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Black Americans have actively participated in every war and military skirmish since the United States was first conceived, even as a colony. But it was during the Spanish-American War in 1898 that black soldiers first had the opportunity to leave their own reluctant country for another – in this case, Cuba.

Until that time, scant few black Americans who didn’t have international family ties, work for someone who traveled abroad, or have the independent means to do so themselves, actually left the United States. The military – while segregated and just as unwelcoming as society at large – afforded young black men (and later women) the opportunity to visit other places, interact with other societies, and even become more cognizant of their worth as citizens. True, militaristic forays into foreign lands could hardly be considered pleasure cruises, but it was a chance to go, to see, to explore.

Estimates suggest over 350,000 black Americans served in Belgium and France during World War I, and films such as The Tuskegee Airmen, Miracle at St. Anna, and Red Tails (SEE IT NOW!) depict African-American experiences abroad during World War II. For the first time, black American men and women were getting to see the world in large numbers – at least on leave – thanks to Uncle Sam, and lots of folk stayed abroad, a prospect that seemed a helluva lot more appealing for some than heading “home” to Dixie.

Even today, the armed forces provides an opportunity for thousands of young people to experience the world (just ask Fidel), and despite my personal feelings about war and military intervention, I recognize the military’s importance in broadening the horizons of many fly brothers and sisters who came before me.

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Image: Tuskegee Airmen Col. Benjamin Davis Jr. and Edward Gleed, 1945  (Source: US Library of Congress)

Inaugurated in 1960 as Brazil’s brand-spanking-new capital, Brasília was built on a high, semi-arid plateau in the mid-western region of the country to bring money and people into the vast and empty interior. The city has certainly filled-out since these images were filmed, but it’s interesting to see life in my retro-futuristic home base during its first few years of existence.

Mostly what you see are government buildings and dormitory-style apartment blocks, punctuated by the twin towers of Congress, with the curved concrete spires of the unfinished cathedral shown toward the end. The soil here is the same red “Jawjah” clay many of us Southerners know well, though the film was recorded in the dry season (it’s crazy wet these days, so the city’s very much green), and you can see why Brasília’s a bitch for pedestrians. Government salaries were tripled to get people to move with their families from the old capital, Rio, and there’s a definite difference in dress and appearance between the stylish denizens of the new city proper and those at the bus terminal who came from other regions of the country to help build the place, but had to live in the poorer, far-flung satellite cities of the Federal District.

And it’s not boring, folks. Really.

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A native of my own hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, James Weldon Johnson was the son of an educator, who would later become an educator in his own right, in addition to being a diplomat, poet, novelist, lyricist, and civil rights activist. At only 24, Johnson became a high school principal and founded a newspaper, before being the first black person to pass the Florida bar exam. Soon, he collaborated with his brother, musician John Rosamond Johnson (who happened to be the musical director at the church I grew up in, decades prior, of course), on several theater projects, and penned the amazing lyrics of the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (which I had learned at least by age six).


These ten li’l high school jitterbugs better sang! (‘Specially the last verse at 2:45).

Tired of the racist buffoonery of popular music at the time (hmmm…so nothing’s changed?), Johnson left that industry, entered Columbia University, and in 1906, was named U.S. consul in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. After being transferred to Nicaragua, where he wrote his impactful novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, he left the foreign service (they weren’t trying to hook a brother up with a decent post back in 1913), settled in New York, became general secretary of the NAACP in 1920, published three anthologies on Negro poetry and spirituals, a collection of poetry, and his own true autobiography. Sadly, he was killed at the age of 67, when a train hit his car in 1938. Still, Johnson is remembered by the students of the various schools that bear his name (my brother went to the one in J-ville) and by the millions of black Americans who get teary-eyed at the last lines of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”:

Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,

True to our God,
True to our native land.

In belated honor of Black History Month, Fly Brother salutes fellow Duvalian, Renaissance Man, and Fly Original, James Weldon Johnson. May I be half as prolific as he.

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