A Moment of Profound Clarity

nelson hancockGiven my interest in history, pop culture, racial ideology, and the crossroads where these subjects intersect, it is embarrassing that it took me this long to see something that was right in front of my face. For many years, I have loved the song “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” It was not until last night, however, while listening to one of the many versions of this song, that it occurred to me that while the song was not specifically written about him or for him, it is essentially about my great great grandfather, Nelson Hancock (picture above).

“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” is an old Negro spiritual, dating back to the 1800s. Many different versions have been performed and recorded, by so many artists, in so many musical styles, that some people don’t know the history of the song, or its real meaning. The song is about slavery, and how families were often divided when either the child or the mother was sold to another plantation. It is crucial to understand that the song is specifically about being separated from the mother, and not from the father. Quite often, the father of slave children was also their owner. Slavery in the United States had a series of laws in place, including one that proclaimed the status of the mother determined the status of the child. This meant that all children born of mothers who were slaves, were slaves themselves. It is important to note that the United States was the first slave-owning nation to adopt this law (in centuries past, in other nations, the status of the father determined the status of the child). It is also important to understand that this law led to the rape of millions of black women by their owners (white men), who used the law to maintain an inventory of slaves.

My great great grandfather Nelson was the son of a slave mother named Lelia Moore, and her owner, John Douglas Hancock. Nelson was born in 1855, and some time before he turned five, Lelia was sold to another plantation (she was between the ages of 18 and 20). Nelson never saw his mother again, nor did he know what ever happened to her. He grew up in slavery, a motherless child, until the Emancipation Proclamation, when he was about ten years old. This song is as much about him as it is all the others, born into slavery, separated from their mothers and families, living in a country where their humanity was denied, and their existence was as nothing more than property.

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Emerald City Comic Con 2016

ecccI will be in Seattle for the Emerald City Comic Con, April 7-10, 2016. You can find me in Artist Alley, at table K7, hanging with Sanford Greene. My scheduled times at the table will be:
Thursday, 12:00pm-3:00pm, 4:30pm-7:00pm
Friday, 10:00am-1:30pm, 3:00pm-7:00pm
Saturday, 10:00am-12:00pm, 3:00-5:00pm, 6:30pm-7:00pm
Sunday, 10:00am-3:30pm
You can also catch me at the several panels and signings.
3:15-4:15 – Panels and Pedagogy: Teaching Comics. Room T302
1:45-2:45 – Marvel: Breaking Into Comics the Marvel Way. Room T304
12:30-1:30 – Marvel: The Next Big Thing. Room T304
2:00-2:45 – Signing at the Dark Horse booth (for a Top Secret Project)
5:15-6:15 – The Future is Now: Better Comics Through Diversity. Room T305
3:45-4:45 – Running Your Career Like a Business. Room T301

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C2E2 – March 18-20

c2e2 scheduleI will be in Chicago for C2E2 this weekend. You can find me in Artist Alley at Table G12
Here is my schedule of panels and signings:
Friday March 18th
PANEL: Breaking Into Comics the Marvel Way – 1:30 – 2:30 PM
Saturday March 19th
Signing at the Marvel Booth – 2:00PM – 2:45PM
PANEL: Comics, American Culture & the Black Male Image – 5:30 PM – 6:30 PM
Sunday, March 20th
Signing at the Marvel Booth – 12:00PM – 12:45PM
PANEL: All–New All–Different Marvel – 2:45 PM – 3:45 PM

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Lessons in Black History – Ousamane Sembène

SembèneOusamane Sembène – Born in Senegal in 1923, Ousamane Sembene grew up in a blue collar environment, working a variety of manual labor jobs. In 1947 he made his way to France, became involved in the labor union movement, joined the Communist Party, and was introduced to the works of writer like Claude McKay. Inspired by his experiences, Sembène wrote his first novel in 1956. Le Docker Noir (The Black Docker) was the first of nine books written by Sembène, who would go on to be regarded as on the greatest authors from Africa. His books often dealt with issues regarding colonialism, racism and the plight of the working man, but were seldom translated in other languages. Sembène understood that his books would have trouble reaching the immigrant, working class and disenfranchised audience of which he wrote, prompting him to explore film. In 1963, at the age of 40, Sembène made his first film, the short Barrom Sarret. He would make nine more films over the course of the next forty years, and go on to become considered the “Father of African Cinema.” His 1987 film Camp de Thiaroye, a brilliant look at colonialism based on a tragedy involving African soldiers during World War II, remains one of the best, most powerful films I’ve ever seen. Ousamane Sembène passed away in 2007 at the age of 84, but not before leaving behind a rich legacy of literature and film.

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Lessons in Black History – KEN GAMPU

ken gampuKen Gampu—Born in South Africa in 1929, actor Ken Gampu rose to prominence during the height of apartheid, and helped pave the way not only for black actors in South Africa, but the entire content as well. Gampu is probably best remembered by American audiences for his role as the president in The Gods Must Be Crazy or the tribal leader in The Naked Prey. He never got much of a chance to play lead roles, but frequently turned up as the bad guy in a lot of African-lensed films, and he was one of the only black actors to get any kind of fame during the oppressive apartheid era of South Africa, when segregation was still legal. Despite the critical praise he received for both his stage work in plays like No Good Friday or films like Dingaka, which brought him international recognition, Gampu was still a victim of the racist government of his homeland. At the same time, he was an inspiration who served as a symbol of hope that blacks in South Africa could break free of the oppressive system that held them down. In 1975 Gampu made history when he was granted special permission by the government to share the stage with white actors in the play Of Mice and Men. “For the first time the black man was on an equal footing with the white man, and you know, the heavens didn’t fall,” said Gampu during an interview, looking back on something that meant everything and nothing at the same time.

