By Farzana Hakim
Hi, all. It’s your host, Farzana, here, for a super-sentimental edition of Thursday Connectors. As my contribution to Black History Month, I wanted to remember some of the many heroes of the past who made an impact on our lives today and continue to inspire us, and who, of course, we will never forget.
I wish I had a lot more space, so I could connect with as many writers and artists from around the world, because I could never tire of paying tribute to the heroes of black history! However, with a limited word count being the bane of many a writer’s life, I’ve brought you a small but powerful collection of Connectors today.
We’re writing letters. Something I loved doing as a child. And something, which regrettably, I’ve completely abandoned as an adult.
I used to write letters all the time, to cousins and friends I’d met and befriended during my trips to Pakistan as a child and teenager. My parents made sure I was bilingual and I’d mastered reading and writing the Urdu language from a very young age. Although my Urdu vocabulary wasn’t that good, and my sentences were far from being grammatically right, I enjoyed pouring my heart out in them nonetheless.
There was nothing as exciting, or heart-racing, as when a folded, blue-papered letter (airogram) arrived from Pakistan. This was especially the case for my grandparents. Sadly, both were illiterate and could not read Urdu, so when our attempts at trying to read the messy, squiggly words failed us,an aunt from the neighbourhood would be summoned to read it properly. Sometimes, the news would be pleasant and the elders would shed happy tears for the goodness and wellness of their extended families in the far-away country they’d left behind but not forgotten. Yet, many times, I *remember the letters bearing sadness and heartache, such as the announcement of the death of a loved one. I particularly remember my mum and my grandma suffering these losses again and again. Therefore, in my household, a letter always connected us to love and yearning and brought with it so many sentiments and mixed emotions.
I’ve asked my contributors to write something from their hearts in the form of a letter to an influential black person from the past, with whom they feel a strong connection today. Let me tell you, these letters are something special and will remain with the writer, and us readers, for a very long time indeed.
First up is Chris Gregory, who connects from the UK. Chris is the Director at ‘The Alternative Stories And Fake Realities Podcast.’
Hi, Chris. Let’s connect:
A Letter To Maya Angelou
Poet, Memoirist, Activist: 1928 – 2014
When I first read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, I was moved by the incredible vibrancy and variety of your life. You were a poet, a civil rights activist and, of course, a skilful and prolific memoirist. Your life inspired no less than eight volumes of a memoir describing your struggle, your motivations, your friendships and your outlook on life. They should be compulsory reading for white writers and all those whose ambitions aren’t hampered by the colour of their skin and the prejudice of those they encounter in their writing journey.
I’ll never forget the images of Barack Obama presenting you with the Presidential Medal Of Freedom in 2011, or the description of you as, The black woman’s poet laureate, by reviewer Elsie B Washington. But it is in your words, not the recommendation of others, that readers will truly come to know you. They should start with Caged Bird as so many school kids now do, but also make sure to dip into your poems. Perhaps they should start with On The Pulse Of Morning, the piece you performed at the inauguration of President Clinton back in 1993.
Thank you for everything, Maya. You may be gone now but your words will live forever.
Love from Chris.
Thank you, Chris, for writing this super letter to Maya Angelou. I know you are a true fan and this reflects in every word you wrote!
Our next letter comes from Iesha Denize, who also connects with us from the UK. Iesha has strong links to the Caribbean as an Antiguan, which is one of the many reasons why she wrote her letter to Mary Prince.
Hi, Iesha. Let’s connect:
A Letter To Mary Prince
Mary Prince, 1788- 1833, an enslaved Bermudian, and thus, a British subject, is the first known black woman to relate a slave narrative. The History Of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related By Herself was first published in the latter part of February 1831, at the height of Britain’s Abolition movement, and was reprinted three times that year. It was a successful strategy that aided in bringing about Emancipation. In 2012, Mary Prince was recognised as a National Hero of Bermuda, and, since 2020, August 2nd is celebrated as Mary Prince Day in Bermuda.
Dear Mrs Mary Prince,
I am writing to you as one of the many Caribbean people, across the world, who owe you a debt of gratitude for the part you played in shining light on the brutality of British enslavement, by sharing your deeply personal experiences. You were both the first person and the first woman to petition parliament in this way. I was moved by all that you related, especially of the pride you took in your bold action of marrying your husband without permission, despite the severe consequences. You must have loved him very much and I was so sad to know that you may never have seen him again after that.
While you were born in Bermuda, Antigua is where you left the Caribbean, and this year, 2021, is the 40th year of Antiguan independence. As an Antiguan, I want to share a little of the history by looking at some of the National Heroes, as you are now also recognised as a National Hero in Bermuda. I cannot help but reflect on how different your life might have been if the enslaved rebellion in 1736, by National Hero King Court (Kwaku) Tacky (known as Prince Klass) from Kumasi in Ghana, had ever been successful.
I also wonder what you would have said to Sir Vere Cornwall Bird Sr, affectionately known as Papa Bird, who became the first Prime Minister; something unthinkable when you were alive. I smile when I think of the conversations you might have enjoyed with Dame Georgiana Ellen (Nellie) Robinson and believe you would have joined her in breaking down colour and class barriers, so that all children could have access to learning. You would have been so proud of Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards, who captained the West Indies cricket team and led them undefeated for 20 years against colonial countries such as Australia, South Africa and England.
You travelled as a piece of property to Britain and I think you’d be surprised to see what has remained unchanged in almost two hundred years. Despite this, the current generation of Antiguans here in Britain, especially in music – Linden David Hall, Jazzy B and Wiley – have all left their footprints. So, too, have the entire Kanneh-Mason family, particularly Sheku, who was the first black competitor to win BBC Young Musician Of The Year. Women in Britain still continue to fight for equality with determination. Andi Oliver, an Antiguan woman, is now a presenter on The Great British Menu show on TV. As my mother always said: “While there is life, there is hope.”
