Centenarian’s Life Should Spur Family Griots To Action
By George E. Hardin Published Yesterday Commentaries
Life imitates art sometimes, and sometimes art imitates life. That view is confirmed by the death of Ann Nixon Cooper at age 107 on Dec. 21 in Atlanta. Born in Shelbyville, Tenn., she grew up in Nashville where she met her future husband, Albert B. Cooper II, while he was studying dentistry at Meharry Medical College. After Dr. Cooper graduated, the couple moved to Atlanta.
Alice Cooper’s life had strong similarities to the experiences of the title character in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” the 1971 novel by Ernest J. Gaines. The fictional Miss Pittman was born a slave and lived to be 110, long enough to take part in the 1960s civil rights movement. Alice Cooper was born during the darkest days of the Jim Crow era, a time marked by lynchings, and lived to vote for Barack Obama as president.
In his victory speech on Nov. 4, 2008, Obama said, “This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that’s on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She’s a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing. Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.” Obama said Cooper saw “the heartbreak and the hope” of race relations in this country. When she was born, Obama said, “someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons – because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.”
“Miss Jane Pittman” was made into a stirring CBS movie – one of the first TV movies to show the black struggle in a realistic and non-patronizing manner. Cicely Tyson played the title character and through progressive makeup techniques portrayed Miss Pittman from the age of 19 to the age of 110. (She won an Emmy.) One of the film’s most memorable moments shows Miss Pittman, walking with halting steps – not from fear but because of her age – toward a white water fountain to take a drink.
Cooper, born in 1902, lived through the era when rabid segregationists held untrammeled power and stymied African-American progress. Miss Pittman endured the same times. Cooper watched as black troops fought for liberty in two World Wars at far-flung points of the globe, while being denied first class citizenship at home. Cooper saw the push for racial justice through court petitions give way to protests in the streets. Integration of the armed forces and the Supreme Court’s ruling against public school segregation took place during her lifetime.
“Miss Pittman,” when it aired in 1974, preceded the award-winning miniseries “Roots” by three years in bringing the harsh realities of slavery and the debilitating effects of segregation into the homes of millions of Americans.
Cooper and her husband, who died in 1967, entertained the Nat King Cole Trio in their home. Among their friends were John Hope, the first black president of Morehouse College, W.E. B. DuBois, E. Franklin Frazier, Benjamin Mays, and others whose names are in history books. Cooper also had some bad memories, such as the time she was verbally abused by a white streetcar motorman.
Most of Cooper’s life was lived without fanfare – until she was mentioned in Obama’s speech. The title of her autobiography implies such is the case. The book is being published this month in honor of what would have been her 108th birthday: Jan. 9. Its title: “A Century and Some Change: My Life Before the President Called My Name.”
Cooper’s life was woven into the fabric of the African-American experience. Likewise, many of us have elders in our families like Cooper who may not be centenarians but whose lives have been significant, although not in the public eye, and whose experiences have not been documented. Their recollections should be preserved with a digital recorder or video camera. Some relatives might be like Miss Pittman, who at first said her life had been nothing special; but when the interviewer persisted she bubbled over with her memories. (I have a niece who has made some initial efforts at documenting our family.) How fitting it would be if someone in each family would become the griot—and preserve the family’s history.
Every life has meaning, and every story should be told.
Centenarian Honored By Obama Dies
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