Black History: Alvin Ailey

Day 13 of 28 of my Black History Month history lessons and celebrating my Black History. Alvin Ailey was selected to be a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 2014 by President Barack Obama.

Ailey grew up in segregated Texas but his Southern Baptist background enabled him to grow up with a fierce sense of black pride. In the early 1940s, at age 11, he and his mother moved to Los Angeles (his father had been out of his life since he was 6 months old). In California, they moved to a predominantly black school district because of his fear of whites. While navigating through his education, he sang spirituals in the glee club, wrote poetry, and demonstrated a talent for languages. He was fortunate to meet Lester Horton, he influenced him greatly by becoming his mentor and had a major influence on his life.

At Horton’s school, Ailey quickly fell in love with dance. He continued on to San Francisco meeting Marguerite Johnson (aka Maya Angelou). They performed together as “Al and Rita” in a nightclub.

Ailey started his dance company in 1958 and was proud that it was multiracial. Although the wanted to give opportunities to black dancers, he also wanted to “rise above the Négritude.”

(“The term négritude is a construction which appropriates the derogatory word niger, used to refer to people (in French) as nègre, so largely used exclusively in a racist context.”)

Ailey kept his life as a dancer a secret from his mother for the first two years. He died on December 1, 1989, at the age of 58. He asked his doctors to tell his mother that he died of terminal blood dyscrasia to avoid the social stigma of HIV/AIDS.

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