Rooting for the underdog is one of my guilty pleasures. I am a sucker for sports movies from Remember the Titans to the Mighty Ducks. So when I got the chance to see The Great Debaters, I jumped. I know, but hey, debate can be classified as a blood sport in some circles 🙂
It’s a great movie — satisfyingly rich in historical detail and dramatic tension. And their coach Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington), glories in the competition, encouraging them to use their “righteous minds.” Set in the midst of the Depression, the characters live Jim Crow and the Harlem Renaissance… you know I was hooked when not even 10 minutes in, Langston Hughes is referenced.
Melvin Tolson was a teacher and a poet. His Gallery of Harlem Portraits can be read as a companion to Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. Each sketches characters in a world the poet painted into existence. Tolson’s poems are moving, passionate and wickedly ironic.
Carrie Green by Melvin Tolson
Carrie drags her aching feet up the stairs…
Nobody knows de trouble I seen,
Nobody knows but Jesus.
Weariness swells in her body,
Weariness too big for her body.
And the four dingy walls of Mr. Maranto’s cafe.
Away down in Vicksburg.
White-haired Miss Smithfield…
Ole Massa Grant he took Vicksburg
To set the darkies free..
Dear Miss Smithfield told Carrie
That the blacks were poor
Because God was punishing them for their laziness;
But that if Carrie would be thrifty,
Like white folk,
She could lay aside enough money for her old age.
Good Miss Smithfield is now in heaven…
Glory to de Lamb of Gawd!…
For Carrie heard the dear lady say,
On her deathbed.
That God was calling his servant home.
During the hard, hard years
Carrie worked faithfully and saved what she could;
But her pitiable sum was lost
In the collapse of the Security National Bank.
Faith can move mountains…
So Carrie goes to Mr. Maranto’s cafe at 6 am.
And works over the red-hot stove till 6 pm.
And climbs the dirty stairs,
Tired in body and spirit,
Just as she used to be
When good Miss Smithfield,
Now in heaven,
Worked her fourteen hours a day
And gave her two dollars a week
And cast-off clothes
And good advice.
renaissance: Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round (Sweet Honey in the Rock); Yardbird Suite (Charlie Parker); The Death of Mother Jones (Gene Autry); Brother Can you Spare a Dime (Bing Crosby); I’m Beginning to See the Light (Duke Ellington); Deep Purple (Art Tatum); Links on the Chain (Phil Ochs); Whistle While you Work (Artie Shaw — yep, it’s the one from Snow White — a top 10 tune of 1938); Strange Fruit (Billie Holiday); At Last (Etta James); Honeysuckle Rose (Coleman Hawkins’ take); Ol’ Man River (Paul Robeson — his voice, wow!!!); Every Time I Feel the Spirit (Five Blind Boys of Alabama); When it’s Sleepy Time Down South (Sidney Bechet); Did you See Jackie Robinson Hit that Ball? (Count Basie); Blues in the Night (Woody Herman); It Ain’t Necessarily So (while Sting has an awesome version — check out any version from a Porgy & Bess soundtrack); Nuages (Django Reinhardt); I’m on my Way (Mahalia Jackson); Alabama (John Coltrane) and Fight the Power (the Isley Brothers)
Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. –> Elie Wiesel