Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Vertamae: A Profile

June 2011


Standing at the window of her bungalow not far from where the Coosawhatchie drains into the Broad River, she contemplates the marsh.
Across the way is Beaufort County. Today, Interstate 95 takes travelers north, but in slavery days, blacks only had the Underground Railroad.
Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, who lives on a former rice plantation, looks out across the marsh and imagines the workers who once threw down their rice threshers in exhaustion and disgust, escaping their fate with nothing but the tattered clothes on the backs, wading through the creek beds, hiding in the tall grass and praying that what awaited them was a friendly soul who could direct them to a Railroad weigh station.
Grosvenor imagines the spirits of those slaves lingering in the creeks and the path they forged to a better life. The past is the present. The present is ancient. The ancient is always new.

When she was born at home near Fairfax, S.C, she weighed three pounds and was called Verta Mae Smart. She was a twin, smaller than her brother, but stronger. Her parents Frank and Clara Smart placed her in a shoebox and kept her by the oven. She survived. Her brother did not.
But there was no proof of her birth.
Years later, when she returned to South Carolina and wanted to renew her passport, she contacted the authorities to request a copy of her birth certificate.
“I’m sorry, we have no one with that name on record,” the clerk told her.
“You mean I don’t exist?” she said.
She does not know her age, at least not with certainty. “It depends on how old I feel when I get up,” she says. She knows only the month and day she entered the world: April 4. Ask her for her proper name, she will cite several. Virter. Verta Kali Smart. Mae. Verta Mae. Vertamae. Space Goddess. Obedella.

Having no birth date has been liberating. In the 1960s and 70s, Grosvenor was living in the East Village of New York City. Part of the city’s black intelligentsia, she frequented jazz clubs and acted in the theater.
For a few years she was a Space Goddess in Sun Ra’s Solar Myth Science Arkestra. She was tall and thin, elegant and proud. She designed the clothes. She danced and sang. She read his poetry as the cosmic musical philosopher played free improvisation. She invented the “space walk,” a precursor to Michael Jackson’s moonwalk.
When the band went to the south of France for a jazz festival, it drew attention.
“Where did you find these people?” someone asked the psychedelic Sun Ra.
“I just thought them up,” came the reply.
Vertamae Smart Grosvenor was born without any record of the event, and she was just thought up.

When she was around 8 years old, her family migrated north, taking their Geechee ways with them. Verta Smart came of age in Philadelphia. As she aged she grew.
Tall and skinny and interested in the theater, she was teased by the other children. She slouched. She mused about being weird and unwanted.
As a teenager, she would hang out at a coffee shop. Someone told her to check out a young woman playing music at a hotel across the street. Nina Simone, not yet famous, was performing at various venues in Philadelphia after the Curtis Institute of Music declined to admit her. Nina Simone and Verta Smart became friends. Many years later, on July 26, 2003, three months after the famed troubadour died, Grosvenor offered a tribute at the memorial service in New York City.
At 18, Verta Smart read about the Beat Generation, about their non-conformist ways, love of literature, embrace of life and determination to explore the world. If she were a “bohemian” she would be accepted, she thought.
So she took a boat to Europe, alone, uncertain what she would find.

In Paris, the Beats were finding a freedom of the mind they were missing in the U.S. Verta Smart, too, wanted freedom.
She found the Beat Hotel on the Left Bank. She found a colony of expat artists and writers — the Scottish folk singer Alex Campbell, the American writer Jonathan Kozol, the French painter Lucien Fleury. She would marry one of them, the artist Robert Grosvenor.
Photographer Harold Chapman was staying at the rundown hotel at No. 9 Rue Git-le-Coeur. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he took pictures of Verta Kali Smart and the others, including Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso.
In Paris, she began to write. She made her own clothes. She prepared simple, delicious meals based on the heritage she kept safe within her.
She found herself.

