Alexander Pushkin was born June 6, 1799 in Moscow, Russia to a family of Russian nobility. His great-grandfather on his mother’s side-Abram Gannibal- was brought from Africa as a slave and rose to become an aristocrat. At the age of fifteen Pushkin published his first poem, and upon graduating from grade school he gained notoriety for his literary talents. His graduating class was the first graduating class of the Imperial Lyceum in Tsarskoe Selo. In 1820 he published his first long poem titled Ruslan and Lyudmila a poem that sparked much controversy. He became a mainstay within the literary scene of St. Petersburg, Russia; his stance on social reform made him an opponent of the Russian Government. In 1820 he was transferred from St. Petersburg to the Caucasus, then to Crimea, then Kamenka, and Chisinau, while in Chisinau he committed himself to freemasonry. Pushkin aligned himself with a secret organization called Filiki Eteria; the group was created to overthrow the Ottoman rule of Greece. When war was waged against the Ottomans, Pushkin kept a diary of the events. Pushkin left Chisinau in 1823 but not before he wrote two romantic poems that brought him national acclaim. The two poems were titled, The Captive of the Caucasus and The Fountain of Bakhchisaray. In 1823 while in Odessa Pushkin was again exiled by the government until 1826, while in exile he wrote love poems to Elizaveta Vorontsova the wife of the General-Governor.
Pushkin was given permission to visit Tsar Nicholas to petition for his release from exile, he gained his freedom but was under strict government control because of previous poems. He was not able to publish his poems unless he was given permission by the government. Pushkin also wrote his most famous play during exile, Boris Godunov but could not publish it until five years later because he was exiled. That play would not be staged until 2007. In 1828 Pushkin met a 16 year old beauty named Natalya Goncharova he offered her a marriage proposal in 1830, she accepted it under the condition that he would not get persecuted by the government. They were officially married on February 18, 1831. Pushkin would once again begin building a legendary reputation as a writer; he is considered the greatest Russian poet and the founder of modern Russian Literature. His most famous work of art is the verse novel Eugene Onegin; he composed other masterpieces such as The Bronze Horseman, The Stone Guest, Don Juan and Mozart and Salieri. Mozart and Salieri was the inspiration behind Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus.
Pushkin also had an influence on the Russian operas; the composer Glinkas created the pieces Ruslan and Lyudmila because of Pushkin. Tchaikovsky created the opera Eugene Onegin after Pushkin’s verse novel; he also created the opera The Queen of Spades because of Pushkin. Other operas were influenced by Pushkin such as Boris Godunov, Rusalka, The Stone Guest, Mozart and Salieri, Tale of Tsar Saltan, The Golden Cockerel, Prisoner of the Caucasus and many more. Ballets, cantatas and songs were also created because of the literary works Pushkin created, he is also considered to be the central figure of Russian romantic literature. Pushkin’s writings combined all the contemporaneous elements needed to create Russian literature. Pushkin later created Russian magazine culture, and he also inspired the genre of Russian folk tales. Pushkin died in 1837 as a result of a fatal wound while dueling with the man accused of sleeping with his wife. Upon his death Pushkin managed to restructure and create new elements of Russian literature. His vision and his writing styles kept him in trouble with the Russian government but inspired a whole country and generations to come. Russian literature and literature across the world owes a debt of gratitude to Pushkin for his influence on writings, music and operas. Mr. Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin; we stand on your shoulders.
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Born c. 1686 in Ghana as a member of the Ashanti tribe, her village was raided during inter-tribal conflict and she was captured and sold as a slave and shipped to Jamaica. Nanny was sold to the Saint Thomas Parish plantation, that particular plantation grew sugarcane and Nanny and the other slaves were harvesting sugarcane under inhumane conditions. Nanny was heavily influenced by the community leaders and Maroons as a child, she and her four brothers escaped from their plantation and hid within the Blue Mountains of northern Saint Thomas Parish. The five of them devised a plan to create more Maroon communities; they split up and created communities in different cities across the Island. Around 1720 Nanny and her brother Quao created Nanny Town in the area of Blue Mountain where they were settled. This area was about 500 acres of land. They strategically chose that piece of land because it gave her a view overlooking the Stony River at 900 feet. That position eliminated any chance the British had of a surprise attack; she also placed look-outs around their area and kept warriors able to be summoned by the sound of the Abeng (Horn). The British often attacked Nanny Town, but were not able to defeat the Maroons because of their location. The Maroons created self-sustaining communities; they traded food for weapons with local markets, raised animals and grew crops. They would often raid plantations for weapons and food, burn the plantations down, and lead the newly free people to their community.
