‘Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme’ ~ NET All About Books

Dreamgirl

At St. Martin de Porres, my elementary catholic school in Columbia, South Carolina, the playground served as a venue for a myriad of activities. Tucked into the corner, away from the noise of the playground, is an assembly of girls. With the right foot forward, one hand on the hip and the other stretched out in front of them, they demanded that somebody stop in the name of love. All the while in another little corner is a group singing about love and an unreachable scratch that keeps itchin’ the heart! as hips swing and heads bob, the nuns glide silently by. Lip-synching was the one activity they did not interrupt or keep in check. Their silence seemingly was a sign that they understood the itchin’ of the heart and heartbreak. I imagine now that perhaps in the quietness of their hours, they secretly watched The Supremes on Hullaballoo, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Red Skelton Show, Mike Douglas, or The Tonight Show, pledging to say 10 Hail Marys and Our Fathers afterwards. Whatever, the reason, The Supremes and their music captivated everyone, after all it was the 1960s.

Florence Ballard, Diana Ross, and Mary Wilson having some backstage fun.

Florence Ballard, Diana Ross, and Mary Wilson having some backstage fun.

In the 1970s, word spread about an impending break-up of The Supremes and Ross’s alleged ruthless campaign to become the lead singer of the sterling group before that. Soon, that group would be introduced as Diana Ross and The Supremes. Fast forward to 1986. Mary Wilson’s autobiography Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme hit bookstores, and, needless to say, I ate up every printed word like a bear coming out of hibernation. Wilson does not hold back in her writing about the alleged affair between Diana Ross and Motown Mogul Berry Gordy. Gossip about the House of Motown plays itself out within the text in every sordid detail along with stories of jealousies, and apparent career sabotage. Oh it was a joy!

The Supremes

The Supremes

Mary Wilson’s story of three Black teenagers from the Brewster Projects in Detroit, Michigan gave me an up-close-and-personal relationship with three Supreme women who exemplified ladyhood, fashion, and, most important, talent! Each young woman had a body type every teenager could identify with to boot. I leaned towards Diana Ross because she, like I, was no wider than a no.2 pencil. My sister loved Florence Ballard because she was voluptuous; and Mary Wilson was in between!

Mary Wilson

Mary Wilson

A closer look at Dreamgirl, however, revealed a curious twist. Carefully interwoven in Wilson’s autobiography are two threads of mini-biographies of the original Supremes: Diana Ross and the late Florence Ballard, and it is Ballard’s mini-bio that distressed me the most. To read how Ballard tried her best make The Supremes an equal partnership and that of her efforts were undermined by Gordy and Ross brought home for me that entertainers really have little, if any, control over their artistic expression. I still idolize The Supremes, but when I hear or read Diana Ross and The Supremes, I feel sorrow because Wilson’s autobiography makes known the back-handed truth behind that name change. The story also scared me since here were two best friends—Mary and Flo—who, after a talent contest decided to go for that Star together; but when Diane Ross entered the picture—to read Wilson tell it–that dream became compromised when Ross and Gordy align themselves with each other. Oh, the intense personal pain and suffering Mary and Flo experienced.

dancing

When I began to include autobiographies of celebrities in my book Dancing on the White Page: Black Women Entertainers Writing Autobiography, Mary Wilson’s Dreamgirl was at the top of that list. This autobiography, for sure, removed the scales from my eyes about entertainers and made me more knowledgeable about the entertainment corporate structure and the moguls who run it. What’s more, Dreamgirl outlined a history of Motown, Hitsville, USA—a house that just about every African American girl and teenager dreamed of entering one day! Looking back as an adult, I see that Wilson’s Dreamgirl was a caution: some houses are dysfunctional even though they appear to be healthy and normal.

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Listen to my commentary on NET All About Books http://netnebraska.org/interactive-multimedia/radio/all-about-books-kwakiutl-dreher-rethinking-music-your-past

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Devil in a Blue Dress ~ NET All About Books

Devil_in_a_Blue_Dress_(Walter_Mosley_novel)

Elementary school was where I first learned of Florida and California; the two places where the sun showed her face practically every day of the year. Oh, how I longed to be in a place where winter had no place to hang around. When I read in a magazine that all of the beautiful stars and celebrities lived Los Angeles, California, Florida became a blur. Fast forward to 1996, when the scholarship came by way of the University of California-Riverside, I quit my well-paying job, packed my bags, and headed west to begin my graduate studies. I lived in Riverside, only an hour away from Los Angeles — well … that drive depended on which stretch of the freeway you travelled and … well … what time you left to travel on that freeway. In any event, the city of my dreams, Los Angeles, California was just around the corner.

