For the Daily News
A special program celebrating Black History Month through the lives of four African-American women will be held tonight at Mississippi State University.
“Ain’t I A Woman” is a chamber music theatre work for actress and trio (cello, piano, percussion). The event will be held at 6 p.m. tonight at Bettersworth Auditorium at Lee Hall. The event is sponsored by the Holmes Cultural Diversity Center.
It celebrates the life and times of four African American women: ex-slave and fiery abolitionist Sojouner Truth, renowned novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, exuberant folk artist Clementine Hunter, and fervent civil rights worker Fannie Lou Hamer. The musical score is drawn from the heartfelt spirituals of the Deep South, the urban exuberance of the Jazz Age, and contemporary concert music by African Americans.
The text draws attention to specific choices and decisions in their lives demonstrating how each overcame personal or political challenges and was able to achieve astonishing goals living in an American society often unfriendly to social tolerance and acceptance. The musical score that unifies the piece is drawn from the heartfelt spirituals and blues of the Deep South, the urban vitality of the Jazz Age, as well as contemporary concert music by African-American composers.
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) once stated, “I’ve got the map of Florida on my tongue.” Regarded by many as the leading African-American female writer, she was so proud of her heritage as a black Floridian that she claimed in her autobiography to have been born near Orlando, although Alabama was her true birthplace. She was one of the first anthropologists to recognize the power and importance of African-American folktales and spent much time traveling throughout the south, Jamaica, and Haiti to gather the stories and sayings of those cultures. Achieving fame during the Harlem Renaissance, she eventually returned to Florida from New York and began to fade into obscurity. Through the attention and efforts of author Alice Walker, her work was gradually rediscovered beginning in 1970. In 2004, her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was selected by Read Together Palm Beach: One Book, One Community and was read by an estimated 20,000 people.
Clementine Hunter’s (1887-1988) legacy is a body of “memory” art that tells the southern laborer’s story with joy, humor, and dignity. Her supplies and “canvasses” were unusual and innovative: cardboard boxes, the blank insides of soap cartons, brown paper bags, pieces of lumber, scraps of plywood, window shades, and other such found objects. Born in Plantation Hill, Louisiana, she did not begin to paint until the age of fifty-four. The settings and images of her work embodied rural life in the South: washdays, gardening, picking cotton, harvesting sugar cane, baptisms, and funerals. Rumors abounded in 1974 of a forgery scare, including stories that her grandson or nephew was copying her paintings and selling them on the fly. In New Orleans an artist was arrested for trying to pass his copies of her work as originals. This was a testament to her reputation, and the price that her paintings could command. In 1955 at Northwestern State College in Louisiana Hunter had been barred from viewing her own paintings with white patrons. Thirty-one years later the same school bestowed upon her the degree of Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts.
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) never learned to read or write, but became an extraordinary speaker for black freedom and women’s rights – to white audiences. Born a slave of Dutch masters, she was given the name Isabella. A riveting singer and preacher, in 1843 she changed her name to Sojourner and decided to travel west, speaking out against slavery and for the rights of women. She delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech in 1851 to the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. In 1864 she met President Abraham Lincoln, and in 1870 President Ulysses S. Grant. Her legacy and enduring influence were recognized in 1987 when NASA launched a small vehicle to explore the surface of Mars. A girl from Bridgeport, Connecticut won a competition to give the rover a name. Named after this intrepid American wanderer, it was called “Sojourner.”
Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) became a national figure in 1964 when she riveted the nation while addressing the Democratic National Convention credentials committee, challenging its token gesture to seat only two out of sixty-four black delegates from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. As a result of the publicity, the Convention was shaken by the exposure of its discriminatory practice. Four years later at the 1968 convention in Chicago a debate over seating again took place and this time the MFDP won. Fannie Lou Hamer was given her seat and to a standing ovation addressed the entire convention. Her tireless work as an activist began in 1962 in Indianola, Mississippi where, after she attempted to register to vote, sixteen shots were fired at the home in which she was staying. In 1963 she was arrested and beaten at a bus station in Winona, Mississippi on her way back from a voter registration training. Following her death in 1977, United Nations ambassador Andrew Young who spoke at her funeral said, “None of us would have been where we are now had she not been there then.”