Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud!
“A Trailblazer is someone who doesn't necessarily have the same opportunity, the same leg up as another person, but they emerge as a superstar in their lives. A Trailblazer is somebody who paves that path for themselves… and someone who blazes that trail for future generations, they don't look back.” Forging ahead for the good of the community at large.
Statement from Family...
It is with immeasurable grief that we confirm the passing of Chadwick Boseman.
Chadwick was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in 2016, and battled with it these last 4 years as it progressed to stage IV.
A true fighter, Chadwick persevered through it all, and brought you many of the films you have come to love so much. From Marshall to Da 5 Bloods, August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and several more, all were filmed during and between countless surgeries and chemotherapy.
It was the honor of his career to bring King T’Challa to life in Black Panther.
He died in his home, with his wife and family by his side.
The family thanks you for your love and prayers, and asks that you continue to respect their privacy during this difficult time.
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation
where they will not be judged by the color of their skin
but by the content of their character."
-Martin Luther King, Jr.-
When it comes to Americans making one of their most important 2020 decisions, the election of a President and Vice President, Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream has not come true for the little child referenced when Kamala Harris said to Joe Biden, “You know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day, and that little girl was me.” Instead of judging by the content of the 55-year-old’s meteoric career as it pertains to her becoming Vice President of the United States, naysayers and outright haters are judging Senator Harris by factors such as her race, gender, national origin, and choice of a spouse.
The worst misogynists have publicly declared Senator Harris to be a “nasty,” “mean,” “horrible,” “phony” woman. Other would be detractors disregard the following facts:
· Following Harris’ graduation from Westmount High School in Quebec, she earned a Bachelor’s Degree from Howard University and, subsequently, a Law Degree from Hastings Law School;
· She became Deputy District Attorney for the Alameda County District Attorney's Office;
· She served as managing Attorney of the Career Criminal Unit of the San Francisco District Attorney's Office; headed the San Francisco City Attorney's Division on Families and Children; and was elected as the San Francisco District Attorney;
· While serving as California Attorney General, she had a stellar victory by ending negotiations for a settlement from the country's five largest financial institutions for improper mortgage practices and, subsequently, obtained a $20 million settlement which was five times the original proposed figure for California; and
· After being elected to the Senate, she has served on the Senate Budget, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Judiciary, and Intelligence Committees.
Sadly, as was the case with President Barack Obama, some sickened by racism folks cast aspersions regarding whether Senator Harris is “Black enough,” both in terms of skin color as well as other misguided essentialist views regarding what it takes to be “Black,” e.g. “maybe she isn’t Black enough because her parents were highly educated bourgeois folks in Berkeley California.” Added to this counterproductive narrative regarding “Blackness” is the “Misogyny Litmus Test” for a “Black” electoral official. This view, held by some Blacks as well as Whites, maintains that the “ideal Black” is one who is a function of miscegenation and immigration, i.e.,  someone whose demeanor has been supposedly enhanced by a mix of “White,” “Caribbean,” “Asian,” or “African” blood;  someone with relatively recent geographic roots outside of the United States; and, in short,  any “Exotic Black” other than a “pure” descendant of African slaves in America.
Then there are those who ignore the biblical admonition not to “tear asunder” what “God has put together.” They, along with the racists who for centuries prevented interracial marriages, just can’t take Senator Harris at her word when she stated, "Look, I love my husband, and he happened to be the one that I chose to marry, because I love him… and he loves me.”
Before engaging in any of the foregoing foolishness regarding Senator Harris, people should at least read her book, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey. Therein, for example, the reader will find Harris’ detailed analysis of how health disparities begin “in the delivery room;” the need for “every medical school in the country to require implicit bias training for their students…;” and why “… improving health outcomes across the board demands that we transform the health care system itself.”