Once again, thank you for your sacrifice and sleep well.
Love from Iesha.
Thank you for this tribute to Mary Prince, Iesha. I love how you have given an insight into her life and the references to the influential black personalities of today are also interesting.
Our third connector comes from artist Danny Baxter, from Barking and Dagenham in the UK, who writes his letter to musician James Brown. The portrait is also by Danny.
Hi, Danny. Let’s connect:
A Letter To James Brown
Dear James Brown,
If someone was to ask me about a member of the black community outside of my own family who has had the most effect on my life, I don’t think I could go far wrong by saying your name.
Your life is well documented. You were born in a shack in the woods of South Carolina, in a condition of abject poverty and neglect, yet you began a career in your industry in 1955, birthing a whole new culture of music, bringing all types of people together. You became an inspiration for many accomplished artists, including Prince and Michael Jackson. You built up an estate worth millions from nothing and even prevented race rioting in Boston with your music. Your achievements have had a massive impact on the black community, regarding their culture and their aspirations.
It’s the energy your music generates which has become the source of invigoration, inspiration and resilience for the generations exposed to it. It unites everyone across boundaries and barriers and drives them to be able to take on anything. The determination to succeed, the proactive outlook and overcoming of obstacles is translated into brass stabs, bassline grooves and percussive lyrics.
You’ve put soul into music. Your spirit flows from your music and powers the dynamism of the performance, which, taken together, amplifies the drive of the whole experience. This experience is then assimilated by the audience and powers them with that same attitude, and to go on to overcome challenges and barriers and obstacles too, in the same smooth manner. When they are flowing in that vibe, they are said to have ‘soul’. This is why I believe you have earned us the right to call you ‘The Godfather Of Soul.’
It’s my day-to-day interaction with this energy that demonstrates to me the extent of your influence. Anything today with a groove like a song lyric, a bass line, a drumbeat or a dance move can trace itself back to scenes that you heavily contributed to.
When I was primary school age in the early 1980s, we were introduced to electro, hip hop and, later, rap; all of that coming over to the UK from the USA, and the body popping and the break dancing accompanying it blew everyone’s minds! The cool kids would bring in a sheet of lino or cardboard,trying to show off all the dance moves they’d learned: doing the windmill, backspin, the caterpillar or the moonwalk to Herbie Hancock’s Rockit. Much of that music was not only directly influenced by your rhythms and hype, but also contained actual music clips of the grooves, the beats and your singing, thanks to the advent of the sampler.
I grew up watching the progress of many dance music genres. It was a very exciting time. All the while, the energy you created was being refined, looped, layered, filtered and reversed, retrigged, spliced and time-stretched into different, increasingly intense and complex forms like Techno, Rave, Hardcore, Jungle, and Drum and Bass genres. So, now, I, as well as millions around the world, are always listening to your music through samples in other people’s music. You are the most sampled artist of all time!
So, your legacy has permeated many environments across the world. The music you either created or inspired has become the soundtrack to many people’s lives; my own life being no exception. Only these types of tracks have the power to get me up in the morning, where an alarm clock can’t do it. These tracks can make me do my chores faster and easier, or run for longer. They are a legitimate source of power for me. And when I can’t feel that vibe, then the track doesn’t impact me in the same way, and you know you’ve got to tweak something, or add something to it.
It’s funny how people can make a whole science out of mining fuel from another man’s handiwork. That being said, it mirrors what you did by taking the raw, impassioned sound of the gospel choir and preacher of your day, tweaking it and creating a hyper version of it, albeit secularised. This kind of completes the circle for me, connecting me back to the black church culture I come from and still identify with.
In effect, I guess the entire entertainment industry has been influenced by the black gospel church, thanks mostly to you, Mr James Joseph Brown.
Love from Danny Baxter.
How fantastic and energetic is your letter, Danny! I enjoyed your references to different forms of music and their effects on mind and soul very much. Thank you.
Last but not least, I connect with a young writer from Basingstoke in the UK. Kamara Hamilton is an A-level student and his love for poetry is certainly going to take him places. I will be treating you to more of his poetry in the upcoming months, but today, his letter perfectly sums up our celebration of black history.
Hi, Kamara. Let’s connect:
A Letter to Ancestors (I Hope You Are Proud Of Me)
I walk around like my ancestors are backing me,
I went to Africa to check out my ancestry!
I saw a lot of pain
And quite a lot of glory,
Every bit of painting told me another story.
It’s my time.
I know that it’s my time
because I am black and proud,
That’s why I’m singing it loud,
And standing out from the crowd,
Making a legacy.
I hope you’re proud of me.
I’ll carry the baton for greats that came before,
And will pass it on to those who will come after.
Never forgetting the pain we had to endure,
But we remain on this Earth in a very large number.
What if we protected the motherland?
What if we represented our differences and planned?
I have realised my purpose.
I know I’m not worthless!
I’m my ancestor’s wildest dream,
But not everything is what it may seem.
You’d be speechless,
if you knew our true history.
I’m uncovering that mystery.
I hope you’re proud of me.
Love from Kamara
© Kamara Hamilton, 2021
You can connect with Kamara on LinkedIn: Kamara, the Creator.
Thank you, Kamara. You ought to feel proud of your poetry and please keep writing, keeping your heart at the forefront of your words. Well done!
That’s it for today. I hope you enjoyed our collection of letters. Why not write a letter yourself one day? Come on, let’s start a revolution: ‘The Rekindle Your Love Of Letters Movement…’
Take care and see you again very soon!
As my contribution to Black History Month, I wanted to remember some of the many heroes of the past who made an impact on our lives today and continue to inspire us, and who, of course, we will never forget.