What I still call "The War" (WW II) started when I was 6 years old and living in Kingston, Jamaica. Already children were beginning to hear about Black persons who were legendary because of the high degree of their artistry or the scope and excellence of their achievements. Olympian sprinter Jesse Owens was one such. Later, the idols became Joe Louis (Barrow), whose prowess in the boxing ring was captured for us by radio and, after the bouts, on the newsreels at the cinema; Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole.
As I neared secondary school age, there came political awareness -- Jamaica got "universal adult suffrage" in 1944. So the significance of Marcus Garvey -- considered, it seemed, a somewhat subversive figure living in the U.S. but with many followers in Jamaica -- was not lost on me, and I was intrigued by the relationship between the nascent Rastafarian group and the members of the UNIA in Kingston.
By the teenage years, I wished I could sing like Billy Eckstine, especially when he crooned "Bewildered." But I later became particularly awestruck by the magnificence and beauty of the voices of contralto Marian Anderson and the Renaissance man Paul Robeson, both of whom had overcome tremendous odds. I also took pride in Ralph Bunche's receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace. The historical achievements of Toussaint L'Ouverture and Henri Christophe in the founding of the neighbouring Republic of Haiti impressed me as well. Young Harry Belafonte's rendition of "Hol(d) Him Joe" made an impact too: He seemed most promising. Eartha Kitt was beguiling.
As luck would have it, due to the enterprise and public spirit of impressario Stephen Hill of the great Hill family, I had the opportunity to hear Paul Robeson sing in a free, open-air concert at the Kingston Race Course, as it was called, in the late '40s. The Earth trembled on his last note in "Old Man River," his closing number. The pleasure was repeated not long afterwards when I listened to contralto Marian Anderson's sublime "Ave Maria" among other classics at the same venue. (I was one day to hear her do a program of German "lieder" in Ottawa at the Capitol theatre as part of her farewell world tour. The voice was still there.)
In the cycle of life, I was afforded the opportunity by the late Errol Hill, the resident tutor in drama, and Derek Walcott, to play the title role of Henri Christophe, in a 1954 production of Walcott's play by the Dramatic Society of the University College of the West Indies, directed brilliantly by the author, and again to appear in the pageant "Drums and Colours" which he wrote for the Festival of Arts with which the embryonic Federation of the West Indies was launched in 1958. (The pageant was fittingly directed by Errol Hill who also played a part in it.) By then I had had, by chance in the summer of 1954, the privilege to walk on the wall at the Citadelle which I had imagined when doing the famous "I shall build châteaux---" soliloquy while looking toward the south. Work with the genius author and the visit provided a deeper understanding of the high stature of those "Black Jacobins," as C.LR. James called them in his book.
I did not meet Joe Louis, but selection as Jamaica's delegate to the New York Mirror Youth Forum in 1951 afforded me the opportunity to sit between his victor Rocky Marciano and former president Hoover, the luncheon speaker at the Forum held at the Astor Hotel, where we are also privileged to hear the young prodigy pianist Philippa Schuyler, whom I had the honour to present to the assembly at my secondary school before she played at the beginning of 1952 when she visited Jamaica.
Chance and circumstance also gave me the opportunity to meet my hero Ralph Bunche: My thoughtful professor of international relations at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada and former colleague of Bunche's at the UN, the late Alastair Taylor, took me for an introduction to him in his office there, as part of a trip to New York in 1962. His was a calm presence. Later in the '60s, I attended a Belafonte concert in Toronto and, of course, went backstage to get his autograph. He was by then an international sensation and very popular in Canada, especially adored by the ladies. I went to hear him again in Ottawa when he brought Miriam Makeba, graciously giving her the limelight. But more thrilling was the chance to speak to him at a gala reception in the late '70s when he came to do a concert to raise funds, again, for the National Arts Centre Orchestra Ottawa: He was so indulgent in our brief exchange that someone asked if we had been friends. His return as an octogenarian MC to raise funds once again in 2007 was another source of joy, although I followed my shy wife's advice and did not go to speak to him. I would have wanted to thank him for all that music, his philanthropy and advocacy for public funding of the arts, and the leadership in the civil rights struggle, supporting Martin Luther King Jr., and being, in an unclaimed way, his successor.
Fortunately, I heeded my own counsel and got Eartha Kitt's autograph when she also came to the National Arts Centre in 2007, still extremely seductive at 80. In the interim, I did hear Billy Eckstine sing "Bewildered" live in Ottawa as part of a concert which also featured trumpeter Dizzie Gillespie.
So, I did get glimpses, in the flesh, of some of the Black idols of my youth and a vicarious connection with others from the history books.
In this May 3, 1963 file photo,a 17-year-old civil rights demonstrator, defying an anti-parade ordinance of Birmingham, Ala., is attacked by a police dog. Bill Hudson, an Associated Press photographer whose searing images of the civil rights era documented police brutality and galvanized the public, died Thursday, June 24, 2010 in Jacksonville, Fla. He was 77.
1968 Olympic Games, Mexico City, Mexico, Men's 200 Metres Final, USA gold medalist Tommie Smith (C) and bronze medalist John Carlos give the black power salute as an anti-racial protest as they stand on the podium with Australian silver medallist Peter Norman
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X waiting for an unspecified press conference on March 26, 1964.
Teenager Elizabeth Eckford (L) w. snarling white parents following as she is turned away fr. entering Central High School by Arkansas National Guardsmen under orders fr. Gov. Orval Faubus.