Nanny was praised heavily for her leadership skills. It is said that she gained her skills from her practice of Obeah, an African religion still practiced to this day. It is also believed she received her excellent leadership skills from her culture, the Ashanti are known for possessing such skills. Nanny also used her knowledge of herbs and healing methods, she was known as a healer in her community for both the physical and spiritual ailments. In 1733 Nanny and her rebels were defeated in battle, and Nanny lost her life that day. They were defeated by a person who was considered a “loyal slave” William Cuffee, he was the leader of hired soldiers called the “Black Shots.” Slave owners often rewarded slaves for working on their behalf. In 1739 the British government promised the descendants of Nanny and the Maroons the land they inhabited via a peace treaty. Nanny’s remains are buried at “Bump Grave” in Moore Town, a community established by the Windward Maroons. The Maroons are descendants of West Africans imported by slavery, who intermarried with the native Jamaican Islanders the Arawak. The Maroons were known as fierce fighters and helped free slaves for over 150 years. Queen Nanny was a force to be reckoned with; she showed leadership and moxie better than any man could. She was brilliant and possessed the charisma to lead a well-oiled fighting machine. Nanny is someone we all should know and celebrate, she gave her life for the freedom of her people. Queen mother Nanny, we stand on your shoulders.
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William Still was born in 1821 in Burlington County, New Jersey, to parents Levin and Sidney Still. Levin Still was a former slave that settled in the state of New Jersey after purchasing his freedom. Sidney was able to escape slavery and join Levin in New Jersey; Levin changed his last name from Steel to Still. William Still did not complete formal school but managed to learn grammar on his own. As a boy he helped his first person escape slavery, this would set in motion a great future. He moved to Philadelphia in 1844 where he found work as a handyman, in 1847 he began working as a janitor and a clerk in the Office of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. Still soon moved his way up to becoming involved with helping blacks escape to freedom. Blacks running away from slavery sought refuge with Still, as they made their way to Canada; he even managed to harbor his long lost brother who was sold from his family forty years earlier. Still began documenting accounts of his interactions with former slaves seeking freedom. His accounts became a book that was important in detailing the history of the Underground Railroad; the book gave humanity to persons seeking freedom. Blacks enslaved were depicted as property, but Still gave the people life. His book The Underground Railroad was published in 1872, and is a rich source of the history of the Underground Railroad. Also in 1847, Still married Letitia George and they had four children.
After the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Philadelphia abolitionist organized the Vigilance Committee to aide blacks escaping from slavery. Still was eventually named chairman of the committee. In 1855 Still visited communities of former Slaves in Canada, he was able to gather information proving the progress of freed blacks to help advocate for the emancipation of all slaves. Still was a participant in the rescuing of Jane Johnson, the committee helped Jane gain her freedom. In 1859 Still participated in the push for integration of the Philadelphia public transit system, their persistence paid off when the transit system was integrated in 1865 across the state of Pennsylvania. During the Civil War Still owned a stove store, he also operated a postal exchange at Camp William Penn. That camp was the training grounds for the black troops north of Philadelphia. After the Civil War he owned a coal delivery business. Still is regarded as the “Father of the Underground Railroad,” he helped over 800 people escape slavery. He also kept records of his interviews of each person he helped gain freedom. He used his detailed records to help unite displaced families as they gained freedom. Still was a part of an intricate group of persons known as “agents,” these people were stationed in different areas from Southern Philadelphia to New England. The agents were key components for communication in moving people from state to state. Still and Harriet Tubman encountered each other many time as they both worked to free as many people as possible. Being a man of great character Still established an orphanage for young black boys, and also opened the first YMCA for black boys in Philadelphia. In 1859 Still gave refuge to the wife of John Brown, as Brown and his companions failed to raid Harper’s Ferry. In 1861 Still finished his work with the antislavery office, but remained as the vice-president from 1896 to 1901. In 1902 Still died from kidney disease, but left a legacy worth ten life times. William Still dedicated his life to helping countless numbers of people gain their freedom from slavery. He risked his life and the life of his family for a noble cause, and is an example of a true humanitarian. Mr. William Still we proudly stand on your shoulders.