After a couple of years, she returned to the U.S. and settled in New York City. Kali was born in 1962; three years later Chandra arrived.
The 1960s was a heady time for Grosvenor. She became active in the theater, realizing a childhood dream, and even made it to Broadway. Verta Smart played Big Pearl in a production of “Mandingo,” a play that ran for just eight performances before closing. Dennis Hopper played Hammond Maxwell.
She had studied acting at the Hedgerow Theatre in Philadelphia under Jasper Deeter and now, in New York, getting a chance to apply her skills.
In 1966, Louis Gossett secured a grant from the Office of Equal Opportunity, and a group of actors, including Grosvenor, mounted a series of improvisations in Tompkins Square. Her two daughters, Kali and Chandra ran around the neighborhood rounding up the spectators.

When she was in New York she frequented the jazz clubs with poet A.B. Spellman. She brushed up on the Black Power movement. She organized dinner parties. She threw a fundraiser fish-fry for SNCC in its waning years.
She met the Bahamian-American actor Calvin Lockhart — “one of the loves of my life.” He was handsome, elegant, talented, sociable, temperamental.
He took Grosvenor to meet Muhammad Ali at the boxer’s Deer Lake training camp in Pennsylvania. He took her to England so he might appear respectable before the Royal Shakespeare Company, which wanted him to become the first black actor-in-residence.
When Kali was 5, she started writing poems. Three years later, the photographer Joan Halifax decided the poems should be paired with pictures and published. In 1970, Doubleday agreed. Kali’s book led the publisher to her mother’s work, and that same year, “Vibration Cooking” was released. It made her famous.

By the early 1980s, Grosvenor was living in Washington, D.C., and contributing stories and commentary to National Public Radio. She reported on the threatened Gullah-Geechee communities of the South Carolina and Georgia sea islands. She reported on the cultural significance of food. She reported on the expatriate experiences of African Americans in Paris.
Her stories were gorgeously told, rich in characters and dimension and unlike most of radio’s offerings, her colleagues said. Her cooking show “Seasonings” won a James Beard award. Her renown led to a television show, part of The Americas’ Family Kitchen series produced in Chicago, called “Vertamae Cooks.”
In 1998, the University of New Hampshire granted Grosvenor an honorary doctorate and promised to send her a chair. She assumed they meant some kind of desk ornament. But it was a real chair, displaying an inscription: “Doctor of Humane Letters.”
Soon after the chair arrived, her 10-year-old grandson Oscar asked, “Grandma, is there such a thing as inhumane letters?”

On the occasion of writer James Baldwin’s 60th birthday in 1984, Grosvenor arranged an interview. Baldwin told her to meet him at his house on West 71st St. at 2 p.m.
When she arrived, Baldwin was not there. Then she remembered his reputation for being late, sometimes very late. She waited and waited.
That evening, Baldwin’s mother Emma prepared the guest room and cooked up something for dinner. Eventually, the writer returned home, wearing white pants and a navy blazer, looking dapper.
“We talked about what we’d talk about the next morning,” Grosvenor says.
Three years later, she was an honorary pallbearer at Baldwin’s funeral, joining the immense gathering at St. John the Divine Episcopal Cathedral in New York City.

In the street one day, when the family was living in Washington, D.C., granddaughter Charlotte put Grosvenor on notice.
“See you later in the week,” she said. “See you Wednesday.”
This took Grosvenor by surprise. “Oh? Why?”
“I signed you up.”
Charlotte’s 4th grade class was inviting people of interest to visit with students and talk about their lives.
“And Grandma, can you bring a pan of rice?”
So Grosvenor woke up early and prepared a pan of rice, struggling to get the hot dish into a cab and to the school.
The children gobbled it up, listening to Grosvenor explain its African origins and its cultivation along the tidal rivers of South Carolina.
One asked, “Do you know how to make peas and rice?”
Another described the rice dish he ate in Jamaica. Another mentioned the rice she ate in the Dominican Republic. They all knew about rice, and Grosvenor was struck by the way different cultures share certain essential elements.

In late 2009, Grosvenor was socializing with friends when she began to slur her words and lose consciousness.
She was rushed to the hospital where it was discovered she had had an aneurysm in the brain.
She spent two weeks in the hospital after her operation, then more weeks in rehab.
Grandson Oscar jokingly explained the situation this way: “They had to operate on grandma’s brain; they took it out, rinsed it off and put it back.”
Well, it was something like that, more or less, Grosvenor says, thinking back over her remarkable life.