Left to right: George E.C. Hayes, Thurgood Marshall, and James M. Nabrit following Supreme Court decision declaring segregation unconstitutional
Rosa Parks, right, is kissed by Coretta Scott King, as she received the Martin Luther King, Jr. Non-violent Peace Prize in Atlanta, Jan. 14, 1980. Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus nearly 25 years ago, is the first woman to win the award. (AP Photo)
18th November 1968: Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1900 - 2002) goes backstage to meet the Supremes, Engelbert Humperdinck, Frankie Howerd and Petula Clark after a Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium. The show is in aid of the Variety Artistes' Benevolent Fund. (Photo by Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images)
US pop star and entertainer Michael Jackson performs with Sammy Davis Junior August 14, 1988 in Monaco. (Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images)
Betty Shabazz at her husband, Malcolm X's funeral in Hartsdale, New York in 1965.
In this May 25, 1965, file photo, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali stands over fallen challenger Sonny Liston, after dropping Liston with a short hard right to the jaw in Lewiston, Maine. (AP Photo/John Rooney, File)
TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 27: Whitney Houston sings the National Anthem before a game with the New York Giants taking on the Buffalo Bills prior to Super Bowl XXV at Tampa Stadium on January 27, 1991 in Tampa, Florida. The Giants won 20-19. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
In this January 1, 1945 photo, Lena Horne visits with the Tuskegee Airmen.
In this March 1, 1964, photo, heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, right, is shown with black muslim leader Malcolm X outside the Trans-Lux Newsreel Theater in New York, after viewing the screening of a film about Ali's title fight with Sonny Liston. (AP Photo/File)
Georgia native son, singer Ray Charles, rocks to the ovation he received from a joint session of the Georgia Legislature in Atlanta, March 7, 1979. The Assembly made his version of the song "Georgia On My Mind" the official state song after he sang it to the session. (AP Photo/Charles Kelly)
John H. Johnson, publisher of Jet and Ebony magazines, left, and actor Bill Cosby, center, join the Rev. Jesse Jackson at a benefit reception for Operation PUSH, in Chicago, Ill., on April 1, 1982. (AP Photo)
American singer Michael Jackson (1958 - 2009) is granted a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Los Angeles, 20th November 1984.
Day of Pilgrimage protest begins on December 5, 1955, with black Montgomery citizens walking to work, part of their boycott of buses in the wake of the Rosa Parks incident. (Photo by Grey Villet//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
In this Aug. 1922 file photo, Marcus Garvey is shown in a military uniform as the "Provisional President of Africa" during a parade on the opening day of the annual Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World at Lenox Avenue in Harlem, New York City. A century ago, Garvey helped spark movements from African nationalist independence to American civil rights to self-sufficiency in black commerce. Jamaican students in every grade from kindergarten through high school have began studying the teachings of the 1920-era black nationalist leader in a new mandatory civics program in schools across this predominantly black country of 2.8 million people. (AP Photo/File)
Los Angeles Lakers' Wilt Chamberlain, left, stands beside a backboard and hoop trophy that was presented to him after he became the all-time leading rebounder in NBA history, in Los Angeles, Jan. 31, 1972. (AP Photo)
Broadway was a snowstorm canyon as proud Manhattanites feted returned U.S. Olympic stars with a fleecy ticker tape parade in New York on Sept. 3, 1936. The fellow with the broad grin in the foreground is Jesse Owens, who won three gold medals and helped other athletes win another for the U.S. (AP Photo)
Black Nationalist ldr. Malcolm X at podium during rally w. others in bkgrd. Malcolm X was later assassinated on February 21, 1965, by members of the Nation of Islam.
At the funeral for slain Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, his wife, Myrlie Evers (second right), comforts their son, Darryl Kenyatta Evers, while daughter Reena Denise Evers (center, in white dress) wipes her own tears, Jackson, Mississippi, June 15, 1963.
1958: A Caucasian policeman speaks with African-American protesters during a sit-in at Brown's Basement Luncheonette, Oklahoma.
American actress Hattie McDaniel (1895 - 1952) with her Academy Award of Merit for Outstanding Achievement, circa 1945. McDaniel won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role of Mammy in 'Gone With The Wind', making her the first African-American to win an Academy Award.
The First Colored Senator and Representatives, in the 41st and 42nd Congress of the US. Top standing left to right: Robert C. De Large, M.C. of S. Carolina; and Jefferson H. Long, M.C. of Georgia. Seated, left to right: U.S. Senator H.R. Revels of Mississippi; Benj. S. Turner, M.C. of Alabama; Josiah T. Walls, M.C. of Florida; Joseph H. Rainy, M.C. of S. Carolina; and R. Brown Elliot, M.C. of S. Carolina. Lithograph by Currier and Ives, 1872.
Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton (1942 - 1989) (center) smiles as he raises his fist from a podium at the Revolutionary People's Party Constitutional Convention, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, early September 1970.
Attendees at the Million Man March raise their hands in fists and peace/victory signs October 16, 1995 in Washington, DC. The purpose of the march was to galvanize men to respect themselves and others spiritually, morally, mentally, socially, politically and economically.
Anti-apartheid leader and African National Congress (ANC) member Nelson Mandela (C, L) and his wife Winnie raise fists upon Mandela's release from Victor Verster prison on February 11, 1990 in Paarl. AFP PHOTO ALEXANDER JOE