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Sunday, December 13, 2009


1.) Keith Jarrett, “Testament: Paris/London” (ECM)

His liner notes offer a harrowing tale of marital upheaval, depression, a near nervous breakdown, bruising mood swings; all of which took place around and within the two-week period last holiday season when these marathon solo concerts were recorded. Then again, you could discern all that from listening to the music, which is by turns ecstatic, somber, acerbic, wistful, enigmatic, pugnacious and, above all, relentless. As a solo artist, he’s far removed from his 1970s merry-wanderer days. And what he’s doing lately with this form is by now nothing short of transfiguring. No one, not even Cecil Taylor, has so nakedly stretched himself through spontaneous keyboarding as Jarrett does here. (Did I just write, “Not even Cecil Taylor”? Yes. I did.) You get the sense throughout that you’re listening to someone trying to save his own life with every bent, splintered or rococo phrase he can coax from his shattered nerves. You, too, may get rattled at various points in the journey. But you can’t turn away.

2.) Joshua Redman, “Compass” (Nonesuch)

Building upon the success of “Near East,” his impressive 2007 set of trio riffs, blues and standards, Redman mines the sax-bass-drums format for greater expressive possibilities and delivers his rangiest, most daring soloing in years. Often, he’ll up the ante by having two drummers (Brian Blade, Greg Hutchinson) and two bassists (Larry Grenadier, Reuben Rogers) backing him up on the same track as if the added weight will propel his horn into a higher orbit. Speed and power, however, aren’t as important here as making the best use of the spaces opened up by the rhythm section(s), whose members are every bit as inventive, resourceful and (whenever the occasion demands) discreet as their leader.

3.) Dave Douglas, “Spirit Moves” (Green Leaf Music)

With all the bands he’s got going at the same time, this horn player’s about as busy as a preposition. (That’s a deep, hard wink to those of you who still have a place in your hearts for “Schoolhouse Rock.”) This particular throw-down is coming to you from his Brass Fantasy ensemble: Four horns (Douglas on trumpet, Vincent Chancey on French horn, Luis Bonilla on trombone, Marcus Rojas on tuba) and a trap set (Nasheet Watts), blending more tone color and intricate harmonies into the big-foot brass band genre without skimping on the fun -- or the funk. The album is an homage to the late avant-prankster Lester Bowie, whose archival-pop spirit is honored with shrewd, soulful covers of “Otis Redding (“Mr. Pitiful”) and Hank Williams (“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”) and whose insurgency is acknowledged with such originals as Douglas’ send-off to the Bush years (“Twilight of the Dogs”).

4.) Joe Lovano Us Five, “Folk Art” (Blue Note)

The best tenor saxophonist of the boomer generation presses on through the Aughts (Oughts?) imperturbably expanding his own horizons and, as with Redman and Douglas, tweaking traditional combo formats. Here, he gathers four young sensibilities around him to find fresh variations on the hallowed Blue Note tropes of “inside/outside” polyphony and rhythmic blends. The title track is an enchanting marvel of shifty motifs, thematic manipulation and collective interplay that’s both open-ended and tightly-packed. The rest of the disc will keep you on the edge of your chair waiting for the next cagey inspiration to emerge from Lovano, bassist Esperanza Spalding, pianist James Weidman, and percussionists Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela.

5.) Nellie McKay, “Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day” (Verve)

Even the way she pronounces the last syllable of her name (rhymes with “eye”) suggests that McKay will never be everything she appears to be. She’s adorable, to be sure, in a retro, vaguely punky way. And smart enough to make you wary of her intentions here. (Remember the snarky title of her last big-label album, “Get Away From Me”? Nyah-nyah, Norah!) But she turns out to be as tender as she is incisive, letting such warhorses as “Sentimental Journey”, “Close Your Eyes” and “The Very Thought of You” stand and deliver on their own terms while gently unearthing unanticipated possibilities in such Day-related ephemera as “Black Hills of Dakota” and “Send Me No Flowers.” Throughout, her phrasing is impeccable, her command of melody unfettered and her sense of swing nimble enough to please the stuffiest neoclassicist.

6.) Fly, “Sky & Country” (ECM)

Mark Turner may be not be the only underrated-or-overlooked saxophone player on this list (see number 8 and, for that matter, 9). But enough can’t be said for his lithe, deceptively smooth style along with the range of his tonal vocabulary and his keen interaction with the other two members (bassist Larry Grenadier, drummer Jeff Ballard) of this appropriately-named trio. This is the kind of disc where repeated listening may be needed to allow you to get cozy with it. But after a while, you wonder how could have lived for so many months without these guys included in your personal soundtrack, especially when Turner soars as pure and true as he does on “CJ”.

7.) Vijay Iyer Trio, “Historicity” (ACT)

The combination of incantatory aggression and mordant insistence that made up jazz’s cutting edge in the 1960s persists most conspicuously in the work of such young tyros as this pianist, whose trio (bassist Stephen Crump, drummer Marcus Gilmore) is a storm-making machine of fearsome beauty. With the Bernstein-Sondheim classic, “Somewhere” from “West Side Story”, Iyer and company ramp up the inquisitive resentment simmering beneath its plaintive yearning while the ironies embedded in Stevie Wonder’s “Big Brother” resound harder and deeper even without the benefit of a lyric sheet. Iyer’s playing shimmers and soars as often as it challenges and engages; whatever this country’s struggling to become in the wake of the last election, you sense that Iyer’s trio is finding a way to both describe and facilitate the changes.

8.) Jon Gordon, “Evolution” (Artist’s Share)

Gordon’s gorgeous tone, solid center of gravity and quicksilver facility on the saxophone were never in question from the time he won the prestigious Monk competition in 1996. What has gone relatively unnoticed, however, are his considerable gifts as a composer and bandleader; all of which get their most formidable display on this ambitious, varied blend of pieces for large ensemble, duo (with pianist Bill Charlap) and string section. Each piece, no matter what its design or tactics, braces you with a dual charge of broadening possibilities and heightened stakes. The effort alone reinforces one’s certainty that jazz, in whatever form or venue, has a future for anyone who isn’t afraid to issue or take a dare.

9.) John Surman, Brewster’s Rooster” (ECM)

His home nation of Great Britain has no trouble identifying Surman as one of the world’s leading baritone and soprano saxophonists. But he still doesn’t get the props he deserves on this side of the Atlantic for his rich, supple playing and his creative, eclectic body-of-work. Here, he’s placed, like a valuable jewel, in a solid-gold setting (guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Drew Gress, drummer Jack DeJohnette) that glows throughout with grace, wit and warmth. The interplay between Abercrombie and Surman may evoke for some of us greybeards, the magic aroused forty years ago this year when Surman played on John McLaughlin’s breakthrough album, “Extrapolation.”

10.) Abdullah Ibrahim, “Senzo” (Sunnyside)

We end as we began: With a masterly solo piano recital that serves as both a summing-up of a glorious, tumultuous career and a benchmark for wide-ranging, often intimately-felt self-expression. The 22 short pieces pour into each other as a kind of seamlessly-crafted montage of riffs, phrases, preludes and themes. Some reflect his South African heritage, others the direct influence of John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. It is all of a spellbinding piece and one hopes there is still many more like it to come.

Kendra Shank Quintet, “Mosaic” (Challenge)
Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette, “Yesterdays” (ECM)
James Moody, “Moody 4A (IPO)
Henry Threadgill Zooid, “This Brings Us To, Volume 1” (PI)
John Abercrombie, “Wait Till You See Her” (ECM)
Charles Tolliver Big Band, “Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note” (Half Note)
HONORABLE MENTION: Roy Hargrove Big Band, “Emergence” (Verve)
Mark Levine and the Latin Tinge, “Off & On: The Music of Moacir Santos” (Left Coast Clave)HONORABLE MENTION: Arturo O’Farrill, “Risa Negra” (Zoho)
Ella Fitzgerald, “Twelve Nights in Hollywood” (Verve)
“The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions, 1935-46” (Mosaic)
And, though I know yawl didn’t ask, but was asked anyway by someone else…
(I am SUCH a weirdo):
Ornette Coleman, “Sound Grammar”
Rudresh Manhanthappa "Kinsmen”
“Maria Schneider “Sky Blue”
Jason Moran “Modernistic”
Bill Frisell “Blues Dream”
Dee Dee Bridgewater, “Live at Yoshi’s”
Cecil Taylor, “The Willisau Concert”
Wayne Shorter, “Footsteps Live”
Ted Nash, “Sidewalk Meeting”
John Abercrombie, “Cat ‘n’ Mouse”

