. Among them are the women who loved this institution so much they fought back against the forces that wanted to close the doors. Wilson always has believed in second chances and reinvention. The phoenix, after all, is your mascot.
Commencement speeches are when older people stand at a podium and do their best to try to give you the advice they wish someone had given them. Soooooo….When I look out at you and I think about my 22-year old self, I realize I had no clue! And while I know you already know a LOT, may I just suggest that it’s impossible to anticipate all the twists and turns that life will bring. In fact you might pull the covers up over your head and never, ever come out again, if you knew! Though the truth is, many of you already have encountered those punches that life throws. And your presence here today proves that you are resilient.
As I thought about what I would say to you today, I asked myself this question: How REAL am I going to get?!?! Do they really want to know the REAL DEAL?!?! Because it would be very easy to just be that person who gets invited to do the commencement speech because she can color inside the lines. And share a few platitudes. And tell you the road to success is paved with gumdrops and lollipops if you work hard enough.
But as a biographer and a journalist and a woman of a certain age, I realized a long time ago that a life story without flaws and obstacles is not an honest life story. My graduation day – a REALLY long time ago – could not have been more perfect. Not a cloud in the sky. Not a touch of humidity. A great hair day as a matter of fact! As lovely a morning as one could imagine.
My parents – and two family friends who were like mothers to me – had traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts to help me celebrate. I already had a job for the summer as a newscaster at a radio station in my home town in Indiana. I had another job waiting for me in Wilmington, Delaware at the DuPont Company in September. I had just learned that I’d been taken off of the wait list at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and was able to defer, which allowed me to save some money. By living in the dorm, I figured I’d even have enough cash to buy cheap tickets for a Broadway show every now and then. And I had a boyfriend I thought was “the one.” Did I say “perfect?” It could not have been more perfect.
Wilson College Commencement May 15, 2016
That summer back in Indianapolis was magical. My mother had the most amazing garden. Cucumbers and melons and peppers. Delicious fried green tomatoes. Every morning we’d go outside together and pull weeds and see what had grown overnight. And then we’d ride to work together in her fancy, copper Thunderbird. She would drop me off at the radio station and then she would go off to her job. Perfect. Right? Perfect.
But a year and a half later, when I was in graduate school, my mother died. She’d been diagnosed with lung cancer several months earlier. There was chemotherapy and all the horrible side affects that come with that. And the efforts she and my father made to protect my brothers and me from the reality of what was happening. At 23, the idea that my mother might die was beyond comprehension, outside the realm of possibility. But it happened.
And then a few years later, it was clear that the boyfriend was no longer “the one.” Which at the time seemed like a big problem but which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
So life. Life happens.
Well, at least the job was moving along mostly as planned!
But then what!?!?
When Plan A is no longer an option, you need to move on to Plan B. Life goes on and you need a strategy to get you to the next phase. You pick yourself up and you remember that Wilson phoenix!
My first decade after college was about learning and making mistakes. About figuring out how to budget my money. About realizing I had to pay my own dental bills. About balancing work and play.
I took some job assignments I wasn’t all that excited about because I knew that was the drill to get the experience I needed. I moved half way across the country from New York to the NBC News bureau in Houston, Texas…which I did NOT want to do.
But it was another blessing in disguise! And I got lucky. I was embraced by a group of talented people. I was given opportunities to cover stories I never would have had if I’d stayed in New York. And I was mentored by colleagues who were generous enough to invest in my success.
Wilson College Commencement May 15, 2016 in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania
So here was the strategy I learned. Strive to do a great job every single day. Say yes even when you’d rather say no if there’s an opportunity to learn. Raise your hand to do something no one else wants to do. Be a team player. Carry your own weight. Do not let your colleagues down.
The strategy is this: Do whatever job you have at the time with as much enthusiasm as you can. I know it’s hard to be the new kid on the block. It’s tough to have to do the scut work that comes with entry level positions. But I promise you this: If you over-perform on the minor tasks, someone will notice. And the next time that person needs someone to do a major task, he or she will come find you. And when life happens, you will be prepared.