Before offering irrelevant criticism, read carefully Harris’ analysis of how “The criminal justice system punishes people for their poverty. …Whether or not someone can get bailed out of jail shouldn’t be based on how much money he has in the bank. Or, the color of his skin.” Review her criticism of the fact that Blacks pay 35 percent higher bail than Whites for the same charge and how Latinos pay nearly 20 percent more. In response to this miscarriage of justice, Senator Harris introduced legislative actions to replace the bail bond system.
Now is not the time for petty presidential politics given that our nation is sinking into an abyss of lies, deceits, exploitation, manipulation according to race and ethnicity, misogyny, homophobia, and other deplorable acts similar to those during the time that Hitler desired to make Germany great again. With Americans dying by the second as a result of a grossly mismanaged health pandemic, now is not the time to engage in castigations regarding “birtherism.”
Now is the time to heed Senator Harris’ admonition to us, i.e., “Even as our democracy faces an assault unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes, we have to remember that our system works when people who care about the Unite States stand up and participate. My daily challenge to myself is to be part of the solution, to be a joyful warrior in the battle for the soul of the country. My challenge to you is to join that effort. Let’s not throw up our hands when it’s time to roll up our sleeves.”
Jack L. Daniel
Co-Founder, Freed Panther Society
Contributor, Pittsburgh Urban Media
Author, Negotiating a Historically White University While Black
August 16, 2020
Senator Kamala Harris, is the Democratic vice presidential nominee in the 2020 election.
Oronde Sharif remembers meeting Vernell A. Lillie when he was 10. He and his brother were always in tow when his busy mother Shona, a choreographer, dancer and Pitt lecturer, was out and about at meetings and events. Lillie, a former associate professor of Africana Studies and founder of Pitt’s Kuntu Repertory Theatre, was a close friend of Shona’s.
Years later, when Sharif was an undergraduate student at Pitt, he found himself in Lillie’s office more often than his mother’s.
“I would go there just to talk,” said Sharif, who is now director of Pitt’s Shona Sharif African Drum and Dance Ensemble, part of Africana Studies. “And not about acting … we talked about student life. Dr. Lillie was like that mother, grandmother or mentor who had so much knowledge.”
Lillie, who retired from Pitt in 2006, died on May 11, her 89th birthday.
A poster from the Kuntu Repertory Theatre Records, housed at Pitt. (Kuntu Repertory Theatre Collection, c. 1970-2013, CTC.2015.01, Curtis Theatre Collection, Archives & Special Collections, University of Pittsburgh Library System)
Born in 1931 in Hempstead, Texas, Lillie arrived in Pittsburgh in 1969 to pursue a doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University. In 1973, she began teaching in what was then Pitt’s Department of Black Community, Education, and Research and, along with prolific poet and playwright Rob Penny, founded Kuntu the following year. The new theater company exposed Pittsburgh audiences to cutting edge ideas, art, culture and the Black community’s social and political concerns. For nearly four decades, it featured works by Penny, Pulitzer Prize-winning Pittsburgh native August Wilson and other Black playwrights. The Black Arts Movement was thriving in cities like Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago and Pittsburgh, and Lillie and her peers were in the forefront.
Kuntu was the first company to mount the August Wilson play “Homecoming” in 1976, which Lillie directed. Actors such as Sala Udin, Emmy-winner Esther Rolle and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company founder Mark Southers, performed on the Kuntu stage, located at Pitt’s Stephen Foster Memorial, and later at Alumni Hall. Chadwick Boseman of “Black Panther” fame also had a play staged by Kuntu and acted in it, under Lillie’s direction.
Sharif remembers Lillie, along with people like Shona, Penny and former department chair Barbara Sizemore as providing the depth, soul and energy to that corner of campus. Students would hang out in their offices, listening to advice and absorbing like sponges.
Many of Sharif’s friends were actors and some say that studying under Lillie was the highlight of their Pitt experience. Sharif enjoyed watching the Kuntu rehearsals and always stayed late after a final performance to help strike the set, just to be of help to Lillie.