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Our "Uppity" President


From: Gene

Most days, I’m nowhere near as impressed with Maureen Dowd as she is with herself. I have often found her, especially in the post-Bush era, to be straining for effects and for laughs. Even when she was on her Pulitzer-winning roll, smirking and snarking her way through the Ken Starr inquisition and its grubby sideshows, I thought there was little in the core of her “analysis” except glib, even smug emptiness.
But today (7/26), I have to hand it to Dowd. She earned her Pulitzer and my respect with her Op-Ed column on Skip Gates vs. the Cambridge police. She got at the essence of the matter a lot sooner than anyone else, including the president (about whom, more later):
“As the daughter of a police detective, I always prefer to side with the police. But this time, I’m struggling.
“No matter how odd or confrontational Henry Louis Gates Jr. was that afternoon, he should not have been arrested once Sergeant (Jim) Crowley ascertained that the Harvard professor was in his own home.”
Ten-four, period and Amen. This was a situation where embarrassment, more than racism, was the prevailing malady. And embarrassment, more than violence, is as American as apple pie. Sorry, Rap Brown, but Kurt Vonnegut’s observation gets the cupcake this time around.
Dowd goes on to say that “President Obama was right the first time, that the encounter had a stupid ending, and the second time, that both Gates and Crowley overreacted.”
Not that this conclusion was all that difficult to reach, especially as the heat of the moment subsided and all those in the maelstrom, including Obama, were ready to put the whole thing behind them, continue paying the electric bills and keep obnoxious, “acting-out” argumentativeness where it belongs: Among loved ones.
Much as I, too, would like to leave it at that, there’s a sour taste lingering with me that has nothing to do with either Gates or Crowley, but with the immediate reaction to Obama’s charge of stupidity – for which he later apologized.
Don’t ask why, but I happened to watch the “Today” show the morning after that presidential press conference and the show’s spin-meisters had apparently decided that Obama’s spontaneous intervention in l’affaire Gates-Crowley overshadowed anything he had to say about health care reform – the ostensible purpose of that prime-time showcase. So it was the lead story for the show’s first (and least-brain-dead) hour.
The use of the word, “stupid”, especially seemed to unnerve the Victorian Beast that is mainstream media (Thank you, Tom Wolfe). Matt Lauer and his interview subjects seemed to obsess over whether the president had been presumptuous at best in using such strong language on a neighborhood dust-up.
“Stupid” is strong language? Granted, along with “shut up”, it’s one of the few non-curse words that grown-ups discourage their small children from using. But compared with saltier effusions of Harry Truman and the only-on-tape scatological riffs of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, it’s hardly the verbal equivalent of public defecation.
In fact, in the implied chiding of the president’s emotional, yet still rigorously contained outburst, I could hear a kind of collective gasp over the fact that the nice, well-spoken and thoroughly-educated African American man we’d elected president had…raised his voice in such a conspicuous manner. It was almost as if, for however long this story lasted before flaming out, Obama had assumed a kind of better-modulated, but no less pronounced belligerence towards those who’d believed him to be, well, less…obstreperous than other African American leaders.
Far more than the encounter between Crowley and Gates, I felt something in this reaction more than faintly reminiscent of the Bad Old Days of race relations in this country; that Obama had, by showing his anger on behalf of another Harvard-educated black man, behaved like a …yes…uppity negro to the mainstream; a mainstream that had apparently, but not surprisingly forgotten the president’s own insightful and eloquent words on racism’s lingering scars during last year’s campaign.
The Cambridge dust-up will recede, if it hasn’t already, to the precincts of celebrity gossip whose stories evaporate like Mountain Dew on linoleum, leaving, albeit, a sticky residue requiring more diligent scrubbing.
But the president is smart (or non-stupid) enough to know that however sincerely or deeply felt, his comments on such matters make him more vulnerable to the ditto-heads, both in public office and on the radio, waiting to trip those old, but still sturdy wires of condescension and dismissal threatening every person of color in and out of positions of authority. He also knows that there are two-faced, cunning greed heads who can’t wait to use such outbursts against the president in his push for, say, reforming health care.
I don’t blame him in the least for saying what he said about the Cambridge police. I said and thought the same things as an African American male. And I would have said the same things the president did after roughly 48 hours. But I also know how easily our humanity can be used against us as if it were a captured weapon.
Again: I don’t think I’m saying anything President Obama doesn’t know already. I’m just making sure the rest of us do, too.

--30 --

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson: Special to CNN

You can read the full text of Gene Seymour's commentary at


"We wanted the loop of performances and hit singles. Retrieve for us, please, the electricity of the 10-year-old wunderkind who literally leapt into our consciousness in that shattering year of 1968 with "I Want You Back" and "ABC."

Let us see that transfiguring moment 15 years later at the Motown Anniversary TV special when Jackson seized dominion over the pop firmament with his shattering, moon-walking recital of "Billie Jean." We wanted the videos -- "Beat It," "Bad," "Thriller," "Black and White" and all that incredible, unearthly dancing. That was all we needed to see and hear. Save the armchair psychoanalysis for later. Maybe, much later."


Michael Jackson had an on-going presence in our household for many years. His music, videos and yep, his dance moves were watched more than once. This photo was Halloween, probably 1998. The biggest event was yet to come.

September 10, 2001: Chafin Seymour performed with Michael Jackson

Madison Square Garden was the venue for what is now Michael Jackson's last solo concert - it was the first live concert he had done in 11 years & was the 1st reunion of the Jackson 5 in 20 years.

Chafin Seymour sang with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus at this performance - doing "Heal the World." The concert was also a CBS television special that aired in November. The line-up on the stage at Madison Square Garden was star-studded, to say the least. The list included for starters Liza Minnelli and Elizabeth Taylor. Gene (Seymour) was in Toronto at the Film Festival, but I remember Chafin talking with him at home after the concert and asking him, "Who is Elizabeth Taylor?"

Watch Michael Jackson sing Billie Jean at this concert.
The next day - September 11, 2001 - is the day we will never forget!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


On Friday, May 8, you cannot imagine our surprise when we were greeted by this poster as we walked up to the the Capitol Theatre at the Ohio State Office building.

This piece, Blue Grass, was created by choreographer Susan Hadley, now at the Ohio State University. Blue Grass was originally commissioned in 1998 by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago with support from the Choo San Goh and H. Robert Magee Foundation.

To see the full performance, here is the video.
(Just so you know, the piece is 20+ minutes long.)

Chafin Seymour is the dancer in bright blue shirt and black pants. The other dancers are:
Jolene Bartley, Loganne Bond,Rachael Fullenkamp, Sarah Gibbons, James Graham, Daniel Holt, Kristen Jeppsen, Leigh Lotocki, Jeff Marras, Michelle Maroon, Lauren Smith and Sherrell Whitmire. Music is by Marc O'Connor & muscians.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"Chafin Dance" Updated: BlueGrass

Make your travel plans now to see "Dance DownTown" on May 7-9 in Columbus, Ohio. See a rehearsal preview of "Blue Grass"

This piece, created by Susan Hadley, is set to blue grass music played by virtuoso fiddler Mark O’Connor. Susan Hadley notes that to set this piece she needed "dancers who were athletes."

Chafin is in various parts of the rehearsals. FYI, he is wearing a grey OSU sweatshirt, a black & grey striped sweat, and a green tshirt & navy sweats!


St. Augustine's - "Emancipated From the Shadows"

St. Augustine's has been "our" church for many years. The church life includes Sunday school, confirmation and of course, raising money. Sunday services are unique combining traditional Episcopal traditions and liturgical music with the gospel choir and praise dancers. Meals at St. Augustine's are affairs that require fasting before and after. St. Augustine's has a very unusual place in the history of New York City.

Following is a description of St. Augustine's today (written by Marie) which provides a backdrop to the New York Times article from Sunday, April 19, reprinted below, with links to a slide show.
--By: Marie
St. Augustine’s is located in the ethnically diverse lower east side of Manhattan. Today, we are the largest African American congregation of any denomination on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This year marks the 180th year of Episcopal Ministry in this now historic landmark building.

Our contributions to the community and to the Diocese of New York are many. St. Augustine’s has consistently opened our arms wide enough to celebrate our cultural and racial history, including our gospel choir and the St. Augustine’s praise dancers. We have sung mass and our acolytes are trained to support the traditions of the Episcopal Church.

Who are we? We are an African-American congregation. We worship in the shadow of a slave gallery, existing since the current building was constructed in 1828, a year after the State of New York outlawed slavery on July 4, 1828. We have an historic commitment to restore the slave galleries in order to preserve them, but also to make them accessible to visitors. We are listed in the International Sites of Conscience and this work is carried out through the St. Augustine’s Project

We are diverse: approximately 20% Hispanic and some two percent of our members are white. Our members are teachers, government workers, librarians and sanitation workers in the City of New York. A few of us are writers, or lawyers, or work in the criminal justice system. Many of us are retired and we are members that come from three and four generation families who have lived and grown up in the lower east side community. Today the youngest members of our families must often travel distances from Queens, New Jersey and the far neighborhoods of Brooklyn to St. Augustine’s because they can no longer afford housing in the neighborhood.