*  *  *


Sue Goodwin met Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor 17 years ago when Goodwin was working on the Hothouse Project, part of National Public Radio’s cultural programming.
“The goal was to develop new shows that highlighted diversity,” she said.
A friendship quickly blossomed. Grosvenor became an NPR correspondent, contributing various reports and commentary beginning in the early 1980s.
“I looked to her as someone who just had a genius for understanding the nuance and all the complexities of culture in this country,” Goodwin said. “This is always something I’ve wanted to understand better. I just felt every time I talked with Verta I learned something new. I just attached myself to her.”
Every conversation was enlightening.
“She was always thinking, and everything she said came with a lot of thought and insight. She was really unique, and she didn’t back off. So a lot of how I understand American culture ... comes from her.”
Goodwin noted that her friend’s embrace of cuisine was her way of exploring a large cultural inheritance, one that has profoundly influenced life in the U.S.
“Not many preceded her in using food as a lens,” Goodwin said. “You know the saying, there’s a universe in a grain of sand? That’s what she did with food. You saw the (entirety) of America’s history with race through food.”

Sue Goodwin is producer of NPR”s “Talk of the Nation.”



The poet and jazz afficionado A.B. Spellman met Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor in the early 1960s, not long after Grosvenor returned from Paris and settled in New York City’s East Village.
It was “a fairly big scene” in Alphabet City in those days, a tight community of musicians, artists, poets and others, Spellman said. “So it was easy to meet people. We had lots of mutual friends.”
Spellman, Grosvenor and their friends frequented jazz clubs and gathered for parties and events.
“Most of this was before (black) nationalism took hold, so it was fairly integrated,” Spellman said.
Grosvenor was by far the best cook among this group of artists, he said, and people often partook of her down-home dishes. She was often called, simply, “Mae.”
“I have memories of her coming home in her moonbeam outfit, telling stories about Sun Ra,” Spellman said, referring to Grosvenor’s three-year stint in the jazz musician’s band. “And she was the first person I knew to have a real interest in the lives of servants.” That interest would be channeled into a book titled “Thursdays and Every Other Sunday Off: A Domestic Rap,” published by Doubleday in 1972.
“She was a real original in a whole scene of originals,” Spellman said.

A.B. Spellman is a poet, music historian and former administrator for the National Endowment for the Arts.



Karen Spellman met Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor in the late 1960s, when her future husband A.B. Spellman moved to Atlanta to help the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She was its research director, and soon became A.B.’s love interest.
Grosvenor was good friends with A.B. and came to Atlanta with her daughter Chandra “to put a viewing on me,” Karen Spellman said. “She was the spy from the Lower East Side,” checking out the new woman in A.B.’s life.
Spellman knew of her new friend’s reputation for cooking. When the hostess began preparing collard greens, Grosvenor interrupted.
“Verta came into the kitchen and said, ‘Girl, give me those greens.’” Then she started wrapping them a certain way and cutting them a certain way and preparing them a certain way. Her way.
“It was like a religious ceremony for her,” Spellman said, a chance to pay respect to her elders. “She always quotes her references, and her references were people in her life, people in her family. So she showed me how to prepare the greens, and I’ve been doing it that way ever since.”
When “Vibration Cooking” was published in 1970, it made Grosvenor famous. Spellman remembered basketball star Walt Frasier of the New York Knicks walking out onto the court before a game carrying the book.

Karen Spellman is an event organizer and former member of SNCC.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The other fatal police shooting in St. Louis

Here is video of the fatal shooting of 25-year-old Kajieme Powell, released by St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Official reports claimed Powell was mentally unstable, acting erratically and threatening police with a knife held over his head. The video appears to contradict those claims.

Was Powell's killing justified? Was he murdered unnecessarily? Did the police have other options? You be the judge.

Here is a zoomed in, and therefore clearer, version of the video that was posted by Corriere della Sera:

Here is the original video posted to YouTube:

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ferguson 2014 a reminder of Orangeburg 1968


History repeats itself. We often wish it wouldn’t; we wish we could learn from our mistakes. We like to think that with each generation we become more enlightened, better able to contend with life’s challenges.

Then Ferguson happens.

A shooting. Protests. Violent police response. Days of confrontation. The governor gets involved. The National Guard is called in. A state of emergency is declared. Anger and resentment simmer.

