Celebrate African-American Music Appreciation Month with When Grandmama Sings

President Obama has issued a proclamation naming June as African-American Music Appreciation Month. I recently sat down with the Jazz Collaborative to discuss When Grandmama Sings. Following are excerpts from that conversation.

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JC: Your book, When Grandmama Sings, intermingles jazz with Southern history. Describe the story.

MM: When Grandmama Sings takes place in the 1940’s. Belle’s grandmother is a local singer in a small town in Mississippi. She gets an opportunity to go on a tour of the South and she takes Belle with her.

When Grandmama Sings shows what life was like for black entertainers who traveled from place to place. Grandmama is protective of Belle but she doesn’t shelter her from the harsh realities of life. They encounter separate hotels for blacks and whites. They can’t eat in a restaurant after a show because of the color of their skin. Grandmama meets with injustice in New Orleans when a club owner wants her to perform without pay. And when she performs in a big venue in Atlanta the audience is segregated: whites sit on the main floor and black people have to sit in the balcony.

JC: But after the tour great things happen for Grandmama.

MM: Absolutely. I love happy endings. I want students to know that life isn’t fair or equal at times. Regardless of how you are treated, if you remain focused on the gift you have inside of you, no one act or person can put your light out.

JC: What defines the relationship between Belle and her grandmother?

Trust defines their relationship. Bell travels with her grandmother and helps her read signs, menus, newspapers, etc. Even though she is a child, Belle is providing a valuable service to her grandmother. Grandmama trusts Belle to read everything to her. And Belle trusts her grandmother to take care of her.

JC: I love the relationship between Belle and her grandmother. Tell us about your relationship with your grandmother.

MM: My grandmother and I were very close. When she visited her sisters in other cities, she took me with her. My earliest memories are of me sitting in a chair beside my grandmother and she is teaching me how to read. When I was older my grandmother taught me how to cook. I will always cherish those moments in the kitchen with her teaching me her secret recipes. I wanted to show the same closeness between Belle and her grandmother.

JC: Why is it important for children to read books like When Grandmama Sings during African-American Music Appreciation Month?

MM: With budget decreases in schools and arts programs being cut, students are not being exposed to music and art programs. It is important that students learn to appreciate different types of music. They should know that certain types of music were born out of struggle. If students hear music and can read about the challenges the artist faced, they will have a better appreciation of what it takes to build a career.

JC: Students loved your program on When Grandmama Sings where you introduced female blues and jazz singers. Why is it important that they actually hear the music from that era?

MM: Students are familiar with music of today: rap, hip hop, and pop songs. It isn’t every day that they hear a different type of music. By introducing them to blues and jazz singers, I hope the music will speak to something inside of them. They will see that stories can be told through music.

JC: When Grandmama Sings is a recipient of the Living The Dream Award. What does this honor mean to you?

MM: It is extra special because students voted on the books. I am honored that When Grandmama Sings touches the hearts and minds of students.

JC: What does African-American Music Appreciation Month mean to you?

MM: It means that adults and children can learn about the rich heritage of African American music. African-Americans played an integral role in all types of music: blues, jazz, soul, rock & roll, musical theater, opera, classical, and choral music. This month is a great time to learn about their contributions.

JC: Any final thoughts about music?

MM: There is strength in music. The songs of the Civil Rights Movement provided strength and hope during the entire struggle for equal rights. There is joy in music. A song has the ability to lift people to a higher realm. That’s joy! There is power in music. Music has the power to change moods. Music, in all of its styles, is part of our lives. It is like the different color strands in fabric that when woven together creates a beautiful garment.

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JC: Thanks so much for talking to us. If people want to learn more about your books, where can they reach you?

MM: http://margareekmitchell.com

Book information, as well as contact information, is there.

Uncle Jed’s Barbershop Speaks To A New Generation

Recently I visited Schertz Elementary School near San Antonio to talk about Uncle Jed’s Barbershop. My main goal when visiting with students is to inspire them to dream big dreams for their lives. Students were excited to share their dreams. My heart is filled with joy because Uncle Jed’s story is just as relevant today as it was when it was first published.

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Uncle Jed’s Barbershop tells the story of Uncle Jed who goes house to house cutting hair in the 1920’s and 1930’s. His dream is to open his own barbershop. However he meets with setback after setback. But he doesn’t give up on his dream. He finally opens his barbershop when he is 79 years old.