Our deeds speak to the character of our Christian ministry:
• We had one of the first ministries to persons living with HIV and AIDS, opening our doors for a needle exchange when it was illegal. We supported our Rector, Rev. Dr. Errol Harvey, who was prepared to go the jail to maintain the service.
• The second collection in every Sunday service is given to feed the homeless and the hungry.
• We have served as a beacon for union organizing, support for our extended family who are incarcerated; we have been home for displaced African communities living in New York City.
• We host youth groups from Colorado and Maryland; we host international visitors who are participating in programs with the Volunteers for Peace.
• Every high school graduate who goes on to college receives a $1,000 scholarship. From time to time, the men of St. Augustine’s send our college students a “stipend” – sometimes $50.00 or $20.00 – whatever can be afforded.
• Our Seniors organize a Christmas celebration for the mothers and children who live at Helen’s House, a shelter for victims of abuse and domestic violence.

And from the New York Times, April 19, 2009. . .

"FROM two tiny rooms high up and far back in St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, with its neo-Georgian archways, straight-backed pews and simple, graceful detail, the legacy of slavery in Manhattan looks down.

The stone church, on Henry Street near Montgomery Street on the Lower East Side, was built for a patrician white congregation. But although it was completed in 1828, a year after slavery was legally abolished in New York State, behind the balcony and on either side of the organ are two cramped rooms, built so that black churchgoers could worship there without being seen by white parishioners.

“These spaces were never talked about,” said the deacon, the Rev. Edgar Hopper, an agile, bald gentleman of 79. “People knew there were instances of them being referred to as slave galleries.”

For decades, these galleries languished in a state of disrepair and were hardly discussed. Children often scrambled up the narrow staircases to play on the bleacherlike seats.

But after a decade-long restoration project led by Mr. Hopper, work on one gallery was completed late last month, and the space will open for tours at the end of this month.

The project began when the Rev. Errol Harvey, Mr. Hopper’s supervisor, noticed that census data showed a diminishing

African-American population in the gentrifying Lower East Side. Mr. Harvey suggested looking into the silent heritage of St. Augustine’s, which today serves a primarily black congregation, and the task fell to Mr. Hopper.

Not everyone applauded his efforts.

“Many were uncomfortable with the restoration,” he said. “Slavery is still a sensitive subject, and not just the guilt associated with owning slaves. There is also a lot of denial associated with being descended from slaves.”

To research the subject, Mr. Hopper searched vaults at the diocese, reading archives and vestry minutes from the early 1800s in search of the names of those who may have worshiped in those rooms. Their numbers included Henry and Phoebe Nichols, a couple baptized there in 1829.

With help from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a quarter of a million dollars was raised for the project.

The other day, Mr. Hopper led a visitor up a steep, twisting staircase to the space. It is painted beige and lighted with a single bulb. Six crude steps face an opening high above the sanctuary. Because of the angle, worshipers here could not be seen by those below.

Still visible on one wall are faint pencil scrawls made by children. Until the 1930s, the gallery was used as a Sunday school for African-Americans.

Mr. Hopper sat down on a step. “In the summer,” he said, “it’s stifling here."

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


(Posted by Marie)

The Seymours of sey-nah are truespace aficionados. The first full-length movie Gene introduced to Chafin was "The Right Stuff." From age two, Gene would fast forward through the borning parts of the two reels. When Chafin was about 4, he and Gene could spent an entire afternoon watching the movie - over and over again. They still do.

On a trip to Washington, D.C. I spent a whole day with Chafin looking for Gus Grissom's grave.

Don't miss this amazing piece of graphic info. Many thanks to my brother, Bob, for linking this up.

Assembling the Space Station


Goldman-Sachs: The Profit Should Have Been Higher

(Today, I gave my friend the following letter to include in the Goldman-Sachs' mail delivery. Posted by Marie)

Edward Liddy, Chief Executive, AIG - % Goldman-Sachs
David Finiar, Chief Financial Officer, Goldman-Sachs
Wall Street
New York, NY

Dear Mr. Liddy & Mr. Finiar:

I am writing to invite you to receive the 2009 "Best Capitalist Business Practices” Award. While only the first quarter of 2009 has been reported, a panel of experts has determined that no other capitalist could possibly out distance the achievements of Goldman-Sachs in what's left of 2009.

This is a unique award. You were selected by a panel of experts from the Prospect Heights Entrepreneurs Without Portfolio (PHEWP).

I am pleased to highlight the Goldman-Sachs "best practices" achievements since receiving $10 billion from the US. Treasury in October 2008 and $12.9 billion from the AIG bailout.

Goldman-Sachs Best Capitalist Business Practices
1. Oil the VERY BIG Revolving Door: Have many alumnae with real power in high places. This is a traditional practice of a good capitalist. However, Goldman-Sachs has taken this to a very refined level. Going through the revolving door are:

Henry Paulson, a former GS chief executive, while Secretary of the Treasury, is credited with the singular achievement of “forcing” GS to take $10 billion dollars for toxic asset relief, while getting rid of all the possible competition – (Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers – gone and Merrill-Lynch force-fed to Bank of America at a hefty price).

Robert Rubin, pioneered the VERY BIG Revolving Door practice in 1993 when he left the G-S Chairman’s door to become National Economic Council director and then Secretary of the Treasury for the Clinton Administration.

Obama Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (a protégé of Robert Rubin)has given “Steve Shafran, a former favorite of Paulson's, and Bill Dudley, Goldman's former chief economist and now the successor to Geithner as head of the New York Fed the task of resurrecting the market for securitized assets” Goldman Sachs has more than 30 ex-government officials registered to lobby on its behalf

2. Oil the VERY BIG Revolving Door Often with all partners who might “owe you money". This was very successful with Edward Liddy, appointed by Henry Paulson as the current AIG Chief Executive and who was a former GS Board member, has achieved a significant best practice. All those bad business practices investments got paid off by those pesky credit-default swaps from the $170 billion AIG Federal rescue package – authorized by – (back to the top) Henry Paulson. Goldman received just under 10% of the $170 AIG bailout to day.

Now, that is a class act!

3. Change Your Underwear Often. This best practice should be used regularly. The most recent success was how Goldman-Sachs successfully changed itself into a bank holding company last year (with the blessings of the Feds, hmmm, Goldman-alumnae of course). Why is this important…? See No.4.

4. Change The Calendar. When Goldman changed underwear to become a bank holding company, it required changing the accounting fiscal year to end on December 31 (2008) instead of November 30, 2008. Who would have guessed but this changes the quarterly reporting and the result is that December doesn’t count in the First Quarter profit reports. Goldman lost approximately $2.6 billion in December, 2008.

This is brilliant.

5. Share The Wealth but OUTSOURCE to Insure Not Sharing the Wealth Too Far. According the the Wall Street Journal, over 900 Goldman employees received bonuses of $1 million for their stellar accomplishments in 2008. In contrast, Goldman-Sachs mail is delivered by persons who make $15.00 an hour ($10.00 an hour to start), with no bonuses. All made possible by outsourcing.

The Best Capitalist Business Practices Award ceremony will be presented on May 1, 2009 at 10:00 a.m. (in order to make the evening news on NY1). The ceremony will be on the steps of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza.

While you are here, the Prospect Heights Entrepreneurs Without Portfolio (PHEWP) will present a special investment proposal to Goldman-Sachs that will increase your profits next quarter (it is guaranteed by the U.S. Treasury).

The PHEWP is seeking your investment in the
Fund to Save the Luxury Greenbrier from becoming A Toxic Asset. Our research shows that luxury hotels are being forced into bankruptcy which certainly makes them toxic. While there are several properties that will soon be bankrupt, our first choice is The Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. We are proposing to make this location a luxury retirement home for us, oops, I mean the shareholders of the PHEWP. If we purchase this toxic asset now, we can train the staff so that they won't hurt us when we become really old. This is a win-win proposal because we know how much the bank and finance industry executives have enjoyed their conference held every fall with representatives from the U.S. Congress and Federal Agencies.

We look forward to your visit on May 1, 2009. There will be a brief dance of the Maypole prior to the award presentation. Please rsvp as soon as possible to We want to arrange for the appropriate media coverage.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


--posted by Marie

Every year the Seymour Family collaborates on a series of family questions to celebrate Black History Month. This year, the Seymours added - Seymour Women's History Month to the mix.