Below is the video version of the William Still biography.
Nina Simone was born on February 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina. Her birth name was Eunice Kathleen Waymon. By the age of four, Simone was learning to play the piano while singing in her church choir. Simone and her family grew up in poor conditions, and despite being the sixth of seven children she had a dream of making music. Simone’s music teacher started a special fund to help pay for her musical education. That education paid off. After high school, she was awarded a scholarship to attend the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. Her scholarship led her to train as a classical pianist. While attending Julliard Simone taught others to play piano and accompanied other performers during performances. Simone’s family's financial troubles started catching up with her. She eventually had to leave Julliard because she ran out of funds. She then moved to Philadelphia to live with family members to help save money and pay for school. Simone applied to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia but was denied admittance. Simone believed she was denied simply because of her race.
After being denied by the institute, her passion for music was still burning, so her next step was to start playing the local clubs. In 1950, Simone began learning and playing American standards such as jazz and blues while in the clubs to make a living. At the request of the owner of the bar, Simone started singing along with the music she was playing. Her next step was to give herself a catchy stage name, “Nina Simone” is what she came up with. “Nina” was a nickname meaning “little one” and “Simone” came from the actress Simone Signoret. Nina Simone was created and a bright future was ahead of this young star. She began to catch the attention of popular writers from the Harlem Renaissance such as Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, and James Baldwin.
By the late 1950s, Simone had begun recording music under the Bethlehem Record Label. In 1958, she released her first album “Little Girl Blue” which featured the songs “Plain Gold Ring” and “Little Girl Blue”. That album also included her only top 40 hit “I Loves you Porgy,” her version of the song from the musical Porgy and Bess. Simone’s music was different and it defied industry standards, she drew from her classical training as well as her gospel, pop, and folk musical backgrounds. Because of her presence, talent, and influence, she was named the “High Priestess of Soul,” even though she was not fond of the name. Simone explained that she would rather be classified as a folk singer than a jazz or soul singer; “If I had to be called something, it should have been a folk singer because there was more folk and blues than jazz in my playing,” Simone stated. Around 1965, Simone was becoming the voice of the civil rights movement. In response to the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the Birmingham church, killing four little black girls, she wrote the song “Mississippi Goddam.” In 1968, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she wrote, “Why (The King of Love is Dead),” and “Young Gifted and Black.” “Young Gifted and Black” was a title borrowed from a play written by Lorraine Hansberry, that song became a theme for the time period in black America.
As racial tensions grew in America it began affecting the music industry. Simone was not happy with America and its politics, so she moved out of the country. She began living in other countries including Liberia, Switzerland, England, Barbados, and South France. During this time, she struggled with finances, the rigors of the music industry, and the IRS. Despite her troubles, she continued to create music. She began covering popular music and adding her own flavor to the songs. She covered Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin” and “Here Comes the Sun,” by the Beatles. She would later record “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” before taking a musical break. In 1978, she returned to the music scene and released the album “Baltimore”, which was received well by critics but did not sell well commercially.