And nothing really gets resolved.

“Shooting Surfaces Deep Racial Tensions,” a New York Times headline declares, as if we’re meant to assume the rebellion in Ferguson, Mo., was spontaneous.

All of it — the fatal shooting of an unarmed black youth in a poor area north of St. Louis, the eruption of anger in the community, the belligerent and militaristic police response, the cursing, the marching, the escalation of fear and anger, the blame flung about by observers, the desperate attempts to “keep the peace” and “stabilize” the community — all of it is like a recurring nightmare, déjà vu.

It is reminiscent of many racial confrontations between black youths and law enforcement in American cities over the years, but one in particular comes immediately to mind: the Orangeburg Massacre.

It was Feb. 1968 and students at Claflin College and South Carolina State College, both historically black schools, were unhappy about a recalcitrant small-town merchant who stubbornly refused to desegregate his bowling alley, claiming his business was not subject to the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. He was a lone hold-out, and the students were not going to stand by quietly.

“Deep racial tensions” could be traced back to slavery days in Orangeburg and throughout the South. By 1968, the Black Power movement was in full swing, emboldening young African Americans to speak louder, protest more vigorously, demand not just their rights but political and economic influence.

It began with a protest at the bowling alley on February 6. Students tempted fate by entering the bowling alley (not for the first time; several similar challenges to owner Harry Floyd’s segregation policy had been attempted), only to be ejected. Some were arrested, prompting hundreds of students to leave campus and march to the small strip mall a short distance away. They gathered in the parking lot, met by state police. A fire truck was called to the scene, infuriating students. SLED Chief Pete Strom called for reinforcements.

The evening ended with the swinging of fists and batons. One officer was injured. Many students were attacked and beaten, some hurt badly enough to require emergency treatment at the college infirmary.

The episode was the result of rankling racial discord, of institutional injustice and pent-up frustration. It was followed by a day of simmering reflection and heated discussion. What should be done now?

The next day, Feb. 7, was relatively calm. Students and faculty held meetings on campus and drew up a list of demands to be presented to city and state officials. From his office in Columbia, Gov. Robert McNair tried to calm the situation. Publicly, he blamed “outside agitators” for the discord.

That evening included minor public outbursts. A small fire slightly damaged a home; a white man fired birdshot at a group of Claflin students who had ventured near his house; bottles were thrown as passing cars; two white teenage brothers drove onto campus and one fired a gun from the car, prompting students to attack the vehicle when it got caught in a dead end and ending with a police chase along Highway 601.

The daylight hours of Feb. 8 were the calm before the storm. Local police, SLED patrolmen, FBI agents and National Guardsmen were on high alert. Around 9:30 p.m., antsy students lit a bonfire on campus by the street. They grew rowdy. Some threw bottles. Fire trucks were called to the scene and the bonfire was doused. Law enforcement officers began to take up positions opposite the student protestors. Nearby, a banister was tossed through the air and struck Patrolman David Shealy, who fell to the ground.

Confusion ensued. Some thought Shealy had been shot. McNair apprised of the unfolding situation and fearful that students would burn down Orangeburg, ordered the perimeter to be tightened — 66 state patrolmen were armed with shotguns loaded with heavy buckshot; 45 National Guardsmen aimed M-1 rifles with fixed bayonets at the students.

Ellis MacDougall, director of the Department of Corrections, was struck in the leg by a rock. Someone discharged his weapon into the air, an act perhaps intended as a warning. Instead it prompted others to open fire. It was not clear who was giving orders. The 200 unarmed students gathered on the bluff dropped to ground. Some fell, writhing in pain. Others attempted to scramble up the embankment and out of danger.

Three young men were killed: freshman Samuel Hammond, sophomore Henry Smith and Orangeburg High School student Delano Middleton. Twenty-eight more were wounded, including Cleveland Sellers, a SNCC activist and South Carolina native who was on campus to promote black studies and other methods of black empowerment.

Sellers became the scapegoat, indicted ultimately on riot charges. In the immediate aftermath of the Orangeburg tragedy, news reports got it wrong. They stated that students and law enforcement exchanged fire and that Shealy was hit in the head by a bullet. Public attitudes toward the students therefore tended to be unsympathetic, even hostile: those thugs got what they deserved.