Today, I am sharing not only one of the current questions - but an article about the person.

Question (thanks to Alan Green): Name the Seymour to have joined the labor party in Connecticut, ran for a seat in the Connecticut legislature and was a suffragette?

Answer (thanks to Gene): Mary Townsend Seymour

and the 411 (thanks to Doug Cordwell):


By Mark H. Jones

Mary T. Seymour in the only known photograph of her extant. (Hartford Courant Sunday Magazine, Sunday, September 14, 1952)

In early 20th century Hartford, Mary Townsend Seymour fought battles and formed daring alliances to promote the cause of local African Americans. She was a charter member of the Hartford chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and, during the First World War, served in various war relief groups. Her public life even extended into the arenas of union organizing and politics-she was the first African American woman to run for state office. The years 1917-1920 were Seymour's most concentrated in terms of her public advocacy, but she remained influential in Hartford's African American community for decades afterward. Hers is the remarkable story of the rise of an African American woman into a position of community leadership during the early decades of the 20 th century.

Mary Seymour's origins were humble. She was born in Hartford May 10, 1873, the youngest of seven children of Jacob Townsend and Emma Smith, who had come to Hartford from Flushing and Brooklyn, New York, respectively. By 1880 Jacob Townsend had disappeared from the city directories and his fate is unknown. In August 1888 Emma Townsend died, leaving 15-year-old Mary with an uncertain future. However prior to her mother's death, the Lloyd G. Seymour family had her taken in.

On June 3, 1888 Mary visited the city's old Halls of Record at Trumbull and Pearl streets to see her birth record. Since her first name was not listed, she asked the clerk to write in "Mary Emma" in the appropriate column. The clerk also wrote in the margin that on this date the young woman had given her name as "Mary Emma Townsend Seymour." It was an emphatic declaration of selfhood. Perhaps it was her difficult childhood, tempered by her adoptive family, which led Mary Seymour to develop her empathy for impoverished mothers and children and her fierce independence.
While a member of the family, she began a friendship with Frederick Seymour. In 1891 he landed a position with the U. S. Postal Service, one of the better jobs African American males could obtain at that time. The relationship between the two blossomed, and they married on December 16, 1891. Mary was 18 years old, but the marriage register listed her as 22. In 1892 the couple had a boy they named Richard, but he died within the year and was buried in Old North Cemetery next to Mary's mother. Though Frederick and Mary were childless for the rest of their marriage their tragedy freed her to work on social causes.

Hartford's African American Community
African Americans had lived in Hartford since colonial times and over the years had achieved a tenuous peaceful coexistence in a White city. African American men found jobs as messengers, porters, cooks and chauffeurs, while African American women worked as domestics and laundresses. On October 24, 1915, the Hartford Courant ran an article entitled, "The Colored People Who Live in Hartford." A sub-headline declared, "They Have Their Own Churches, Fraternities and Other Organizations and Have Been and Are a Peaceful and Orderly Contingent, Industrious and a Credit to the City in Which They Live."

Yet this so-called harmony was relative. Hartford's African Americans resided in poor housing, paid exorbitant rents, and were not hired for better paying jobs. When investigating serious crimes, police cordoned off African American residential areas and checked every person coming in or going out.

Within a year of the Courant's assessment of them the world of these Yankee Blacks would change dramatically, and that change brought about Seymour's awakening to political and social activism. Across the industrial North, a great migration of thousands of African Americans from Dixie transformed the cities. In 1916 and 1917, hundreds of African Americans from the South moved to Hartford for better jobs and education for their children and to flee lynchings. At first, students from southern African American colleges came to work in the local tobacco fields, but letters and word-of-mouth descriptions about opportunities soon attracted families and entire church congregations. By 1917 the city's African American population more than doubled, rising from 1,600 to, according to the highest estimate, 4,000. Overnight the African American Yankees in Hartford were outnumbered by southerners who dressed differently, worshipped in a more exuberant style, and spoke with a noticeable dialect.

Whites noticed this influx and worried about its effects. For example, 700 to 800 African American students had entered Hartford schools in 1917/1918. In order to protect these students, many of whom attended evening classes, from harassment by Whites Superintendent of Schools Thomas Weaver announced that he would introduce a proposal for consideration by the Board of Education to segregate evening school classes by race. In a letter, the African American Ministerial Alliance vigorously condemned segregation, and Weaver dropped the idea. Instead, in one district there was a separate room for students of color, which educators referred to as "specialization."

Cofounded NAACP Chapter in Hartford
It was during this time that Mary Seymour emerged as a leader in her community; she led 20 Whites and African Americans in the formation of a chapter of the NAACP in Hartford. Back in January 1917, after attending an NAACP fundraiser against lynching, she and other attendees had discussed forming a local chapter. During the school controversy, they put their plan into action.
The NAACP was a fledgling national organization formed in 1909 by Whites and African Americans. By 1917, local chapters had multiplied, and it had gained a reputation as an active opponent against discrimination and lynching. Its field secretary was James Weldon Johnson, a former teacher, novelist, poet, musical lyricist, and diplomat. Mary White Ovington, a White Socialist and settlement worker, was a vice president of the organization who worked out of the New York City headquarters. Another leading force behind the NAACP's founding was Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, a pioneering African American sociologist and eloquent advocate for equal rights for African Americans. He edited The Crisis, a magazine associated with the organization.
On October 9, 1917 James Weldon Johnson, Mary White Ovington, and W.E.B. Du Bois came to Hartford and spent an evening in the living room of Fredrick and Mary Seymour at 420 New Britain Avenue.

On October 9, 1917 these three officials came to Hartford and spent an evening in the living room of Frederick and Mary Seymour at 420 New Britain Ave. Others present included Reverend R. R. Ball of the A. M. E. Zion Church; Dr. Rockwell H. Potter, Dean of the Hartford Theological Seminary and a leading White reformer; and three White female reformers and suffragists: Mary Bulkeley, Josephine Bennett, and Katherine Beach Day. They agreed to form an NAACP chapter, and elected an African American, William Service Bell, as president. On November 26, Johnson, Du Bois, and White returned to Hartford to attend the chapter's first open meeting held at Center Church.

Like other African American female members of local NAACP chapters across the country, Mary Seymour carried out the day-to-day administrative work of the chapter. In the early days of the chapter she also served as its spokesperson in the absence of Bell, who was fighting overseas. In the 1920s this dual work would become a burden for her.

During the war years, women in African American Hartford formed clubs to address the problems of caring for soldiers and their families and helping the newcomers from the South assimilate into the urban North. But Mary T. Seymour went further than that. She joined the home service section of the Red Cross and observed the wretched conditions of African American soldiers' families. In the spring of 1918, she was instrumental in forming a local chapter of The Circle for Negro War Relief, Inc. to care for soldiers abroad and stateside and their families. Seymour and two allies from the NAACP, Rev. R. R. Ball and William S. Bell, served on the executive committee. Around this time, Seymour joined the newly formed Colored Women's League of Hartford. The League intended to teach the newcomers basic "domestic sciences" and bought a house on North Main Street with donations from the city's Whites and Blacks for meetings and classes.

In May 1918 Seymour corresponded with Caroline Ruutz-Rees, a suffragist, scholar and educator, who was chairperson of the Woman's Committee of the Connecticut State Council of Defense. Seymour informed Ruutz-Rees about the Hartford chapter of the Circle for Negro War Relief, and wrote a report on its activities. She also detailed the discriminatory practices that African American men and women faced from the army, navy, and the Red Cross. Seymour referred to the lynching of a pregnant African American woman in Georgia a few days before while the victim's brother was serving the cause of "freedom" abroad. "If we are to win this war," she exhorted Ruutz-Rees, "this thing of color prejudice has got to be reckoned with by those friends of your race who have the courage of their convictions to talk about it."

Involvement with Labor Issues
Her war relief work led Seymour to become interested in labor issues-especially regarding African American women working on the tobacco warehouse assembly line, whom she had visited in her capacity as a Red Cross home service worker. Seymour and Josephine Bennett interviewed African American female tobacco workers and learned how White warehouse foremen, some from the South, were cheating them out of an honest wage. The workers were never told what the piecework rate was each day and they never knew whether those who weighed each worker's tobacco leaves were ensuring an honest total. In a long letter sent to the NAACP that was later published in the June 1920 issue of The Crisis , Seymour described her own experience on a tobacco warehouse assembly line: She appeared at a warehouse in working clothes and spent time tobacco stripping and stemming. In this manner she was able to verify the women's complaints.

