book review

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Black Magic is a pictorial history of the African American in the Performing Arts by Langston Hughes and Milton Meltzer. I stumbled across this book in the used book section of a library in Las Vegas. As I read it, I am reminded of how much of my history I don’t know. Langston Hughes, poet laureate has been called “the recording secretary of the tribe by some because throughout his life whether in poems, story and essays he transcribed black life. It is a gem.

Black Magic is filled with photos of African Americans who created, inspired, transformed much of the foundation of American culture. The book carries its readers from the 1790’s up to 1966. Beginning with the days of slavery when Africans, being denied the ability to express themselves, found ways to keep alive their culture despite the harsh conditions of the time.

It contains a wealth of information including photographs, posters, drawings, paintings and covers of sheet music of songs written by enslaved black folk as they expressed themselves through music, song, dance and folktales. It highlights exploitation in all areas of the performing arts. Yet and still African Americans broke through those barriers to make a positive and lasting impact on American culture. A small sample is listed below.

  • Songs by James Bland written before the Civil War,
  • Musician Blind Tom who made his master a fortune
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe based her character Uncle Tom in her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin on Rev Josiah Henson.
  • In 1896 Burt Williams and George Walker introduced the Cakewalk to vaudeville
  • Fiddler Solomon Northup, whose memoir Twelve Years A Slave was turned into a major motion picture over a hundred years after it was published.
  • William Grant Stills, first Negro composer in the U.S. to conduct a major symphony orchestra.
  • Bricktop who opened a nightclub in Paris and whose guests included Cole Porter
  • A year after giving a concert at Buckingham Palace before King George V, Roland Hayes became the first Negro to give a concert in Carnegie Hall in 1923.
  • In 1939, Marian Anderson, when denied the opportunity to sing at Constitution Hall, was invited by the government to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 75,000 people.
  • In the 1950’s musician and composer Margaret Bonds had the most music registered with ASCAP
  • In the 1960’s plays written by a number of Black playwrights were performed on and off Broadway – James Baldwin, (The Amen Corner); Lorraine Hansberry, (A Raisin in the Sun); and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) (The Dutchman, The Toilet).
  • Entertainers like Pearl Bailey, and Ethel Waters, made their mark on stage, screen and television.

Ossie Davis who wrote the forward in 1990 reflects on his sense of pride he felt reading the book, “remembering and looking at the pictures, living my very small part.” Nonetheless, his sense of pride is tinged with sadness knowing that many of those artists suffered under the weight of prejudice and discrimination. Still he says, “It’s a wonderful work, a “good read…” “Black Magic is still lifting the human spirit.”

Today,  we have come far in all aspects of entertainment. A few examples come to mind. In the 1980’s comedy/drama TV “Frank’s Place” in which Frances played Miss Marie, waitress emeritus. Today, “Scandal,” “How To Get Away with Murder,” and “Empire,” three popular TV dramas are headed by African American Actors. Academy Award Oscar winners Denzel Washington, Training Day, and Glory, Cuba Gooding and Jamie Fox “Ray.” Plays by playwright August Wilson, example, “Fences,” “The Piano Lesson.” Broadway plays staring all black casts ex. – Dreamgirls; Grammy winners such as musicians, Herbie Hancock, and Quincy Jones; Singer Beyonce, “Selma” Director Ava DuVernay, Actors Viola Davis “The Help.” There are just too many to name. If someone were to publish a new Black Magic today, it would have to include these and many more names.  As it is, this Black Magic is a gold mine.