The FBI conducted a bumbling investigation but lost interest in the case after several months. The state did not insist on its own investigation. Students and campus officials complained, even protested, over the lack of resolution and vindication. Little public attention was paid to the case, even when a grand jury report indicated that nine patrolmen had broken the law.

In the end, blame landed on the shoulders of the “professional agitator,” Cleveland Sellers. The nine patrolmen were exonerated.

The Orangeburg Massacre remains a sore point in South Carolina’s remembered history. McNair went to his grave convinced that justice was done. He never apologized. The wounds inflicted on the psyches of South Carolina’s concerned citizens continue to fester.

The differences between Orangeburg and Ferguson are worth noting: the former was an active protest against segregation and marginalization, the latter a reactive rebellion against police brutality. The Orangeburg episode culminated in a shooting; the Ferguson disaster began with one. Orangeburg attracted very little media attention; Ferguson has made headlines for two weeks and counting. Nevertheless, the similarities are pronounced — the underlying grievances, the use of excessive force, the manner in which authorities escalated their response, the deployment of patrolmen and National Guardsmen, the attitudes and comments of elected officials, the differing perspectives of whites and blacks, and the highly confrontational nature of both incidents.

Ferguson’s wounds, too, will fester, long after the current troubles subside. For there, in the “hood” of St. Louis, misunderstanding and resentment rule the day. That’s what happens when police resort to violence rather than pursue community engagement, when they’re more concerned withgenerating revenue than with protecting the interests of those they are meant to serve.

In Orangeburg, segregation and discrimination and disempowerment were the burning coals that required only a thrust of the fan to ignite. In Ferguson, 46 years later, the roots of discontent are much the same. Ferguson is about 70 percent black; its police force is 95 percent white. In 2013, blacks were far more likely to be pulled over by police and searched for contraband, even if whites were 14 percent more likely to have illicit drugs, according to racial profiling data reported by the Ferguson police. Blacks also were arrested at twice the rate of whites.

As with the Orangeburg Massacre, law enforcement officers in Ferguson were placed in a no-win situation. Police, patrolmen and National Guardsmen were expected to “restore order,” but that order was precisely the problem. If the purpose of rebellion is to challenge the status quo, then those working to uphold it are in the way.

When police forces dress up in camouflage, arm themselves with military-grade weapons and roll through the streets in modified MRAPs, and adopt military tactics in an effort to control the crowds, they are undermining their own cause, according to Seth Stoughton, a former police officer in Florida and a professor of criminal law at the University of South Carolina.

“The military mission is straightforward: eliminate the enemy,” Stoughton said. “But a police officer is supposed to be working for everyone involved. He’s a servant of the public. And all of those individuals are the public. So when you start talking in terms of wars — on crime and drugs particularly — you put a set of blinders on police, who now say, ‘OK, now I work for the good guys.’ I think it’s changed the way we talk about it and the way we think about it, in a bad way.”

Now, he said, the enemy often is perceived to be within. Crime is not just crime, but motivated by something sinister, like terrorism. “It’s changed the way police see their mission,” Stoughton said.

And it has blinded them to the real problems: economic and educational disparities, unemployment, racism and discrimination. Instead of the cop on the beat who gets to know the community he is meant to serve, we have helmeted police-soldiers and SWAT teams, armed with automatic rifles, grenade launchers and megaphones.

This sort of policing is surely part of the problem, and the people of Ferguson are right to rebel against it.

If we are to prevent the next Ferguson, it is essential to address social unrest in a way that’s inclusive and fair. Escalating a military response, especially in the absence of dialogue and negotiation, only exacerbates the resentment, often resulting in disaster.

Orangeburg (and many other confrontations) showed us what can go wrong, and how quickly it can go wrong, when legitimate grievance is met with suppression — an effort “to restore calm” or “quell unrest” as the headlines say. Suppression alone sends a clear message: We are not interested in improving your lot, we only want you to obey the law.

Without genuine, organized efforts to address the underlying issues that cause discontent and disenfranchisement, the cycle of violence will surely continue. When the existing social order is the problem, it’s time to change the social order.

Adam Parker is a journalist in Charleston, South Carolina.