No one can prevent you from the feeling that comes from having your heart broken! No one can really warn you about a boss who is a jerk! You can’t practice how to respond to someone who is condescending and tries to make you feel insignificant. But you do have control over HOW you respond. And like the Wilson phoenix, you can rise above it all and do what you need to do.
Here’s something else I have learned along the way. Whatever success you achieve must have a purpose beyond the paycheck and the promotion.
As I researched the life of my great-great-grandmother, Madam C. J. Walker, I learned that she was said to be the first self-made American woman millionaire. An amazing accomplishment for a woman in the early 20th century before women even had the right to vote. An incredible feat for an African American when Jim Crow laws blocked progress in every aspect of life from housing to education.
But what makes her life especially meaningful to me is that she employed, educated and empowered thousands of women as her sales agents at a time when their most likely job options would have been to be maids and sharecroppers and washerwomen. She helped them become economically independent so they could buy homes and educate their children.
Wilson College Commencement (Credit: Public Opinion)
At her first national convention in 1917 – a year before Mary Kay Ash of Mary Kay Cosmetics was born –she told them their first duty was to humanity. By that she meant that these women who had come from all over the United States and the Caribbean must give back to their communities. She wanted then to make money, but she also wanted them to take on leadership roles and to be activists. She gave prizes not just to the women who had sold the most products that year, but to the women who had contributed the most to charity in their communities.
So I say to you, when a chance to help others presents itself, raise your hand. I know as Wilson alumnae and alumni you will never let your motivation be just about the money. Instead of asking what’s in it for me, ask “What do I have to offer?” and “What can I contribute?”
The Curran Scholars and those of you who built houses with Habitat for Humanity during Alternative Spring Break know exactly what I’m talking about. In my own life, those volunteer opportunities have led to friendships, to leadership opportunities and to the chance to make a difference. The rewards have been beyond measure.
Soooo…have a strategy. Find ways to be of service. And here’s something else I hope you’ll remember today. Always leave the door open for serendipity. Make space for the chance encounter.
Life happens in ways that can knock you off your feet. But life also happens in ways that can bring you immeasurable joy and connect you to your destiny. One of those moments of serendipity for me was having Phyllis Garland as my advisor in graduate school.
At the time she was the only black woman on the faculty at Columbia’s Journalism School. And I was lucky that she had figured out that I had a connection to Madam Walker because my name A’Lelia was the same as Madam Walker’s daughter. She is the one who insisted that I do research about my family at a time when that was the farthest thing from my mind. But the seeds she planted 40 years ago ultimately became my life’s work.
Wilson College President with senior Alexas Ankro (Credit: Hagerstown Herald Mail)
My wish for you is that you find your purpose, that you have successful lives. That you make a contribution. Every generation faces challenges. You have more than your share. Global warming. Income inequality. Tuition debt. To name just a few.
That diploma you now hold in your hand is a passport to expanding your mind and your worldview. As an educated person, you must challenge whatever prejudices and biases you see. Shine a light on bigotry and ignorance. Build bridges rather than walls.
We are counting on you Class of 2016 to rise to the occasion.
My generation needs the ideas you have to offer.
But I also hope there is some wisdom we may offer as well.
As I was preparing for today, I posted a message on my Facebook page and asked friends what advice I should share with you. More than seventy friends offered tips. And given their ages, I think that amounts to a total of at least 4,000 years of collective wisdom
Here are some of the things they wanted you to know:
“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.”
“Be kind and compassionate.”
“If you see someone who lives on the street, buy them sandwiches. Give them clean socks.”
“Love often and deeply.”
“Dispel the myth that someone else will make you happy.”
“Learn how to make the rules because that’s how you change things.”
“Make friends with people you admire so you can learn from them and improve yourself.”