Los Angeles is everything it markets itself to be, and the sprawling city showed off its pretty people, palm trees, beaches, Rodeo Drive, the film studios, and all of the usual suspects of sights and monuments peculiar to that city. It wasn’t until I read Devil in a Blue Dress by murder mystery writer Walter Mosley, however, that Los Angeles began to have a deeper broader meaning for me in terms of the history of African Americans and migration. Not just Los Angeles, but Watts, South Central, and Central Avenue—the Black Los Angeles. These are the places that housed Black Hollywood. Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone with the Wind in 1940; also entertainer Dorothy Dandridge, the first African American to be nominated for Best Actress in 1954, for her portrayal of Carmen Jones in the film of the same name. Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, the Nicholas Brothers, tap dancers extraordinaire, and Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, better known by his stage name Stepin’ Fetchit graced the sidewalks of Black Los Angeles as well.

Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley

This is the world Mosley’s main character Easy Rawlins lived, and African Americans who migrated from the south to California during the great migration of the 1930s and 40s were his neighbors. Prior to Devil in a Blue Dress, my knowledge of this great migration largely centered to the migration of African Americans from the agrarian south to the industrial north. Several 20th Century African American fiction writers created stories around this social current, and uncovered the raucous and chaotic world of the concrete jungles of Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Kansas City, and Harlem, New York, long considered to be the Black Manhattan, to name a few. Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay, for example, explored the day-to-day life of African Americans who migrated to Harlem, New York in his novel Home to Harlem; Richard Wright drew upon the plight of the family of Bigger Thomas on the south side of Chicago in his critically acclaimed novel Native Son; and, Ann Petry, in her novel The Street delved into the life of Lutie Johnson, a single mother trying to make her way through the streets of Harlem in a world dominated by men. In her novel, Jazz, Toni Morrison continues this trend when she sets her novel Jazz in the jazz scene of Harlem, taking us into the lives of families who migrated from the south.

Los Angeles

Los Angeles

Walter Mosley illuminated for me the migration of African Americans from the south to the west. In Devil in a Blue Dress Mosley brings to relief the nuances of old Los Angeles and all of its beauty and dangers wrapped up in love and murder and dirty politics, and most interesting the issue of passing for white during a time when the country segregated by law its population. Devil in a Blue Dress is the first installment of the Easy Rawlins series. Easy, a native of Houston, Texas, moves to Watts after his service in World War II, and discovers racism on home shores still prevails as he is laid off from his job from an aircraft factory for no reason. He is hard-pressed to find employment, until his friend Joppy, a boxer during World War II refers him to DeWitt Albright, a shady white private detective who employs Easy to find a young woman by the name of Daphne Monet or the Devil in the Blue Dress.

Hattie McDaniel

Hattie McDaniel

Now, I want to pause here to make mention to something else the novel did for me: Devil in a Blue Dress facilitated my understanding of what house and home and the caretaking of them meant to my parents. Easy decides to take the job offer from DeWitt Albright because he needs the money to pay the mortgage on his house, and his house serves as his sanctuary from a hard and cruel world.

Home ownership! That I understood all too well! When I told my mother that I had put down a deposit on an apartment when I landed a good paying job, she squinted her eyes and then unleashed her story of she and dad worked hard to purchase a home. It was the 1940s—the time of Mosley’s story. Fresh out of high school, dad had earned his certificate as a brick mason, and he immediately helped one of his buddies launch a very lucrative construction business. After he and mom married, mom would travel with him to different parts of the country when he received a contract to work with other construction companies. When they returned home to South Carolina, they immediately purchased a home. “We were not going to rent! No. Never!” she exclaimed. I stood there dumbfounded, and my pride was hurt but she didn’t care. She continued on, “I wanted a house—not a wood house—but one made of brick with a front porch and lots of rooms so the children could run around freely! Paying rent? Pshaw! It’s like giving money away, and for what?”

