Black Joy

Ain’t too proud to beg for more joy | Black Joy – March 11, 2022

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Before I moved to Birmingham, Ala., my perception of the city was based on the events that happened in one year: 1963.

That seemed to be the only year we focused on while talking about Birmingham’s Civil Rights legacy in school. I vividly remembered pictures in my textbooks of children (who not only looked like me, but were also the same size as me at the time) being attacked with fire hoses and police dogs as they marched for their rights during the Children’s Crusade in May 1963. Then there was the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, which claimed the lives of four girls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair.

There were no mentions of the children who sung in the jail cells after they were arrested following the children’s crusade. Nor were their mentions of other activists, like Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who strategized with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to desegregate the city. Nor were their mentions of the flourishing Black culture that thrived in the city at the time.

Because of that absence of knowledge, a veil of Black trauma was casted over the city in my mind. It wasn’t until my move in 2016 that I learned about resilience of the city, its elders and their descendants who continuously fight for a better world in multiple ways. No matter what you see about Birmingham now, I can tell you that the Magic City never lost its luster.

To balance out the legacy of Birmingham, I teamed up with an organization called Kids in Birmingham 1963 to collect the untold stories of joy from citizens who were children, teens or young adults during the city’s Civil Rights era. Last week, Melvin Todd talked about the power of Black music and Black family. This week will be a continuation of that theme as we hear from Jacque (pronounced “Jackie”) Clarke-Bell and her older sister Charlotte Clarke-Houston.

Before we jump into Black joy of the past, what presently brings you joy? Share your moments of sweet happiness here.

Daddy’s girls

When I asked Charlotte and Jacque about the favorite bops from back in the day, they cited classics: James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” The Temptations’ “My Girl” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.”

But it was their family that orchestrated moments of joy through their musical talents, laughter and togetherness. This was especially true for their father, Charles Clarke. He’s the gentleman jamming on the saxophone in the above photo. Although Charles’ full-time job was at the Social Security Administration, music was more than a hobby for him. The Alabama Jazz Hall of Famer immersed himself in Birmingham’s vibrant big band culture, playing with jazz giants like Duke Ellington and Chick Webb.

When their father wasn’t playing a gig, he listened to bands on the radio. After retirement, he started his own jazz band, the Chuck Clarke Quintet. Because segregation narrowed Black artists’ lodging options, Jacque said their basement, which was furnished with a piano and a bar, was often full of musicians looking for a place to stay or hang out.

“Sometimes it was a little hard to sleep for school,” Jacque laughed. “But it was fun and exciting and we overheard the stories they would tell each other.”

Music was Charles’ passion, but so was his family. When jazz legends from New York and Chicago were being booked at Gaston’s Lounge, Charlotte Charles was playing for the lounge’s house band called Cool Strings Combo. With the house band opening for headliners, Charlotte sometimes tagged along.

“I would get to go and just sit and say, ‘I’m with the band.’ I had a charmed young adulthood,” Charlotte said. “I would just go with the band and have a free concert.”

Their father’s sense of humor was a constant delight in their home. Some mornings he made breakfast and tricked his kids into thinking there was snow outside to get them out of bed. Another sneaky thing he did after a gig was slip Jacque barbecue, warning her to keep the late-night snack a secret from her siblings.

Jacque learned the truth later in life: “That was his white lie because we learned that on different nights, he would do that to each one of us (siblings),” Jacque said. “It was interesting when we discovered. I always thought that I was his favorite because he only shares this BBQ with me.”

Charles’ siblings were also musically talented. In fact, Mary Alice Stollenwerck, his sister who can be seen playing on the piano in the photo above, taught Temptations members Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks at Western Olin High School located in Birmingham’s Ensley neighborhood.

Jacque and Charlotte talk about their grandparent’s home as if it was a mansion of joy and music. Not only was it large enough to hold three families, but it was also the place were their grandmother taught them piano lesson and hosted get-togethers twice a week. Charlotte rushed through her lessons to join the merriment, especially if they were cooking up something in the kitchen. Their dad was known for his dessert making skills. Banana pudding, peach cobbler, homemade ice cream and gingerbread with lemon sauce were some of their favorites.

“It was a very close-knit family, and my father ensured that we were a part of it,” Charlotte said. “It felt like a family reunion every time we went over there.”

Their grandparent’s home was also a place of solace, especially on Sept. 15, 1963. After hearing the bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church, the family worried about other family members who attended the church. They were relieved when they all arrived, dusty head-to-toe with soot, but still alive. Jacque said her grandmother found sanctuary in her piano.

Ten years old at the time, she can’t remember the songs – just that they were spirituals.

“I remember the music soothing me a bit. I can’t say that I was healed and felt totally OK, but I felt better,” Jacque said.

Below you will see Jacque and Charlotte posing in their Sunday best in front of their favorite place in the world – their grandparents’ home.

Reconnect to Black history with these reads (and podcasts)

Chronicling these moments of had me craving me more info about the places and spaces that allowed us to thrive at a time when white supremacy sought to silence out Blackness. Turn to your neighbor and say, “Nah, man. That didn’t happen and ain’t never gonna happen.”

Who’s shaping American music today?

There are plenty of us out here changing the music industry in different ways. Here are some Black artists who I believe deserve more applause:

  • Mickey Guyton was the only Black woman on a major county album when she moved to Nashville to sign a record deal in 2011. But she didn’t know then that her debut album “Remember Her Name” wouldn’t drop until a decade later due to the white gatekeeping of country music. But sis decided to bust through the genre’s comfort zone by talking about her own experience as a Black woman in songs like “Black Like Me.” Now look at her, she belted the National Anthem at the Super Bowl in January and is eyeing three Grammy nominations.
  • Whenever I hear someone say that rock is “white people’s music,” I just roll my eyes. Clearly people are still not educated about Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The Arkansas native was plucking away at her electric guitar in ways people hadn’t heard before in the 1930s. Although she’s been dubbed the godmother of rock and roll, she wasn’t added to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until 2018.

So I squeal when I see young, woman of color bands like Meet Me @ The Altar. This trio of Gen Z women, Téa Campbell (from Florida), Edith Johnson (from Georgia) and Ada Juarez (From New Jersey), met online to create a punk rock band for fans who look like them.

“We knew going into this that it wasn’t going to be easy,” Campbell told Rolling Stone. “But we accepted that we have to take the harder way, so that the 12-year-old black girl looking up to us can do it the easy way.”

They took it upon themselves to be their own managers, scheduling their own shows and promoting themselves – and they just arrived in their 20s. After cutting their own way through a white, male dominated field, Meet Me @ The Altar was picked up by major record label Fueled By Ramen in 2020. Their debut EP “Model Citizen” will send you back to down your emo days of the early 2000s.

Rock on and spread your dope Blackness this weekend. I’ll be spreading Black Joy by celebrating my 30th birthday all next week, but the rest of my Reckon fam got you covered next Friday. See ya’ later!

The Reckon Report.
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