In the late 1980s a perfume commercial in the UK used Simone’s song “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” the commercial caused her song to become a number-ten hit in Britain. In 1992, she wrote her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You. In 1993, she recorded and released the song “A Single Woman”, then returned to the United States to perform her songs which promoted her art. Simone toured regularly which helped maintain and continue building an ever-growing fan base. In 1998, she performed in New York City for the first time in five years, and that performance received critical acclaim. Later in the year, Simone attended the 80th birthday party of beloved South African President Nelson Mandela. In 1999, Simone performed in Dublin, Ireland at the Guinness Blues Festival. Nina Simone died in 2003 due to complications with her health. She left a rich ever-growing legacy that will stand the test of time. She stood for freedom and equality and set a standard that black women in America can follow and be proud of. With prominent Negroid features, she shattered the American standard of beauty, while igniting the souls of anyone who listened to her music. Her music influenced a whole generation of music lovers and creators, from rap artists to folk singers. She also set political and cultural standards that showed future generations how to use music to influence and uplift its listeners. Ms. Nina Simone, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
On February 6, 1898, Melvin Tolson was born in Moberley, Missouri, his parents were Reverend Alonzo Tolson and Lera Tolson. Lera Tolson was a seamstress and Reverend Tolson served at several Churches in Missouri, Iowa, and Kansas City. In 1912, Melvin Tolson published his first poem, “The Wreck of the Titanic,” in the Oskaloosa, Iowa newspaper. He also became the senior class poet at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1918, Tolson graduated from Lincoln High School, after graduation, he was admitted to Fisk University before transferring to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania during his freshman year. Tolson received his Bachelor of Arts with honors from Lincoln University in 1923. During his time at Lincoln University, he met Ruth Southall, they married in 1922 and produced four children. In 1924, after graduating from Lincoln University, Tolson became an instructor of English and Speech at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. He not only taught at Wiley College, but he also coached the junior varsity football team, directed the theater club, co-founded the black intercollegiate Southern Association of Dramatic Speech and Arts, and organized the Wiley Forensic Society, which was the Wiley College Debate Club.
The debate club earned national acclaim by dominating their competition and breaking the color barrier. They maintained a ten-year winning streak from 1929 to 1939. Tolson wrote all of the speeches, and the team memorized the speeches and used them during the debates. Tolson became such a master debater, that he would write the rebuttals for his opponents opposing arguments before the debate. In 1931, he began pursuing his master's degree in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. At Columbia Tolson became acquainted with artists from the Harlem Renaissance and was inspired to make his place within the history of black American art. Using that inspiration, Tolson named his Master’s thesis “The Harlem Writers.” Tolson also began working on another collection of poetry, which was later published in 1979 as A Gallery of Harlem Portraits. That same year he began working with V.F. Calverton, the editor of the Modern Quarterly journal. Tolson wrote “Caviar and Cabbage”, a column for the Washington Tribune from 1937 to 1944. Tolson also taught English and drama at Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma, and organized the sharecroppers while living in South Texas. In 1935, Tolson led his Wiley College debate team to a National Championship over the University of Southern California. Tolson was working to support his family, but he always found time for his art. In 1939, he published his first significant poem Dark Symphony; the poem won a national poetry contest sponsored by the American Negro Exposition. The poem was later published in Atlantic Monthly, the poem also got the attention of an editor who published his first collection of verses, Rendezvous with America, in 1944.
Tolson wrote plays and novels, all of which were not published; despite a great portion of his work being unpublished he was appointed the poet laureate of Liberia in 1947 by President V.S. Tubman. In 1953, he published Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, this piece gained Tolson more acclaim for his work. Tolson was compared to T.S. Elliot and Ezra Pound, despite the comparisons, Tolson decided to embrace the richness of African history within his poems. Tolson began constructing a project of five books which were a collection of poems that were intended to capture black life in America. Each book was designed to represent a stage in the African American Diaspora. Tolson died in 1966, and only completed the first of five books, it was titled Harlem Gallery: Book 1, The Curator; which was published in 1965. Before Tolson died, he was named to the Avalon Chair in humanities at Tuskegee Institute. He also received grants from the National Institute and American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Rockefeller Foundation.
In 1954, he was appointed a permanent fellow in poetry and drama at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. In 1964, he was elected to the New York Herald Tribune book-review board and the District of Columbia presented him with a citation and Award for Cultural Achievement in the Fine Arts. In 1966, he received the annual poetry award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1970, Langston University founded the Melvin B. Tolson Black Heritage Center in his honor, to collect material on Africans, African Americans, and the African diaspora. In 2004, Tolson was inducted posthumously into the Oklahoma Higher Education Hall of Fame. In 2007, the biographical film, The Great Debaters, was released depicting Tolson’s time leading the Wiley College Debate Team to ten years of excellence and a National Championship. Melvin Tolson was a literary genius and a dedicated man to his heritage, family, and community. Langston Hughes wrote, “Melvin Tolson is the most famous Negro professor in the Southwest. Students all over that part of the world speak of him, revere him, remember him and love him”. Tolson left a legacy that black Americans can be proud of, he proved that one can become successful and not turn their back on their heritage. Mr. Melvin B. Tolson, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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