Seymour and Bennett urged the African American female tobacco workers to organize their own union to fight for their rights. This was a daring notion because, as Seymour noted, the idea of forming a union was not supported by the local African American clergy, who railed against unions from their pulpits. Bennett and Seymour were able to secure the signed union cards from sixty courageous African American women; Seymour served as the local's secretary. However the local remained stagnant, members became discouraged, and within a year it fell apart. In Hartford, as well as other cities in the North, White unions viewed the migration of southern Blacks as a threat. Certainly racism was one reason for this viewpoint-the bosses and the white unions believed that African Americans did not have skills or aptitude to work on the assembly-line machines-but there were also economic reasons. Industrialists had used the African American migrants as "scab" labor to break strikes.

Bennett and Seymour, on the other hand, believed in a different vision. They foresaw a day when African American and White workers would form an alliance to advocate their shared rights and defend their common interests. As an officer of the local, Seymour sat on the Central Labor Union, an assembly of representatives from the city's locals. During meetings, she discussed the racial attitudes of White workers and the common stake of the two races. Mary T. Seymour even read articles from The Crisis .

African American Women and the Vote
Seymour also worked to enfranchise African American women, particularly after WWI ended. For her generation of White and African American female reformers, the suffrage movement should have been a unifying cause. But unlike their White counterparts African American women had to fight gender and class as well as racial barriers. After the Armistice, as women revived the fight for the 19 th amendment, many White suffragists, such as Alice Paul, head of the National Women's Party, declared that they were interested only in removing the gender requirement for the vote. How states chose to qualify voters was of no interest to them. They announced this position in order to retain the support of southern White women and to reassure southern senators and congressmen that extending the suffrage to women would not enfranchise African American women. It was a stance that African American suffragists like Seymour naturally opposed.

On February 18, 1919, The World quoted Alice Paul's remarks regarding the intention of "Negro women" in Carolina to vote if the 19 th amendment were passed. Paul reaffirmed that if passed, the amendment would not enfranchise these women. "We are organizing the White women in South Carolina but have heard of no activity or anxiety among the negresses." The article inflamed Mary Seymour so much that she wrote to Paul demanding an explanation and called the NAACP headquarters. As a result NAACP national leaders did ask Alice Paul and the National Woman's Suffrage Association to clarify their stands on votes for African American women. But their responses were evasive and unsatisfactory.

In April 1919 Seymour wrote NAACP national headquarters assessing the commitment of prominent White suffragists in Hartford for extending the right to vote to all women. She noted that Josephine Bennett, a member of the Hartford NAACP and the Women's Party, who knew Alice Paul, did not engage in "expediency" in order to get the 19 th amendment passed. Katharine Houghton Hepburn (mother of the actress), on the other hand, who served on the executive board of the Woman's Party, was "very democratic in some things-but not to be trusted too far on the Negro question. She is a politician," Seymour cautioned, "in every sense of the word."

There is much more to Mary Seymour's story. The 1917 Hartford school controversy notwithstanding, Seymour knew that she must address the issues of education and literacy among the newly arriving southern Blacks. Having learned how to work the system, Seymour formed one of her more audacious alliances when she convinced Hartford's Americanization Committee (entrusted with teaching English and reading to immigrants and instilling patriotic values) to sponsor literacy classes for the African American newcomers. In 1920, she ran for state representative on the Farmer-Labor Party ticket. Though the party did poorly in the election, Seymour had the distinction of being the first African American woman to run for the Connecticut State Assembly. She remained active in the local chapter of the NAACP in the 1920s and continued to exert influence behind the scenes long after she had resigned as chairperson of the chapter's executive board in November 1926. Her word was trusted, and for years she recommended African Americans for jobs in the White community, a duty usually reserved for the male African American Ministerial Alliance. At her death on January 12, 1957 newspapers eulogized her. In 1998, My Sister's Place in Hartford dedicated a new apartment building, named the Mary Seymour Place, on North Main Street as a shelter for women. Seymour would have approved.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Going Back Up the Down Staircase

From: Gene

Though it feels strange to recall now, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was one of my first “forbidden” films. I was, after all, only 9 or 10 when it came out and when my mother found out from my aunt that the subject of “r-a-p-e” was woven into the storyline, she said that movie was definitely not the kind of thing for my weak eyes to behold. My aunt took me and my cousin anyway; to Hartford’s Blue Hills Drive-In on a Saturday night (no less), which made it seem even more transgressive (all together now) than it actually was. It was late enough at night to make me wonder now whether I even began to understand all those unsavory aspects my mother didn’t want me to see, Mostly, I thought “Mockingbird” was a more exotic and far spookier species of the Disney melodramas we’d see whenever they showed up at a downtown palace like the Strand or Loews Poli. Disney himself, according to Neil Gabler’s biography, reacted to “Mockingbird” with envy. (“That’s the kind of film I wish I could make,” he said after a screening. What kind is that, Uncle?)
Since then, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been turned into such a rite-of-passage movie for succeeding generations of pre-adolescent cineastes (see “Almost Famous”) that its reputation is in danger of collecting mold. Some reviewers at the time thought it arrived with plenty of mildew. But as far as most of us were concerned, it was right on time – and as the decades pass, it’s still very much a part of a transformative moment in history and a collective consciousness-raising whose legacy we still treasure. Much later, I would discover how much Harper Lee’s story owed to Faulkner’s “Intruder in the Dust”, whose blunt-edged, superior 1949 film version by Clarence Brown has YET to appear on DVD! (Someday, this space will have to take up the “Free Juano Hernandez” cause.) But both her novel and its movie version have become so ingrained in our cultural DNA over the last half-century that it’s hard to find anyone who gripes about it now.
“Mockingbird”, of course, is the centerpiece of the Film Society of Lincoln Center “American Auteurs” retrospective tribute to its director, Robert Mulligan, which begins March 18 and runs through March 25 at the Walter Reade Theater. (See the full schedule here Mulligan, who died last year at age 80, left behind an erratic, but still intriguing body-of-work. Somehow, his first two, 1957’s “Fear Strikes Out” and 1960’s “The Rat Race’ (with Don Rickles playing a psycho thug) didn’t make it onto the schedule, but 1965’s “Baby the Rain Must Fall”, 1969’s “The Stalking Moon”, 1971’s “Summer of ‘42” an 1972’s “The Other” are there as are 1978’s Richard Price adaptation, “Blood Brothers” and 1991’s “The Man in the Moon” (Mulligan’s last, notable now as Reese Witherspoon’s debut.)
The catch-phrase about Mulligan’s career was that he was especially good with kids, though it should also be noted that, much like his contemporary Sidney Lumet, he seemed especially inspired by New York City; not that any of his Gotham-centric movies surpassed “Mockingbird” either in quality or impact, but there were flashes of inspiration in those movies that came within a spiked-hair’s distance of “Mockingbird.”
Of these, the one that I’ve lately rediscovered with the most pleasure is 1967’s “Up the Down Staircase.” It’s one of those relics of one’s movie-going past that you’ll never regard as great or even consistently good; yet somehow, you cherish even its messier moments in different ways than you covet the masterworks in your DVD library.
Back to my side of things: I went to an inner city high school very much like the one along Manhattan’s fringes that was cast in the movie as Calvin Coolidge High. The building was as drab, creaky and aged as the one I attended at about the same time. It, too, had “up” and “down” staircases and, because, before my freshman year, I’d read the Bel Kaufman novel from which the movie was adapted, I knew the perils of using the wrong stairwell; not that knowing such things mattered very much in the end.
Also because I’d read the book, I remember looking forward to the movie version when it was first released, not just to see how Kaufman’s epistolary narrative would be transferred to the screen, but to watch how it evoked day-to-day life in mid-1960s urban public education.
More than anything, I remember being caught up in the movie’s coating of New York grit which to me evoked an edgy glamour and seedy authenticity I found back then in pseudo-documentary TV cop shows. I had reservations, too: The musical score tried too hard to be winsome and cute, making it seem even more like a Hollywood product, despite the presence of such New York-based character actors as Sorrell Brooke, Vinnette Carroll, Ruth White, Eileen Heckart and Jean Stapleton. (Yup, that’s Edith Bunker herself as the school’s by-the-book secretary.)
Still, the school’s overall racial mix was pretty much in line with the urban school I attended. If, to contemporary eyes, there are a lot more white students than black students in this fringe neighborhood school, well, as the late, great comedian Godfrey Cambridge used to say, “Dats the way it wuz in dem days!” Most formerly all-white suburbs are exactly like that now.
What hasn’t changed much, if what my younger sister, a teacher in a working-class Hartford suburb, tells me is the grim mood and simmering sense of helplessness teachers find at their twilight parent conferences. (If anything, my sister says it’s gotten worse – and she teaches elementary kids.)
Though there are a couple of big melodramatic moments that become as over-emphatic as in any high school movie (the attempted suicide and its aftermath), the movie gets many of the little details right; their recognition is often funny, sometimes rueful. For instance: An African-American student, praised by his teacher for a cogent answer, is heckled outside the classroom as a “white-loving plowboy.” (If you’re guessing this moment landed on my chest with an especially resounding bump back then, all I’ll say in response is that it still does.) Overall, “Up the Down Staircase”, in its unwieldy blend of big and small vignettes somehow retains a vivid tableau of what such a public high school looked like in the Great Society years before metal detectors, cramped classrooms and fraying budgets. It’s awkward and gangly and sometimes too solemn for its own good. But then again, so was I back then. I watch this movie and it’s almost like watching my own hesitant sense of where and who I was when it was still possible to believe the Dream not only wouldn’t die, but actually come true.
Carrying this whole story with mild, tentative poise is Sandy Dennis as game, but perpetually flustered rookie teacher Sylvia Barrett. This was one of the very few lead roles (likely the only one) Dennis had in a mercurial movie career characterized by prodigiously neurotic characters. She was, after all, a devotee of the Method and, even here, once in a while, a mannerism will poke out of her performance like a loose thread. But she seems animated here by a sense of purpose that borders on vivacity – which isn’t a word that often shares a sentence with her name. In “Staircase”, she evinces a lemony composure that, for one of the few times in her on-screen career, never allows you to see the wheels turn. You wonder, 17 years after Dennis’ death from ovarian cancer, what her own body-of-work would have looked like if she’d had more chances to show this side of her. Maybe she did – and chose not to.