When I ask students to share their dreams of what they want to be when they grow up, I find that students fall into three categories: those who are eager to share, those who are shy and don’t want to voice their dreams, and those who have no dreams at all.

I try to draw out the shy, reticent ones to let them know that their dreams matter. And even if their friends laugh at them, it doesn’t matter. You see, my friends laughed at me too when I said I wanted to get my books published. But I didn’t listen to them and set about pursuing my dream.

When I encounter students who have no dreams I try to get them to think about what they like to do. As they think about the things they like soon the light comes on and there is a secret dream that they have but they don’t think they can accomplish it.

So I tell them my story, complete with the heartaches that made me want to quit and the successes that came because I didn’t give up on my dream.

Then we discuss Uncle Jed’s Barbershop and the setbacks Uncle Jed encountered on the way to achieving his dream.

By the end of the visit students realize that they can dream of accomplishing a goal. And they can achieve it, regardless of the challenges they encounter.

I know because of the many letters I receive from students. I also hear stories from people who met me at their schools years ago and are pursuing their dreams because of my encouragement.

I am overjoyed that a new generation of students is now hearing the Uncle Jed’s Barbershop story in a variety of ways: literature textbooks, required reading lists, social studies textbooks, financial planning lessons, entrepreneurship lessons, studying about relationships with older people, philanthropy education, lessons on the Great Depression, etc.

Because of the many lessons that have been developed from Uncle Jed’s Barbershop I am getting invitations to schools to tell students the story behind the story. If you would ask a student what they remember most about my visit, they will tell you that I encourage them to dream and to believe those dreams can come true, whether they are saving to buy a video game, or planning to go to college, or dreaming of becoming a scientist.

Students in other countries are also reading Uncle Jed’s Barbershop. The book has been translated into many languages. Students in China, South Korea, Israel, Japan, and other countries are hearing about Uncle Jed and his dream. I recently received an email from a father in Israel who told me how much the book impacted him and his daughter and the discussion that ensued because of it. Regardless of where they live, students are learning to dream big dreams for their lives. And in the process, they are learning something about the history of the American South.

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The team of David Wohl, Kenneth Grimes, and Susan Einhorn has adapted Uncle Jed’s Barbershop into an award-winning musical featuring Broadway veterans. Students and their families can now see the story come to life on the stage when it comes to their cities.

African American Jockeys Who Won The Kentucky Derby

Did you know that an African-American jockey won the first Kentucky Derby?   Oliver Lewis was the jockey and he won on “Aristides.”  In fact, African-American jockeys dominated the sport of thoroughbred horse racing for over 25 years.

As we prepare for the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby, lets take a moment to remember the unsung heroes of thoroughbred horse racing and the contributions they made to the sport.

Listed below are the black jockeys who won the Kentucky Derby, the horses they rode, and the year they won.

1875     Oliver Lewis on “Aristides”

1877     William Walker on “Baden Baden”

1880     George Lewis on “Fonso”

1882     Babe Hurd on “Apollo”

1884     Isaac Murphy on “Buchanan”

1885     Enoch Henderson on “Joe Cotton”

1887     Isaac Lewis on “Montrose”

1890     Isaac Murphy on “Riley”

1891     Isaac Murphy on “Kingman”

1892     Alfie Clayton on “Azra”

1895     J. (Soup) Perkins on “Haima”

1896     Willie Sims on “Ben Brush”

1898     Willie Sims on “Plaudit”

1901     Jimmy Winkfield on “His Eminence”

1902     Jimmy Winkfield on “Alan-a-Dale”

Although these jockeys made nothing like the $2 million guaranteed purse offered in the 139th Kentucky Derby, some of them made a very good living plying their trade.  When Isaac Murphy died in 1896, his estate was valued at $50,000.

African-American jockeys travelled the elite racing circuit in the 1800’s.  However, because of injuries, illness, and lack of proper care, only a few became stars.

By the turn of the century, the sport began to change.  Growing racial tension between black and white jockeys began to erupt on and off the track.  The time soon arrived when black jockeys were no longer welcome on the track.  The days of the great black jockeys were over, never to return.

Today we salute the African-American winners of the Kentucky Derby and their place in history.