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Lessons in Black History – JOSEPH NAZEL

black fury smallJoseph Nazel—Most people have never heard of writer Joseph Nazel, but those who have can’t help but impressed with his pedigree. Born in 1944, Nazel was a combat veteran of the Vietnam War who went on to become a prolific writer and chronicler of the black experience in America. He worked as an editor for a variety of black publications, including the Watts Times and Players magazine. But Nazel is best remembered for his books, of which there were at least sixty. Writing under his own name as well as pseudonyms, Nazel wrote in every genre. Most of his books were published by Holloway House, the company best known for cranking out urban street literature from legendary writers like Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines. Nazel wrote a series of biographies profiling pretty much every black celebrity, politician and athlete you can think of. We also wrote a ton of hard-boiled crime fiction, including his Iceman series, novelizations of movies like Black Gestapo and Foxtrap, and even a book called The Black Exorcist. Nazel is said to have been capable of writing an entire novel in six weeks. Despite his prolific body of work, Nazel’s books are difficult to find, and there is very little information to be found about him. He passed away in 2006.

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Lessons in Black History – YORK

yorkYORK – The Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the western territories of the United States is a part of history most children learn in school, including the participation of Sacajawea. But most kids never learn about York, a slave owned by William Clark, who was a valuable member of the expedition—and even saved his master’s life at one point. During the two-year adventure, York was afforded the same rights and freedoms as the other members of the party, and his contributions are recorded in the expedition journals. Some historical accounts claim that Clark promised to set his slave free at the end of their journey. Clark never made good on his promise, and after the expedition York was once again treated as property, and a second class citizen. He was kept from his wife, a slave owned by another man. After enjoying freedom during the expedition, York did not take well to being a slave again, and Clark resorted to beating his slave for being “insolent and sulky.” There is no official record of York’s ultimate fate. Some believe he escaped to freedom, others believe Clark finally set him free, and others believe he died a slave.

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Lessons in Black History – The Tuskegee Experiment

tuskegee_experimentThe Tuskegee Experiment – In 1932 the U.S. Public Health service began conducting a study on the effects of syphilis that was conducted through the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. The study involved 399 poor black sharecroppers who unknowingly had syphilis, and 201 black men who did not. The men were not told that they had syphilis, only that they had “bad blood,” a term used to describe any number of health problems in rural Alabama. As compensation, the men were given free meals, free medical exams and burial insurance, but they were never told that they had the disease, nor were they given any form of treatment, even after the discovery that penicillin could cure the disease in 1947. The Tuskegee Experiment lasted until 1972. Only 74 of the original test subjects were alive in 1972. During the course of the experiment, 28 of the men died as a direct result of the syphilis, another 100 died of complications related to the disease, and 40 wives of the test subjects contracted the disease. And if that’s not bad enough, 19 children where born with congenital syphilis. In 1997, President Bill Clinton offered a formal apology on behalf of the last eight survivors of the Tuskegee Experiment, publicly saying, “To our African American citizens, I am sorry that your federal government orchestrated a study so clearly racist.”

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Lessons in Black History – LORENZO TUCKER

lorenzoLorenzo Tucker—Often billed as the “Black Valentino,” actor Lorenzo Tucker became a major star in the race films of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. He worked most frequently with prolific director Oscar Micheaux, who used Tucker in eighteen of the thirty-six films he made. Micheaux is often credited with coming up with the Black Valentino moniker, which Tucker found amusing, as he felt his complexion was actually lighter than that of legendary silent film star Rudolph Valentino. In addition to his work on the screen, Tucker was a respected stage actor, and appeared in the Broadway production of The Constant Sinner, where he played a pimp opposite white actress Mae West. The play included a scene where Tucker and West kiss, which caused much controversy. In some cities the scene had to be cut, while some theaters would not even allow Tucker to share the stage with West. Tucker retired from acting in the 1950s, and would go on to become an autopsy technician at the medical examiner’s office in New York City, where he worked on the bodies of Nina Mae McKinney (who he co-starred with in Straight to Heaven) and Malcolm X.

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Lessons in Black History – LaWANDA PAGE

lawandaLaWanda Page – Born Alberta Pearl and best known as Aunt Esther on television’s Sanford and Son, LaWanda Page was a professional comedian and performer known by many for her foul-mouthed stage routine. Growing up in St. Louis, she was childhood friends with Redd Foxx, who’s show Sanford and Son would make her a television star. Foxx had insisted that Page co-star on the show as his Bible-thumping sister-in-law, despite producers who didn’t want to use her. But before TV, Page honed her comedic talent on the comedy/burlesque circuit. Known as the “Bronze Goddess of Fire,” she was known for her fire-eating act and a trick that involved lighting a cigarette with her fingertips. She recorded several comedy albums during the 1960s and 70s, including Mutha Is Half a Word. Page continued to perform live throughout the 1990, and appeared in several films, including Friday and Shakes the Clown, which included a line she often used in her stand-up routine: “I got one of them peanut butter pussys: it’s brown, smooth and easy to spread.”

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