Wilson College Commencement in Chambersburg, PA (May 15, 2016)
To all that they have said, I would like to add some thoughts of my own.
Surround yourself with people who have your best interest at heart. Be mindful of the company you keep. Know who is in your posse.
Learn something new every day. One of my go to sources is NPR. I am inspired by TED Talks. I am moved by Story Corps. When I need a lift, those always do the trick.
Avoid credit card debt. Save something from every paycheck. Even if it’s a few dollars. When you get to be my age, it will make a difference.
Vote. Especially this year. Vote! Study the issues and hold elected officials accountable.
And finally….Don’t be a jerk. Don’t be a bully.
When you come back for your 5th and 10th and 25th and 50th reunions, I hope you will be able to say that you have mentored someone, that you have helped someone, that you have done something to make the society more just and more equal.
Each step along the way, I hope that you have danced and sung. I hope that beautiful flowers have bloomed in your gardens and that you have cooked fabulous meals for your friends and family.
I hope that you have created a circle of friends like the one I am blessed to have.
I hope you have a book club that is as wonderful and stimulating and warm as mine.
Oh, and just so you know, everything has worked out just fine. The 30 years with NBC and ABC were beyond fulfilling. I’m almost finished with my fourth book. The REAL “real one” came along in due time. My mother still pops up in my dreams with advice from time to time. My 89-year old dad is in great shape. And I am grateful beyond measure for the gifts I’ve been given and the opportunities to give back.
This is YOUR commencement. It is a beginning, not an end.
With this piece of paper in your hand, you have proven to yourself that you could complete this leg of the journey. There are many more miles to go.
May the wind always be at your back…and when it isn’t, may you muster the fortitude you need to push on.
Class of 2016! The world is yours!
May you have a strategy. May you be of service. May you have more moments of serendipity than you can count!
Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes and Happy Black History Month 2016!
For my A’Lelia Walker biography, I’m in the midst of simultaneously writing three connected chapters right now focused on late 1925 through 1926 about white novelist and music critic Carl Van Vechten’s entrance into Harlem and how the community above 125th Street begins to pivot from being inward and self-affirming — and comfortable with that — to the insertion of and fascination by the white downtown, Prohibition-era gaze.
There’s a lot more that I’d say if I had more time this evening, but I didn’t want to let Langston’s birthday and the beginning of Black History Month pass without taking the opportunity to forecast some of what I’m discovering about A’Lelia Walker’s relationship with Langston.
I am very, very grateful to Langston Hughes for giving me a biographical profile and interpretation of A’Lelia Walker that has guided me for many years as I have learned about her and researched her life.
Langston’s The Big Sea, Arnold Rampersad’s The Life of Langston Hughes Volume I and Emily Bernard’s Remember Me to Harlem
Here’s what Hughes wrote in his memoir, The Big Sea: “It was a period when local and visiting royalty were not at all uncommon in Harlem. And when the parties of A’Lelia Walker, the Negro heiress, were filled with guests whose names would turn any Nordic social climber green with envy.”
His description of one of the parties she hosted in her 80 Edgecombe Avenue apartment captures the spirit of the era: “A’Lelia Walker was the then great Harlem party giver, although Mrs. Bernia Austin fell but little behind…At her “at homes” Negro poets and Negro number bankers mingled with downtown poets and seat-on-the-stock-exchange racketeers…A’Lelia Walker was a gorgeous dark Amazon…A’Lelia Walker was the joy-goddess of Harlem’s 1920s.”
What he wrote has been critical to me because many authors and scholars have written about her in a quite two-dimensional manner. But Langston knew her, so I am inclined to give more credence to his interpretation.
Langston Hughes’s “The Weary Blues” was published in 1926 after Carl Van Vechten introducer Hughes to Alfred Knopf.
My research of the last decade for my in-progress book, The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, has allowed me to track when they met.