“Up the Down Staircase” is being screened at Walter Reade March 21 and March 23. It’s also available on Warner Home Video.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Chafin Seymour Updated

video to come
We want all of the dance aficionados in our reader following to know about this New York City Resource

Watching "Cabin in the Sky" for Lent

From: Gene

At the hinge of the 1960s and 1970s, “Cabin in the Sky” embodied just about everything we young, gifted & solemn black college students thought we were fighting against. All we blinkered baby cultural-nationalists could see back then in those idyllic depictions of small-town African American folk life were unhealthy levels of honeysuckle and hambone. Away with those rolling dice and eyeballs, all that cornball piety & undignified shucking…Is that really what we wanted our collective profile to look like after King and Malcolm and countless others had died for our advancement?
It’s a measure of how much time has passed that I can’t even LOOK at that previous sentence, much less write it, without wincing; the same kind of wincing we aforementioned Children of the Movement were doing whenever “Cabin” poked out from TV’s wee-hour wilds or was screened at collegiate film societies. Exaggerated nose-turning-in-a-vertical-direction is at least as embarrassing as pronounced eye-rolling – and not nearly as funny. Given the choice between retroactive scoldings from what some new-jack pundits have come to label the “soul patrol” and the to-be-or-not-to-be anxieties displayed by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and I know whose party I’d rather go to,
The distinction no longer needs raising, much less stressing. A few days ago, I’d hosted a screening of “Cabin” for a Wednesday-night Lenten supper at our predominantly black Episcopal church in lower Manhattan. It was a small audience, mostly older and just about all of its members had seen the movie before and loved it without predisposition or qualifiers (even though the DVD released three years ago opens with Warner Home Video’s contemporary disclaimer apologizing about “stereotypes” that were “wrong then and wrong now.”) The tiny audience appeared to appreciate the concern, though it didn’t need to be told what was or wasn’t appropriate. They just wanted a warm black-and-white memory bath. Even the sole 20-something in the room, recruited to help with projection, was caught up in a movie old enough to be his (grand) mother.
Each time I see the movie, I’m more galvanized by the sheer magnetism of its performers. Even in the reproachful seventies, it was hard not to be waylaid by the glory that was Lena Horne in her twenties. What she was then and what she remained throughout the sixties and beyond was so legitimate & enduring to young black fogies like us that we gave her quick dispensation for “Cabin”; the kind of pass that that didn’t easily go to, say, Ethel Waters (about whom, more later),“Rochester” Anderson or John “Bubbles” Sublett, whose song-and-dance recital of “Shine” is at once the movie’s most glaring anachronism and its most flamboyant affirmation of poise and skill.
Which in no way slights everyone else in the movie, though you wish Louis Armstrong got to do even a little bit more than set off a few elegant licks while wearing those ridiculous devil’s horns. You also wish you could see more of Duke Ellington’s orchestra at work beyond flashes of its suave, imperturbable leader. (That IS Johnny Hodges in the front with the alto, right?) But first-time director Vincente Minnelli was too caught up in the dancing and singing – and rightfully so. His own eye is so greedy and avid for movement and energy that you can almost feel him sitting next to you as you’re looking for the next big moment.
Almost all of which moments are owned by Waters. Donald Bogle has elsewhere noted how often contemporary audiences are drawn to screenings of “Cabin” by the promise of seeing the young, cat-like Horne, yet leave those screenings dazzled by Waters’ charisma. If younger moviegoers had easy access to Waters’ recordings from the 1920s and 1930s, they’d be better prepared for her vocal agility. (Critics and historians, not that anyone pays them any mind, argue with conviction that Waters’ chops as a singer were the equal of Armstrong’s – and that her influence on jazz singing was just as emphatic & far-reaching.) But hardly anyone at any age is prepared for the moment when Waters’ Petunia, backsliding into “sin” to “save” Anderson’s Joe from the Devil’s clutches, sashays into a startlingly graceful jitterbug with Sublett’s Domino. One has read in books about both women of tension between Horne and Waters throughout “Cabin’s” shooting. (In her own memoir, “His Eye is On the Sparrow”, Waters doesn’t go into detail about the friction except to say that she “won every battle” and that her scrapes kept her away from the movies for another six years.) Whether Waters ended up dominating “Cabin” by fair or foul means, her triumph endures just as Dilsey, the character she played in her last film, 1959’s “The Sound and the Fury,” endured.
After the church screening was over, I asked the audience if there were still aspects of the movie that offended or seemed out-of-date. No one could think of any – and I honestly couldn’t come up with any that mattered. I do wish, in retrospect, that I’d asked them if it seemed as though the folks who were either in hell or engaging in “sinful” partying had a better time – and heard better music – than those who stayed close to Petunia’s righteous path. I decided against bringing that dilemma up in a Lenten discussion, though it now strikes me that there were folks willing to talk it over.
I did, however, bring up the closest present-day corollary to “Cabin in the Sky’s” blend of low comedy and Manichean melodrama: The films of Tyler Perry, especially those featuring Madea, Perry’s pious, pistol-packing alter-ego. Since I knew that all those assembled had seen more than one Perry movie more than once, I asked if there was any real difference between the depictions of black life in “Cabin” and those in, say, “Madea Goes to Prison.” They said there were none; a surprise to me since I expected them to mention the relative rawness of Perry’s depictions of single motherhood, class animus and teen pregnancy. “Cabin’s” dichotomy between Petunia’s milk-and-honey world view and the temptations of the flesh embodied by Horne’s duplicitous Georgia Brown seem like old school Disney by comparison. But in both cases, a simplistic (as opposed to simple) solution to mortal weakness and moral sloth is submitted to audiences for whom broad laughs and big emotions are perhaps the only justifications for entertainment.
Perry continues to astound the mainstream (white) world with the bushels of money he reaps for his movies. And his entrepreneurial moxie serves as a reminder that, unlike the 1940s (or the two decades subsequent to or preceding them), it’s possible for African American artists to have some control over how they’re depicted on screen, for better or worse. I still wonder whether future generations of black people will someday accuse his work of, at best, being too over-the-top or (so to speak) too black-and-white in their moralistic aims. I doubt it somehow. But of one thing I have no doubt: Madea, whatever her own martial skills or swaggering mojo, is no Ethel Waters.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


(with acknowledgement to Frank Rich, NY Times, Sunday, February 8, 2009 )

President Obama sent me an email yesterday asking for an “economic crisis” story.

Our economic crisis began in 1991 when we moved for job reasons from Philadelphia to Brooklyn.

We had just bought a house in 1990 & over the next 5 years watched as the value became 30% lower than the outstanding mortgage. In 1996, when the last group of U of Penn students moved out and left behind a monster gas bill, it was time to call it quits.

Our options were zero. We could not sell it; could not afford to rent it. So, facing foreclosure & after hiring a lawyer, we devised a strategy. We asked FannieMae to take the house; we would turn over several months of mortgage payments that we had escrowed on advice of our lawyer. After months of agonizing letters, phone calls and assembling many pages of back-up documentation, we had gotten no where. Finally, I used a professional contact and made a call to a FannieMae executive in Washington, D.C.