Dorothy Dandridge

Dorothy Dandridge

Easy Rawlins would have agreed with my mother, and in one patch of dialogue from Devil in a Blue Dress, my mother’s voice resounded through my mind as well as visions of my father’s own sense of home maintenance: Easy ruminates on his home after he takes the job offer from DeWitt Albright. He says,

“I drove back to my house thinking about money and how much I needed to have some. I loved going home. Maybe it was that I was raised on a sharecropper’s farm or that I never owned anything until I bought that house, but I loved my little home. There was an apple tree and an avocado in the front yard, surrounded by thick St. Augustine grass. At the side of the house I had a pomegranate tree that bore than thirty fruit every season and a banana tree that never produced a thing. There were dahlias and wild roses in beds around the fence and African Violets that I kept in a big jar on the front porch.

Easy continues to rhapsodize about his humble abode, he says,

“The house itself was small. Just a living room, a bedroom, and a kitchen. The bathroom didn’t even have a shower and the back yard was no larger than a child’s rubber pool. But that house meant more to me than any woman I ever knew. I loved her and I was jealous of her and if the bank sent the county marshal to take her from me I might have come at him with a rifle rather than to give her up.”

Pride in the home. I knew that all too well. My father felt he had made well on his duty as a husband and a father with the purchase of that house, and he intended to make sure she was presentable to those who saw her. At dusk, Dad changed into his casual clothes to water the azaleas he and mom planted in the front yard; the evergreens mom planted in the backyard; and the zinnias with which she lined the sides of the driveway. “You never water plants when the sun is up; otherwise the sun will suck up the water. Plants need water at dusk so their roots can soak up the water and be fed to grow.”

Yes, Devil in a Blue Dress gave me greater understanding if not a reverence for a nimiety of histories and images. Though alluded to in the novel, Black Hollywood was alive and well in Mosley’s setting in the bustling Central Avenue of the 1940s and 1950s. Central Avenue was the hub of Los Angeles Black Culture, and Black celebrities contributed to the vitality and joie de vivre of that place. And though Mosley moves Easy Rawlins through the multi-ethnic neighborhoods of Los Angeles, south Central, Watts, and the hustle bustle of Central Avenue were the worlds where Easy Rawlins lived. He cherished his little humble abode, and Easy tells the reader that houses are more than just shelters; they are the holy temples that provide refuge and safe havens from the whirlwind of life; and, when we love them, we will go to great lengths to protect them.

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Listen to my commentary on Mosley’s Devil In Blue Dress:
http://netnebraska.org/interactive-multimedia/radio/all-about-books-guest-reader-kwakiutl-dreher-home-and-hearth

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry @ The Ross

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Mary Dore’s documentary She’s Beautiful when She’s Angry is an historical overview of one of the most influential movements in the history of women’s liberation, the founding of the National Organization for Women, better known as NOW. The documentary features the social engineers of that founding, and you will welcome the commentary from them: Susan Brownmiller, Jacqui Michot Ceballos, Rita Mae Brown, Linda Burnham, and Eleanor Holmes Norton are just a few of this stellar line-up of narrators.

These women form a cacophony of voices all rallying around the common cause of women’s liberation. One issue that groups grappled with was how do you integrate race, class, and gender when working within the movement? How do you interlace the difference of experience between women? For example, in an interview with Linda Burnham, the activist explains, “it was very difficult for middle class white women to have any conception about what was going on in communities of color […] and when the voice of one is used as the voice of all, you have a problem.” Eleanor Norton Holmes explained “Black women who have spent their lives working in other women’s kitchens have a different kind of handicap than women who have been oppressed for their sex and other ways.”

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Mary Dore, the director, deftly weaves in stock footage from the 1960s and 1970s of demonstrations, arrests of women activists, and the downright humiliating reactions from their male counterparts. What comes through She’s Beautiful when She’s Angry is the buzz words or the women issues that have been long associated with this movement, and they are sexual harassment, rape, homophobia, domestic violence, safe ad legal abortion, and economic equality. The rallying chants equally are significant, such as “The Personal is Political”; Roxanne Dunbar’s proclamation “I am a revolutionary … I am a feminist … there is no possibility for me to be liberated except that all women be liberated”; and Texas activist Virginia Whitehill’s missive, “You’re not allowed to retire from women’s issues.” The dialogue of the narrators is astounding, and when watching them, you see that the fiery commitment to these women issues burns brightly–still.

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Striking to the documentary are the juxtaposition of women burning bras and taking their voices to the streets with poetry and periodicals, pamphlets, and mission statements with the responses from men. One man, for example, President Richard Nixon, issued a tragic blow to the Comprehensive Child Care Act passed by the Senate in 1970. He countered, “we don’t want to make our women like soviet women. We want women to take care of their own children.” Surprisingly, men countered with their own banner “Husbands and Fathers for Women’s Liberation.”