On January 31, 1926 –when A’Lelia Walker couldn’t attend Langston’s book signing at the Shipwreck Inn at 107 Claremont Avenue near Columbia University — she gave mutual friend and author Wallace Thurman two copies of Langston’s new book, The Weary Blues, with a request for him to autograph them for her.
A few days later, Thurman wrote to Hughes: ““Dear Langston. . .Madam Walker was tickled pink over your inscription. She just must meet you, and will try to arrange to do so as soon as you return.”
In late February, Hughes wrote to Van Vechten about an upcoming trip to New York (from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania where he was still a student): “I think I’ll be in New York Friday. Of course, I want to come see you sometime during the weekend, if you’ll let me…and also this trip I am supposed to meet A’Lelia Walker. Last time, she sent two books for me to autograph for her, but I didn’t’ get to see her.”
Between 1926 and 1931, Hughes attended many of A’Lelia Walker’s parties at her Edgecombe Avenue apartment and at The Dark Tower on 136th Street. On March 1, 1930, he sent this postcard to her from Havana, Cuba, a place they both loved. ” Dear A’Lelia — I think you would adore Havana. (Have you been here?) The people are marvelous, bars and dance halls everywhere and a too-bad beach. All the leading artists and writers and actresses are treating me royally.” A’Lelia Walker, indeed, had been to Cuba in 1918.
When A’Lelia Walker died in August 1931, Langston Hughes wrote this poem, which was read at her funeral.
To learn more about A’Lelia Walker, please check out some of these blog articles about her
She was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana on the same planation where her parents Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove had been enslaved. The first child in her family to be born after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, her birth was greeted with much hope and promise. But the Breedlove family’s reality was bleak.
By the time Sarah was seven years old, both parents had died. At ten, she moved across the Mississippi River to Vicksburg, Mississippi with her older sister, Louvenia, and her brother-in-law, Jesse Powell, who was so cruel, she would later say, that she “married at 14 to get a home of my own.” Another blow came with the death of her husband, Moses McWilliams, when she was 20. Now with her two-year old daughter, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia Walker) to raise, she moved up the river to St. Louis, Missouri where her older brothers worked as barbers.
She struggled for the next decade working as a laundress, doing the back-breaking work of washing clothes by hand in tubs and without indoor plumbing. At the end of some weeks, she’d made as little as $1.50, but her dreams for her daughter made her persevere. One day while her hands were buried deep in soap suds, she despaired that life might never get better. But the solution to her problems eventually came when she developed a shampoo and ointment to heal the scalp disease that was causing her to go bald.
Madam Walker died at Villa Lewaro in May 1919.
By the time she died on May 25, 1919 at Villa Lewaro (her mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York), she had founded the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company and become a millionaire, some say the first self-made American woman to attain that level of financial success.
There is much more to her story of course. How she discovered, developed and marketed her “Wonderful Hair Grower.” How she employed thousands of women as Walker sales agents and beauty culturists. How she spoke up to Booker T. Washington at his 1912 National Negro Business League Convention. How she gathered more than 200 women together for one of America’s first national conventions of women entrepreneurs in 1917. Her prominence as a philanthropist and patron of the arts. Her friendships with Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune and James Weldon Johnson among others. Her $1,000 contribution to Indianapolis’s YMCA and $5,000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign. Her activism on behalf of black soldiers, young women and the rights of African Americans.
Her legacy of entrepreneurship and philanthropy still empowers others. She is often mentioned by businesswomen in America and beyond as an inspiration. Her company is discussed and critiqued in a Harvard Business School course. Dozens of students across the nation prepare projects about her every year for National History Day. Countless young girls have dressed up as Madam Walker for Black History Month and Women’s History Month. She is the subject of numerous documentaries, public service announcements and news stories. Several organizations host annual Madam Walker awards luncheons. The Madam Walker Collection of photographs, letters and business records is the most popular collection at the Indiana Historical Society. She was featured on a U. S. postage stamp in 1998. Recently her name was touted as contender for the $20 bill. There are two National Historic Landmarks associated with her life: Villa Lewaro in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York and the Madam Walker Theatre Center in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Here are some of the books in which she has been featured or mentioned in the last couple of years.