The local Fannie Mae office finally returned our call. The negotiations were quick and dirty. Fannie Mae would take the house and the escrowed mortgage payments; we got to sign two loan notes from the mortgage insurance company to repay the loss over the next seven years. The only concession was that the notes were “no interest” loans. Fannie Mae came out whole; the mortgage insurance company was fine as long as we continued to have income and us, - well, we lost the $55,000 we had put into the house, and we dutifully felt guilty, repaid the notes and paid a substantial amount of Federal taxes every year thereafter.

Fast forward.

2001 - Facing the sale of the Brooklyn apartment we had rented when we left Philadelphia in 1991, we finally had to buy a place to live.

2007, our current mortgage was 42% of the market value. That's great news!

Last week I was trying to complete our 2008 tax returns. What a revelation!
Income in 2008 was 70% lower than in 2007 -
2008 basic living expenses were 45% higher (no vacations, clothes or
electronic purchases included!) -
And we will pay Fed taxes for 2008.
Our mortgage remains our “only debt.

How low can it go before it is an economic crisis?

So, having a "Yes We Can" outlook, I began to consider 2009:
2009 income is projected to be another 20% lower.
My retirement account statement dated December 31, 2008 had a loss of over 26% in less than 5 months.
Health insurance costs us $8800 a year.
Our monthly costs exceed current income by 30%; our mortgage is our only debt.

This is as low as it goes. What happens next?

How about an “economic stimulus” package or affordable health care. About $5000 a month will make us “whole.” We could settle for less. I’ve been reading and listening; I haven't found anything in the proposed “economic stimulus” bill that will provide any relief in the next 12 months.

So, I think we will have to use the $50,000 credit limit that I noted while cutting up a credit card which had changed its terms to charge 23% interest on any outstanding balance during the month, even for being one day late with a payment).

Then we could really qualify for being in an economic crisis. Can we will apply for a bailout from “TARP.”

So, President Obama, would you please ask Secretary Geithner to give us some advice?
or maybe a job.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Errant Thoughts on Black History Month

Each February, like clockwork, my cousin Alan Green sounds a kind of digital horn to as many wired-in Seymours as he can gather around the Web to proclaim the beginning of our Black History Month guessing game. The rules are simple. He asks us questions about the Seymour family history stretching as far back as pre-Revolutionary slavery days and we send back answers. Often they’re the same questions (Q: “Which Seymour was the first African American in Connecticut to claim membership in the Sons of the American Revolution?” A: “Frederick William.”), though sometimes he or someone on the mailing list comes up with an unexpected curve that stumps everyone. I expect one of these to sail into my e-mail bag any day now.
However this ancestral gut check plays out, it’s become a welcome opportunity for all of us to shout out at each other from our work stations, college dormitories, home offices and Blackberries. Many of us live far away from each other. Some of us haven’t seen each other in years – or have never met at all. It has become the principal means for maintaining contact, not only with each other, but with all the sad and lonesome ghosts of our forebears who I imagine to be looking upon our jocular flurry of Q&As with something like bemused affection. I also imagine that the congenital streak of Yankee truculence embedded in the Seymour DNA also makes these ghosts wonder why we’re making such a big deal out of this junk.
As much as I love a good quiz show, I can understand such skepticism. I’m not so sure it’s confined, even hypothetically, to cranky ancestors. This year, more than ever, I’m sensing, at the very least, some fatigue among African Americans with the very notion of a Black History Month. Some might obliquely (or not) connect this discontent with last month’s inauguration in keeping with the yet-to-be-established-for-sure notion that Obama’s ascension means We Have Overcome. I think this isn’t quite right because a.) not that many black folks go that far with their euphoria when they sit down and think about it and b.) this ennui with Black History Month has been building for some time.
The most conspicuous example of this skepticism emerged two years ago on “The Daily Show” whose “resident black historian” Larry Willmore submitted to nonplussed anchor Jon Stewart as half-hearted an acknowledgement of Black History Month (hereafter intermittently shrunk to a space-saving acronym) as can be delivered on a fake news show. Willmore, who could stand a shot at his own fake news forum, gave voice to the nagging, suppressed imp within many of us. My own inner imp has wondered about the purpose of BHM long before Barack Obama took his SATs.
And I’m old enough to remember when February used to come around as “Negro History Month.” Being in an integrated public elementary school, I believed back then that I needed the month of February to distinguish myself and those who looked like me from the mainstream. (Look at what we did! Look at who we are!) Black wasn’t quite yet as Beautiful as it would become after I started high school, so February was pretty much all we had.
After the reawakening of Black Pride came to full fruition in the early 1970s, BHM was celebrated even more fervently at the same time that its very existence began to be questioned, beginning with, “Why February?” By this time, of course, a whole lot of people, black and white, started challenging the long-prevalent logic of celebrating African American history in the same month that the Great Emancipator was born. After Martin Luther King Jr.s Birthday was declared a holiday, one heard stirrings towards shifting BHM back a month. Hasn’t happened yet – and besides, who needed to bring Lincoln into the matter at all when W.E.B. DuBois’ birthday happened to fall on Feb. 22? Not that anyone makes a particularly big deal about DuBois when BHM rolls around like an in-law’s annual visit; still, it remains a convenient enough excuse.
My own discontent with BHM swirled around its particularity. “Shouldn’t every month be Black History Month?,” I would rhetorically ask those (mostly) whites and (some) blacks who noticed my diminishing enthusiasm for BHM. I still believe that just as I believe year-long conscientious attention should be paid to our shared, complex heritage. More to the point, allowing one month each year for the rest of America to pay close attention to us seemed just another excuse for the rest of America to ignore us for the remaining eleven. (“Twenty-eight days to make up for four-hundred years of oppression?,” Larry Willmore asked “I’d rather have casinos.” Which sounds as valid an option now as it was in 2007.)
But perhaps the most nagging itch came with the way public and private institutions persist in acknowledging BHM as a litany of -- and let the word be capitalized and italicized so all may bask in its all-encompassing glory – Achievements.
Not just, as the “Daily Show” mentions, Harriet Tubman and Tuskegee Airmen and “the guy who invented the peanut”, but a plethora of renegades, rugged individualists and (for want of a better word) “leaders” shoe-horned into a standardized model for Struggling Through & Getting Over. This iconography of Those Who Made It is stretched so wide that it even takes in those who put their bodies in harm’s way during the civil rights movement. Nothing irritates me more about this particular issue than the shorthand meted out by talking heads and lazy schoolteachers alike about Martin Luther King Jr.’s life work. It’s the world-view that insists on regarding King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize as an Ultimate Achievement; as if submitting to arrests, beatings, death threats, slander and, ultimately, cold-blooded murder were a career choice instead of a calling, a sacrifice, for God’s sake!
It’s so much easier in a world ruled by Tabloid Culture to deal not just with King, but with DuBois, Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Paul Robeson, Ida B. Wells, Jackie Robinson and their like as granite icons of triumph-over-adversity rather than as complex, nuanced human beings whose flaws and contradictions may offer as much educational value as their virtues and successes. (You don’t see too many commercial TV spots during BHM extolling such troubling presences in the American psyche as Nat Turner, Bessie Smith or Paul Robeson, do you?) Worse, the reductive enshrinement of Getting Over, Making It , etc. reinforces in African Americans that such values are the ONLY ones worth striving for. As someone could and should have said in the middle of the Obama Inaugural euphoria, Getting Over is only part of the deal. What matters even more is what you do when you Get There. Consider the examples of Condoleezza Rice, Clarence Thomas or (as it’s lately become depressingly apparent) David Patterson and ask yourself whether just Making It to the top is enough. If all BHM is about is extolling advancement (which, as noted earlier, used to be enough when there wasn’t anything else around) over honest and productive inquiry into the past, then maybe it, too, should be cast in granite and consigned to history’s basement.
And yet…I’m not sure I’m ready for that to happen. I still need some ongoing, clearly-marked acknowledgement and celebration of the beautiful, terrible passage that carried us all to this uncertain, yet potentially transfiguring time we live in now. One month isn’t enough, one year isn’t enough. But something like the recurring, interactive Seymour Family History game provides a useful, expansive model for honoring the past without neglecting further exploration of its shadowed corners, its derelict edges. It could be a template for showing that history not only begins at home, but also never stops adjusting, shifting, adding on…never stops, period.
Not that I even pretend to know everything there is to know about my family history, but I have always sensed, at least, that the Seymours have never been easily placated by simple bromides or easily explained behavior and neither should anyone else. Playing the game is another way of reminding each other that we’re still alive. When history is once again acknowledged as something that’s truly in the bloodstream and not on a marble plaque, Black History Month won’t be the only thing whose existence will once again be justified.

More on FORECLOSURE- Mom Buys a House

Some of the earliest pictures of Irma & Robert Nahikian in front of their home bought with Irma Nahikian's tailoring for the US Navy, below.