If you want to see a well-documented history lesson on women and the struggle for equal rights, then Mary Dore’s She’s Beautiful when She’s Angry is the film for you.

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Happy Valley @ The Ross

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Happy Valley is a documentary every Nebraskan should see. Directed by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev, Happy Valley is an exploration of a community where football is a religion. Uh uh, do not try to deny it! We all know the depression that sets in this state when football season is over. You especially will appreciate Amir Bar-Lev’s subjects: Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky at Pennsylvania State University, and the charges of child molestation for which he was convicted in November 2011.

Amir Bar-Lev’s camera is relentless as it probes the culture of hero worship, secrets, accusations, and tragedy in a city still recovering from an identity crisis. Happy Valley refuses to be a witch hunt of a documentary; let’s face it, the damage is done and now is rooted in the psyches of its residents. Instead, Amir Bar-Lev critiques our penchant to place humans on a pedestal when they bring to us fame and celebrity, especially when it comes from the arena of the athlete, that revered gladiator of sports.

The documentary opens with a long shot of the verdant land filled with tailgaters pitching tents and organizing food in preparation for the game. Coach Joe Paterno begins the dialogue, “You know, it’s a tough life, and to be able to get away and go someplace where you meet friends that you only see once and a while; each stupid food; drink more than you should drink; can get excited about going to a game, and just get it all together and have 100,000 people doing the same dumb things makes you feel that you’re not as dumb as you think you are. College football is something special, and hopefully we will never lose sight of that or screw it up!”

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Matthew Sandusky

In November 2011, things screwed up, and Amir Bar-Lev exposes all the elements that went into causing the tragedy that catapulted the state into confusion, shame, and grief. The interview with Sandusky’s adoptive son, Matt, who grew up in a house with no running water, no toilets, and no sinks, among his relatives that numbered 30, will cause your heart to shudder. Remembering his impression of Sandusky when he joined the Assistant coach’s summer camps as a child, Matt says, “to be right next to him, and to understand that he chose you, I felt powerful. I felt like people looked at me and envied me instead of people looking down on me.”

Happy Valley Plays through March 8 at The Ross in Lincoln.

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What We Do In the Shadows @ The Ross

Viago (Taika Waititi)

Viago (Taika Waititi)

Who cannot forget the dark and brooding Count Dracula played by the very handsome Frank Langella in John Badham’s 1979 film Dracula? Or the dashing forever young George Hamilton as Count Vladimir Dracula in Stan Dragoti’s film Love at First Bite also released in 1979? Yes, that’s when Vampires were handsome, sexy, and seductive. Given the right circumstances, you would be hard pressed not to offer your neck to them for a midnight snack. Well, if you come into contact with the vampires in What We Do in the Shadows, an absurd documentary about vampires written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, you might want to stock up on those turtlenecks and scarves.

Vladislov (Jermaine Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and Viago (Jemaine Clement)

Vladislov (Jermaine Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and Viago (Jemaine Clement)

Yes, these vampires are outrageous in their antics, and you will love them and all of the unholy ways; I’m not so sure, however, you would want them around when the sun goes down. You never know what they might do in the shadows. Vampires have been running through the night of our popular culture for ages, and Clement and Waititi keeps going our interest in them. Set in New Zealand, the film features a house of four zany vampires. Just to name them would be an injustice so here goes their descriptions. There is Petry, played by Ben Fransham, who is a mute in dire need of a dentist; Deacon, played by Jonathan Brugh refuses to inhabit his age, and he is old; Vladislav, played by co-director Jemaine Clement, is the introspective one who believes in vampire traditions; and, Viago, the leader, played by co-director Taika Waititi adds his own flair to the bunch. These directors explore the night-to-night activities of these dysfunctional creatures from howling and hissing at rival werewolf gangs to house cleaning to coming out as a vampire to friends to discussions about the difference between humans and vampires–you know … the everyday ordinary struggles of life. Along the way, these vampires try to decipher modern day technologies such as skype, cell phones, and computers.

Clement and Waititi have sucked out the seduction and sexy, and even the ugly and repulsive (remember Boris Karloff’s and Gary Oldman’s Draculas?) along with all of our popular notions accorded to vampires to portray regular unadorned people who just happen to be vampires. Threaded within the film is a heartfelt theme: We all have our differences so let us at least try to live peacefully among each other. Just be careful when you come out at night.

What We Do In The Shadows plays through March 12 at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

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