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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington

`World' of difference - WGBH salutes pioneering African-American artists' legacies

Boston Herald, February 1, 1999

Elisabeth Peres-Luna, creator of National Public Radio's now-departed "Crossroads," enforced a strict rule for contributors to her multicultural show: No stories about dubious pseudo-pioneers just because they happen to be people of color.

Or, as she bluntly put it more than once, "I don't want any stories about the first black person to eat a hoagie."

Upholding that standard is the latest public television offering from Boston-based Blackside Inc., "I'll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts," a six-part series beginning tonight at 9 on WGBH (Ch. 2).

Which is to say that the black pioneers of song, word and image presented in the series really were firsts of significant note.

"In some cases, we are saying that they were the first. But what these people did was establish a legacy," producer Sam Pollard said of the series' profiles of artists ranging from such performers as Bert Williams, Raven Wilkinson and Paul Robeson to painter Benny Andrews and writers James Baldwin and Alice Walker.

Take jazz-near-inventor Kid Ory, or blues lady Bessie Smith, both profiled to the recurring theme that nobody had ever heard music like theirs before.

"(The blues) projected black women in the popular culture in a way they had never been projected before," cultural critic Gerald Early explains onscreen. "This was really quite revolutionary to have these women out there singing as frankly as they did about sex relationships and men and so forth."

Likewise, said Pollard, Louis Armstrong's staccato-yet-melodic- single-breath opening strain of "West End Blues" was at least as much a musical revolution as the "Dee-dee-dee dum" brought forth by a German deaf man a little more of a century before.

"What Louis Armstrong was able to do with that opening was to bring his own musical intellect of playing on that European musical instrument and give it personality and speak through that instrument," Pollard said. "That's a phenomenal first. And what he did gave us Wynton Marsalis 80 years later."

While the film chronicles those lineages, it does not purport African-American art to be a simple continuum of one inevitable event leading to another.

There is, in fact, great conflict, as seen in the inner turmoil of pioneers such as Bert Williams: On the one hand, the creator of the first all-black Broadway musical, and, on the other, its blackface- wearing star.

Guiding us through that dichotomy is Ben Vereen, who himself experienced simultaneous adulation and condemnation from the black community in his blackface tribute to Williams at the inauguration of President Reagan.

"He caught hell for that," said Pollard, who includes both Williams footage and Vereen's re-creation in the program.

"First of all, he was doing it for the Republicans, and second, he really didn't give it any context. When we got the archival footage (of the inauguration), I thought to myself, `He's doing Al Jolson.' But then you learn about it and you realize that Al Jolson was doing Bert Williams," Pollard said.

That conflict also fueled literature, as activists such as W.E.B. DuBois applauded the protest novels of Richard Wright as a means to political change, yet discouraged, if not just plain dissed, the more lyrical, art-for-art's-sake prose of artists such as Jessie Fauset - DuBois' own literary editor at the NAACP Crises magazine.

But out of conflict comes strength, said Pollard. "It enables the audience to see how far African-American artists have come, and how complicated the struggle is," he said.

Vanessa Williams narrates. The late Henry Hampton of Blackside - a towering force in documentary film - is executive producer.

He was, you'll recall, another true first.

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