Angella M. Nazarian’s Visionary Women (Assouline Publishers)
Cynthia L. Greene’s Entrepreneurship: Ideas in Action (Cengage Learning)
Faith Ringgold’s Harlem Renaissance Party (Amistad)
James J. Madison and Lee Ann Sandweiss’s Hoosiers and the American Story (Indiana Historical Society)
Martin Kilson’s Transformation of the African American Intelligentsia 1880 – 2012 (Harvard University Press)
Diane Radmacher’s Famous Firsts of St. Louis: A Celebration of Facts, Figures, Food & Fun
As we approach the 150th anniversary of her birth, we can say there are more exciting announcements to come in the new year. Stay tuned!
President Obama greets Pope Francis at Andrews AFB.
As President Obama greeted Pope Francis on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base this afternoon, I couldn’t help but think of A’Lelia Walker’s presence in St. Peter’s Square for the coronation of Pope Pius XI in February 1922. In the midst of a five month overseas trip–that included stops in Paris, London, Monte Carlo, Jerusalem, Cairo, Djibouti and Addis Ababa–A’Lelia made her way to Rome for the pageantry and pomp of this singular ceremony.
“St. Peter’s Rome today took on the aspect of a social International Congress of Nations,” reported La Tribuna, a leading Italian daily. Among the group of international notables, the paper included A’Lelia Walker along with former French Prime Minister Leon Bourgeois and former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour.
Coronation of Pope Pius XI in February 1922
Pope Pius XI had been elected on February 6, 1922 after the sudden death of Pope Benedict XV. During the coronation, A’Lelia Walker not only joined the crowds at the Basilica, but apparently was among the few to have received a personal papal blessing.
Pope Pius XI speaks to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square in February 1922
La Tribuna’s description of her seems quite unusual. While it reflects some of the exaggerated exoticism ascribed to people of color during those years between the World Wars, the generally admiring portrait would not have appeared in most major American dailies whose editorial perspectives remained trapped in racial myopia. Italians, who were not as accustomed to seeing people of African descent, allowed themselves to be a bit in awe of a statuesque, brown-skinned women.
Dressed that day in “an expensive Tibetan shawl trimmed with fur” and accompanied by a uniformed assistant and an interpretor, she stood out even in a crowd of cardinals.
A’Lelia Walker (Madam Walker Family Archives)
“Tall and slender, with a majestic figure, the divine manner and graciousness…invested her with the bearing of a young goddess,” the reporter gushed. “Her somewhat sloping cheeks, rather extended nose and dark complexion, would have caused the ancient Greek lyricists to name her ‘an Ethiopian Artemis.’ Rising interest is shown in this young lady by the vast throng of international visitors, and her grace and bearing are the cause of much comment. One cannot help but associate her with the races of the extreme Orient or with the no less notable Aztecs of old Mexico.”
“The black race has truly sent us a charming representative in the person of Mrs. Lelia Walker Wilson of New York,” the reporter continued referring to the surname of her then husband, Dr. Wiley Wilson. “Her ancestors surely not so long ago must have been rulers of the virgin equatorial forests between the Gulf of Guinea and Mozambique. Therefore, it goes without saying, that Mrs. Wilson is assuredly a queen.”
La Tribuna made reference to her work with the hair care company founded by her mother, Madam C. J. Walker, and to her plans to travel to Egypt and Ethiopia, where she would meet Empress Zauditu. She must have felt a bit like Lupita N’yongo did when she saw herself on the cover of October’s Vogue or like Viola Davis at the Oscars on Sunday night. But in 1922, when appreciation for A’Lelia Walker’s brand of beauty was scarce, she had to go to Rome to get the love!
Books by poets Cathy Linh Che, Eugenia Leigh, R. A. Villanueva and Ocean Vuong, who read at the Library of Congress on May 4, 2015.