“I just gravitated to her,” he said.
Sala Udin, who acted in Kuntu plays and eventually served on Pittsburgh City Council for 10 years, said Lillie was “a serious taskmaster” of a director, compared to others. And she was all about educating her audience.
“She integrated teaching into her directing,” he said. “She was always serious about people have an intellectual curiosity and an understanding of Black theatre.”
Lillie was known for opening up Kuntu to community members and non-theater majors. Even those who lacked acting experience were welcome to audition for one of the plays, which often used music and African themes to bring stories of Black life to its audiences.
Pitt Professor of History Laurence Glasco, whose career at Pitt started around the time Lillie arrived, says he was always impressed by the quality of the Kuntu performances, including many works by Penny, whom Lillie liked to showcase.
“I found a lot of human interest in the plays, though they had a political message,” he said. “Vernell had an orientation in Black consciousness and Black Power but it didn’t overwhelm the work or make it one-dimensional at all.”
Glasco also enjoyed the “talk-back sessions” Lillie offered at the end of a performance, in which the cast would return to the stage and engage with audience members.
Lillie and actor Lamman Rucker at a National Black Theater Festival. (Courtesy of Lamman Rucker)
While he was a Duquesne University student, actor Lamman Rucker was in the cast of Penny’s play “Nefertari Rising” and Lillie made an indelible impression on him. As she did often, Lillie brought in a guest director, this time Woodie King Jr., the founding director of the New Federal Theatre in the lower east side of Manhattan. The experience inspired Rucker to move to New York to work with King.
“There’s so much excellence that you see on stage, Broadway, screen and through regional theater, it leads back to Dr. Lillie’s leadership,” he said. “So much of what I say and do has come from her, especially while training artists now.”
Rucker, who has appeared in Tyler Perry films and on the popular “Law & Order” TV series, said Lillie inspired him to establish The Black Gents of Hollywood, a Black male artist’s collective.
“Now that she’s an ancestral spirit, she’ll continue to guide me,” he said.
Lillie’s robust career at Pitt garnered her many awards, including the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1986, a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania in 1998 and the Pennsylvania Creative Community Award in 2006. A scholarship in Lillie’s name was established at Dillard University in New Orleans, her alma mater. She kept Kuntu alive even after her retirement. The company’s final performances were at the Homewood Library in 2013. But Sharif, Udin and the others feel her presence will stay with them.
Said Rucker: “She breathed life into me and so many people. Her work, vigor and love for us will continue to pour through us forever.“
A treasure trove of items and correspondence related to Kuntu Repertory Theatre’s 40-year journey at Pitt is being catalogued at the University Library System. Donated in 2015 by the family of Vernell A. Lillie and facilitated by the Kuntu staff and board of directors, the items filled 500 boxes when they arrived at the University Library System’s Ford E. and Harriet R. Curtis Theatre Collection.
Project archivist Megan Massanelli said the archives are being separated into two collections—the Dr. Vernell A Lillie Papers and the Kuntu Repertory Theatre Records. She says the boxes contained several hundred audio and video recordings, and a special grant came through last fall to help the library preserve and digitize them, including recordings from the Bob Johnson Papers.
The Lillie Papers will include syllabi for classes, personal research materials, academic records, department correspondence and personal letters, photos and school yearbooks. Materials cover the years 1950 through 2013. The Kuntu Records will contain written, audio and photographic records documenting the history and activities of Kuntu Repertory Theatre.
“Kuntu was the predominant Black performing arts group in Pittsburgh for more than 35 years,” said Massanelli. “It provided a platform for Black artists and technicians and examined the Black experience with the goal of creating personal growth and social change.”
While there is no official finding aid available yet, information on the two collections can be found in the following places:
Source: University of Pittsburgh
The Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh was also the site of the National Negro Opera Company, which flourished from 1941 to 1962. It set the stage was set for the rise of Kuntu Black Theatre to reach international influence.