Harlem Cultural Festival
Eunice was fascinated by her mother’s perspective of events. Her parents had been in the same place, at the same time but had such different experiences.
“Your father got a gig as a security cadet. He was committed for multiple Harlem festival concert dates, although I only was there for his last one. One of his favorite singers Nina Simone played live. By the next summer we knew we would move south and think about having you!” Martha said.
“When I really think about it, nearly everyone I met during that period in New York, wound up in the papers or on TV, for good or bad reasons. At one time or other I had met Fred Hampton a Chicago Panther leader and Assata Shakur Panther activist,” Martha said.
“Tell me about that. The kids at school love these stories,” Eunice said.
Martha and Angela attended the Festival together, since Curtis was on duty. The lineup included Nina Simone, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight, and Sly and the Family Stone.
The Harlem Cultural Festival stage, was at Mount Morris Park at the north end of Central Park. The estimated 100,000 concert-goers were celebrating youth, culture and black power. It became known as the Black Woodstock.
Due to an adversarial relationship between the cops and the black community, the NYPD refused to provide security. The Black Panthers stepped in with security cadet presence instead.
Martha was increasingly worried for Curtis’ safety. Things had been tumultuous the past five days. There’d been riots, civil unrest and store lootings. It even spilled over to Bedford and Brooklyn, where two black boys were beaten. The city had deployed extra security, of which Curtis was one, everywhere especially the periphery surrounding the crowds attending the festival.
Martha moved her slender self through throngs of picnic blankets covered with people, coolers of liquor and the powerful scent of hotdogs and marijuana. Angela followed, carrying a small picnic basket, for the two of them.
Angela was in town on a break from teaching, to visit her family. She was a professor at UCLA but mostly known as a radical feminist.
“Geez Martha, finding a spot is as scarce as finding a hen’s arsehole! How about here, or we’ll be piddlin’ around all day,” Angela said.
“It’s as good a place as any,” Martha said.
“This is a big deal, way more crowded than I expected. Black politics with real artists is probably why. Instead of a bunch of lawyers and courtrooms. My brother was so jealous when I told him I was coming,” Angela said, helping Martha undo her paisley scarf. Angela’s brother was a well-known football player in Cleveland.
“I’ve got a hankering for a corndog! You want one?” Martha motioned toward a vendor row, along the edge under some trees.
“It’s a little early for yet. I did see a gal over there with authentic barbecue ribs though,” Angela said.
“Gee whiz, you’re Alabama accent is back with a vengeance. I bet they won’t let you back at UCLA now!” Martha said, teasing.
“I can’t help it. When I’m with my folks, especially my brother, I give the Californian a rest. They tease me saying I sound like I’m faking a British accent,” she said.
Martha admired Angela’s balls to the wall attitude about life. She was no shrinking violet. If only women like her ran for government, all social trouble would melt away. Angela was a member of the Communist Party, which was affiliated with the Panthers. She met Curtis first at one of the club meetings two years ago.
Angela once told her when she was a teen, she’d organized mixed race study groups, so folks could intermingle and have a chance to discover they weren’t so different. Be less afraid of what they saw on TV and perhaps less drawn to voluntary segregation, “Of course we were busted by the cops. Not the local police as anticipated but the Alabama state police,” Angela said with a laugh.
“They busted student study groups! How could that be?” Martha asked.
“Oh please Martha, to authorities and FBI types we were all Crips and Bloods, trying to enlist whites!” Angela said.
Angela always had one cause or another on the go. She lived and breathed justice. Martha was curious about her opinion on Jane Jacobs’ and city planning, she’d been volunteering for.
“Look at that one. He’s as high as a kite,” Martha said.
Angela looked over, “Sure looks like he’s having fun!”
“Where’s Chuck? Is he meeting us here?” Martha asked.
“He’ll turn up. Getting agreement from those boys is like herding cats,” Angela said.
The concert was about to begin, judging by the restlessness of the crowd, then the excited cheers.
Nina Simone walked to the piano, waved casually and sat down at the microphone, “Are you ready black people?” Ms. Simone said, “Are you ready? Are you ready, black man, black youth, black woman, black everybody? Are you really, really, really ready?”
“She’s fired up, I can tell,” Angela said.
Martha was giddy being at a show in Harlem, with Angela who knew everyone.
The air in the park was electric. Fittingly the park was later renamed Marcus Garvey who was known for saying maybe we black people should be heading back to Africa. Fuck this America land of the free shit!
[Nina Simone singing] I’m here to tell you about destruction of all the evil, it will have to end. She was militant but inspired pride and unity in the audience. Martha saw similarities in Angela.
Outside of academia, Angela had become a strong supporter of three prison inmates of Soledad Prison.
“I’ve been very interested in how this will play out,” Angela told Martha. “The Soledad brothers are being blackballed into confessions and framed based on color and low income of course. It’s California for god’s sake. I thought we were a more civilized culture. If just one case is treated justly, it could set a precedent for others. At least we’d have a benchmark. It makes me nuts Martha, absolutely mental!” Angela said.
“What’s wrong with asking for a fair trial and unbiased jury?” Martha asked.
“Oh right, because we’ve barely had enough voting years under our belt to warrant a smidgen of equality!” Angela said.
There would be bigger troubles for her. A year later, almost to the day, Angela would be a fugitive having fled California. Accused of supplying arms and being accomplice to kidnapping and murder in the Soledad brothers case.
She would hide at their house on Columbia Street for a few weeks and only moved around at night. FBI agents ended up finding her at a Motor Lodge in New York. The U.S. President would call her the dangerous terrorist, Angela Davis.
She was eventually incarcerated for 16 months which sparked the Free Angela movement. Many politicians and artists supported her.
Eunice found it oddly funny how Martha told stories, about such notable people in such a nonchalant way, “The day I met Stokely Carmichael, leader of a black power nonviolence committee at a coffee house in Greenwich Village. I didn’t even know who he was, until your father and Angela filled me in. I supposed I was quite a good listener and inoffensive so I probably heard, more than I should have. It was great. I felt like an insider! It was New York Eunice, and overlapping movements, made for a small world I guess,” Martha said.
“Didn’t you feel shy around people, who were on TV or wanted by police,” Eunice asked.
“Actually New York helped me lose my self-consciousness, so I wasn’t shy. Well maybe in the beginning but I got used to it. Your father worked peculiar shifts, so I became part the scene. I was old news and folks like Angela didn’t seem to care. I related to women’s issues over and above race issues. I could talk about women’s lib all day. In my mind injustice was injustice so I didn’t doubt myself,” Martha said.
“What was the biggest secret, you knew about before anyone else?” Eunice asked.
“Mmmh, let me think. Oh. Did you know I was around at the time the Black is Beautiful slogan came to be. I bet you didn’t know where it came from,” Martha said.
“Where?” Eunice asked.
“Get Angela to confirm but legend had it Diahann Carroll came up with it when she was secretly dating Frank Sinatra. I am not sure if it’s completely true but I like to think so because of they would have made for a lovely mixed couple,” Martha said.