To be a writer is to live in the world of words. To get a thrill and a chill from a well-turned phrase. To become blissfully lost in the scenes and emotions other writers create. To be startled into a reality you had not yet considered.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a poetry reading and panel featuring some of today’s most notable Asian American poets: Cathy Linh Che, Eugenia Leigh, R. A. Villanueva and Ocean Vuong. I was there on behalf of Poets & Writers, an organization for which I serve on an advisory committee and one of the event’s hosts. (www.pw.org).
The words of these writers were powerful, raw, tender, emotional and rooted in family, love, war and culture across the Asian diaspora from Korea to Vietnam to the Phillipines and then to America. After their individual presentations, they talked about “Asian American Literature Today” on a panel moderated by Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis, founding director of The Asian American Literary Review. In addition to being blown away by their words, I was moved that they all had agreed to bear witness to the struggles in Baltimore and across America and to express solidarity with those struggles.
“Asian American Literature Today” panel moderated by Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis with (l-r) Eugenia Leigh, Cathy Linh Che, R. A. Villanueva and Ocean Vuong at the Library of Congress on May 4, 2015.
Ocean Vuong, a 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellow, addressed the particularity of being an Asian American poet: “We arrive at this art through great loss. Loss of land, of art, of language…We are carrying on the continuation of a lineage, not only of Asia but the lineage of storytelling.”
“That’s the gift: to create another world. One world is not enough.”
Eugenia Leigh, Cathy Minh Che and R. A. Villanueva at the LOC.
When asked about the relationship between poetry and politics, especially in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s murder, R. A. Villanueva, founding editor of Tongue: A Journal of Writing and Art, replied: “When you write poems inside a moment, you try to give tribute to that moment. Everything we write is political. Everything we read is political.”
“When you write, you are always including and excluding. You reckon with what is in front of you. We write poems that bear witness.”
“We’re writing the poems that we need to write to build a bridge with others whose histories are as fraught as ours.”
Yes, for me it was a blessing to be introduced to these voices.
Discreetly poured cocktails under the pavilion of George Walls’s Texas Avenue bathhouse made Atlantic City one of A’Lelia Walker’s favorite getaways. Sunrise on Indiana Avenue beach lured her back every year. During the annual Easter parade, when families in springtime finery jammed shoulder-to-shoulder along the seven-mile Boardwalk, A’Lelia and her friends arrived draped in furs and diamonds for their own quite fashionable festivities. Wherever else they vacationed during the intervening summer months—whether Martha’s Vineyard, Saratoga Springs or Long Branch—they returned to Atlantic City’s predominantly black Northside for Labor Day concerts, dances and camaraderie. Like everyone else, they came for chewy pastel chunks of saltwater taffy and breezy rides in wicker rolling chairs. Like everyone else, they savored ocean air and the gentle rush of waves around their ankles, collecting seashells and memories as they strolled barefoot in the sand.
Those Americans without the finances and social status to summer in the mansions and on the yachts of Newport began flocking to Atlantic City, especially after 1882 when Colonel George Howard built an elevated oceanfront entertainment pier the length of two football fields. By the early 1900s, it had become the nation’s largest and most affordable resort, valued as much for its vices as its virtues. Catering to the needs of hundreds of thousands of white tourists were thousands of black waiters, waitresses, maids, bellmen, elevator operators and valets—more than nine out of ten of all hotel employees, in fact. Catering to their needs were black inn keepers, undertakers, seamstresses, café owners, preachers and physicians, who—with their families—comprised a quarter of the city’s total population after the summer crowd had left.
Having missed her usual springtime trip, A’Lelia was especially eager to be back on the Boardwalk in September 1924 after the stroke she’d suffered while in Los Angeles that April.
“Everyone is glad to see Mrs. A’Lelia Walker look so well again,” Pittsburgh Courier society columnist Eve Lynn Crawford reported after she’d been seen about town at several parties.