Compliments of Lavon, Brother No 1. And Thank You!_________________________________________________________

A few corrections to the blog, if I may...

For part of World War II, U.S. Navy Radioman First Class (RFC) Robert L. Nahikian (1) was stationed on the campus of the University of Alabama in Auburn, Ala. RFC Nahikian taught Morse Code to class after class of sailors soon to be heading to the South Pacific.

(1) Dad’s rating was RM3 then RM2 at Auburn...this means Radioman Third Class then Radioman Second Class. He made RM1 when the Navy Radioman school at Alabama Polytechnic Institution (later renamed Auburn University) was decommissioned (closed). The RFC is an incorrect ")designation."

Family lore has it that when the commanding officer was obsessed with having the sharpest looking sailors in the U.S. Navy. Inspections happened almost daily. During one inspection, he noticed RM3 (third class petty officer) Nahikian's tailored uniforms and demanded to know how this uniform had been altered.

RFC Nahikian, more than a little worried about his "altered" state, confessed that his wife & mother of his two (at that time) children had made the changes, removing the "bell" from the bell bottoms, sewing on the patches and tailoring the mid-blouse to fit. Irma Curtis Nahikian had arrived by bus. (2)
(2) "TRAIN...due to rationing, commercial intercity bus service was non-existant).

Soon, the commander set Mom up in business in a one room building. As hundreds of new sailors arrived, their uniforms were piled and piled beside Mom & her sewing machine. My sister and brother (about 4 and 7 years old) remember having a rotation of sailors that looked after them and their goat. (3)

(3) The base commander was a previously retired full commander that had been recalled to active duty. He was appalled by the appearance of the students under his command as they had been rushed through boot camp with insufficient time to have their uniforms altered to properly fit. When he saw that Dad’s uniforms were altered to fit perfectly he asked Dad where he had them done as he did not know of any local establishment capable of doing this work.

Dad explained that his wife was an accomplished tailor and had a sewing machine. It was suggested that if Mom was agreeable, the Navy could set her up in an on-base facility where she could operate a tailoring shop. She was given a large room at the end of a warehouse and she spent all day working with her foot-powered treadle Singer sewing machine altering uniforms and sewing on stripes. Keep in mind that this was a un-air conditioned building set in an open field in central Alabama. I can’t imagine what the temperature was.

The rest of the building was a supply warehouse and there was a civilian employee who ran it. He resented Mon “invading” his little kingdom. He felt that women should not be working and should be at home. The goat you mentioned was his, not ours. He had it to keep the grass around the building cut and also milked it. This man also had a hatred for red-headed woodpeckers and shot them whenever he could with a BB gun.

The rotation of sailors who looked after Marta and I were actually the security guards who did keep an eye on us as we wandered in and out of their area of responsibility, but there were no sailors directly assigned to “look after” us."
For the next two years, (slightly more than one year ...1943 . I started second grade in Asheville in 1944) Mom sewed: patches, insignias, taking the bell out of the bell bottoms - at $.25 (yes, a quarter) each. A year later, RFC Nahikian (by now he was RM2) was deployed to a ship. Mom packed up her two kids, her sewing machine, $3750.00 and went home to Asheville, N.C.

This was the down payment for the home we lived in for the next 50 years. At 25 cents each, she had sewn 11,000 uniforms in 12 months

P.S. - Having a down payment did not guarantee buying a house. Mom found the house to buy for $7.500, but (of course) couldn't get a mortgage - no subprime lenders in those days, even with a 50% down payment. Finally the mortgage was approved in her Mother-in-Law's name. This was considered a unique exception; the bank officer noted that "Mrs. Nahikian has a job in a war product factory and is a responsible widow." (4)

(4) " The money for the down payment came from all those hundreds of uniforms Mom had altered in Alabama. But, when she started the purchase negotiations a big problem arose. Under North Carolina law at that time, a wife could NOT buy property and could not get a mortgage loan!!! Her husband could, but he had to be physically present to sign all the papers, mortgage agreement, etc. The fact that this was impossible as he was in the South Pacific had no bearing. No husband present . . . . No purchase, no mortgage loan, no exceptions. The dilemma was resolved by Grandmother Alice (as she was a widow, the requirement for a husband did not apply) buying the house and then giving it as a gift to her daughter-in-law. "

Friday, February 6, 2009

Gene's 2009 Oscar Picks

Back in Gene's Newsday period (which seems a lot longer ago than it actually is), he was asked each year by Tom O'Neill, the indefatigable, unstoppable proprietor of the Gold Derby awards site, to submit his Oscar prognostications. Gene was good enough at handicapping this stuff to have been asked to return again & again. Tom graciously continues to ask Gene what he thinks about the Academys and Gene is more than happy to comply. Here's what he thinks as it presently runs on the LA Times "The" site

Foreclosures? Mom Buys a House-1944

The Nahikian part of SeyNah grew up in Asheville, N.C. We lived in the same house all of my growing up years. Included were 4 siblings, dogs and from time-to-time various other family members (extended & not always so extended).

For part of World War II, U.S. Navy Radioman First Class (RFC) Robert L. Nahikian was stationed on the campus of the University of Alabama in Auburn, Ala. RFC Nahikian taught Morse Code to class after class of sailors soon to be heading to the South Pacific.

Family lore has it that when the commanding officer was obsessed with having the sharpest looking sailors in the U.S. Navy. Inspections happened almost daily. During one inspection, he noticed RFC Nahikian's tailored uniforms and demanded to know how this uniform had been altered.

RFC Nahikian, more than a little worried about his "altered" state, confessed that his wife & mother of his two (at that time)children had made the changes, removing the "bell" from the bell bottoms, sewing on the patches and tailoring the mid-blouse to fit. Irma Curtis Nahikian had arrived by bus only a few days earlier with two small children and her sewing machine.

Soon, the commander set Mom up in business in a one room building. As hundreds of new sailors arrived, their uniforms were piled and piled beside Mom & her sewing machine. My sister and brother (about 4 and 7 years old) remember having a rotation of sailors that looked after them and their goat.

For the next two years, Mom sewed: patches, insignias, taking the bell out of the bell bottoms - at $.25 (yes, a quarter) each. A year later, RFC Nahikian was deployed to a ship. Mom packed up her two kids, her sewing machine, $3750.00 and went home to Asheville, N.C.

This was the down payment for the home we lived in for the next 50 years. At 25 cents each, she had sewn 11,000 uniforms in 12 months.

P.S. - Having a down payment did not guarantee buying a house. Mom found the house to buy for $7.500, but (of course) couldn't get a mortgage - no subprime lenders in those days, even with a 50% down payment. Finally the mortgage was approved in her Mother-in-Law's name. This was considered a unique exception; the bank officer noted that "Mrs. Nahikian has a job in a war product factory and is a responsible widow."

Monday, January 26, 2009

Gung Hay Fat Choy


from "The Mutts"

"Legend has it that in ancient times, Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on Chinese New Year. Twelve came, and Buddha named a year after each one. He announced that the people born in each animal's year would have some of that animal's personality." -Holly Hartman,

Those born in ox years (including 2009) tend to be painters, engineers, and architects. They are stable, fearless, obstinate, hard-working and friendly

The Year of the Mutt is a little different. Mutts are fearless, obstinate and of course, friendly! In 2009, the Mutts are reminding everyone to celebrate the most important trait of all -- inclusive exclusivity!

An Inclusive-Exclusive Tale

Inauguration Day - January 20 - the two oldest Mutts were in Washington, DC, holding two of the hottest "blue tickets" in town that would give us inclusive exclusive access to a "close-up" on the swearing in.

It was to be more exclusive than we could have imagined. 4 1/2 hours in the frigid cold, driven like Oxen, in circles. At 10:30am the "Blue Gate" was in sight with only 5,000 others with exclusive access in front of us.

So, a decision was made in keeping with an old Chinese proverb:

"It is not easy to stop the fire when the water is at a distance; friends at hand are better than relations afar off. "

Rushing several blocks in search of a bathroom, warmth and a TV, we joined the celebratory sisters and brothers in a Mexican restaurant. Amidst multiple shots of tequila, the crowd finally beat the loudest brothers into submission so that we could hear.

As the swearing ended, a voice rang out, "When does he get the ring?" We turned, asking, "What ring? He doesn't get a ring; he just gets Air Force One and the keys to the big White House." The voice insisted, "Nah, I know he gets a ring. Bush has to give it to him."

And so, as the shouts of celebration grew louder than the television commentary, we knew (in hindsight, of course) that we had witnessed this moment in complete Inclusive exclusivity!

We leave you with a proverbial Chinese thought:

"A Wise Man adapts himself to circumstances, as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it."