A’Lelia Walker with Al Moore, a Harlem Renaissance era dancer (aka Moiret, who was Fredi Washington’s on stage partner) in front of the Brighton Hotel in Atlantic City. (aleliabundles.com/MadamWalkerFamilyArchive)
She always stopped by to visit Laconia and Benjamin Fitzgerald, whose Fitzgerald’s Auditorium*—with its soda fountain, billiard room and 1,000 seat hall—was booked every night during that last week of August. “In no other place in Atlantic City, open to the free and unquestionable accommodation of our people, can one find a menu more inviting,” boasted Ben Fitzgerald about his chef’s selection of wild game, live lobster and soft shell crab. Those in the know made their way to the back room for poker and black jack.
At the annual balls hosted by the Philontas Club and the Bachelors Benedict, smartly dressed couples from Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York and Boston were still getting the hang of The Charleston steps made popular that year in Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles’s Runnin’ Wild. Harlem’s Happy Rhone and his sixteen-piece De Luxe Orchestra made their Atlantic City debut that season before an overflow crowd at Waltz Dream Academy. The Soap Box Minstrels, a group of 23 harmonizing Philadelphia friends, remained a perennial favorite. A few blocks away the Arctic Avenue YMCA benefit jumped with “Red Hot Mamma,” “Hard-Hearted Hannah” and George Stamper’s Broadway dance routines.
Philadelphia’s Soap Box Minstrels, a perennial favorite for black audiences in Atlantic City, in August 1922 (Historical Society of Pennsylanvania)
Unwelcome at the Marlborough-Blenheim, the Traymore and the Shelburne, black tourists found refuge, rooms and meals at Eveleigh Cottage, Wright’s Hotel and the Hotel Ridley, where Maggie Ridley’s buttery hot dinner rolls were legendary.
Atlantic City Boardwalk 1920s (Thomas Topham Collection)
The long weekend was “a riot of excitement and fun and life,” Crawford reported. “Everyone from everywhere seems to be down by the seaside, relaxing, playing and forgetting that there is such a thing as worry in all the world.”
[This post is an excerpt from the forthcoming biography, The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, by A’Lelia Bundles.]
Geraldyn Dismond — later well-known as Gerri Major in her role as editor of Jet’s “Society World” — wrote this about Easter Weekend 1927 in her Pittsburgh Courier “New York Society” column:
“It is a tradition throughout the East that the proper place to make the transition from prayer and fasting to the frivolities of Spring is Atlantic City. True, the last week in August brings the largest crowds, the far distant visitors and the wildest extravagances, but at Easter the ultra-fashionable of the East gather to get the first whiff of salt air and pines, to take the early ocean dip, and the thrilling horseback ride on the sands. The natives who have spent the winter season between New York, Philadelphia and Washington open their white homes of many windows and porches and settle down to the serious business of being hosts and hostesses for the World’s Playground.”
“The season opened with the popular game of basketball Thursday night at Waltz Dream where Atlantic City’s two favorite teams, the Vandals and Buccaneers, fought for the South Jersey title. Three hundred fans watched the fast Vandals defeat the hardy Buccaneers to the tune of 37 to 17. It goes without saying that dancing followed.”
“The beautiful Mrs. Laconia Fitzgerald, whose hospitality is a by-word throughout the East, had as her guests Miss A’Lelia Walker, Mrs. Grace Lezama and Algernon Roane of New York, who motored in Saturday in Miss Walker’s Lincoln.”
1926 Video found on YouTube.
Here are links to more excerpts and updates on The Joy Goddess of Harlem, the forthcoming and first major biography of A’Lelia Walker, daughter of entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker.
*Fitzgerald’s Auditorium was purchased in 1935, five years after Benjamin Fitzgerald’s death, by Leroy “Pop” Williams and his son Cliff Williams, who re-opened it as Club Harlem, the night spot that dominated the Kentucky Avenue entertainment scene for three more decades.