Cheryl Boyce-Taylor

Boyce-Taylor, Cheryl 2017

Cheryl Boyce-Taylor was born on December 6, 1950. She is a highly respected poet, workshop facilitator, mentor, teaching artist, and the founder and curator of Calypso Muse, and the Glitter Pomegranate Performance Series.

Cheryl Allison Boyce-Taylor was born in Arima, Trinidad, but went to live in the St. Albans neighborhood of Queens, New York City when she was 13 years old. She attended a Seventh Day Adventist high school in the Bronx, and following graduation, went to work as a file clerk and attended Hunter College in the evening. Boyce-Taylor continued her education at City College of New York and Stonecoast: The University of Southern Maine, and holds master’s degrees in poetry and social work.

In 1970, Boyce-Taylor married childhood acquaintance Walt Taylor, and they had a son, Malik Isaac Taylor, who was born premature, and whose twin, Mikal, died only a few hours after birth. Malik Taylor grew up to become legendary rapper Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest (he died of complications from diabetes on March 22, 2016). It was a time of great change in America, and at the height of the Black Power and the women’s movement, and the war in Vietnam. These events were all having an impact on Boyce-Taylor’s young life, and she recalled it being “such a different world, from the carnival and coconut-water Trinidad.”

After Boyce-Taylor heard Nikki Giovanni read her poetry, she was moved to begin writing as a way to make sense of her life, and the new world she was attempting to shape for her young son. In “Poems of Glass and Bone,” a poem dedicated to Audre Lorde, Cheryl Boyce-Taylor asks, “who is this girl writing notes to the hard earth?”

Cheryl Boyce-Taylor began her own theatrical company to create a space for poets and Caribbean culture but also appeared at other venues, including The African Poetry Theatre in Jamaica, Queens, and frequently performed at Rikers Island, a New York City correctional facility. She formed an all-lesbian women’s performance group, the Stations Collective, which included Dorothy Randall Gray, Sapphire, Pamela Sneed, Stormy Webber, and Hadley Mays, to perform Audre Lorde’s work in the late 1980s.

Cheryl Boyce-Taylor is the author of four collections of poetry, “Raw Air,” “Night When Moon Follows,” “Convincing the Body,” and “Arrival.” A VONA fellow, her poems have been anthologized in various publications, including “Poetry,” “Prairie Schooner,” Def Poetry Jam’s “Bum Rush The Page,” “Poetry Nation,” “Rogue’s Scholar,” “In Defense of Mumia,” “Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café,” “The Paterson Literary Review,” “Killings Journal of Arts & Letters,” “Adrienne,” and “Bullets and Butterflies.” In 2015, Boyce-Taylor was awarded the Barnes and Noble Writers for Writers Award.

Boyce-Taylor’s work has been commissioned by The Joyce Theater, and the National Endowment for the Arts for Ronald K. Brown: Evidence, A Dance Company. She is a recipient of the Partners in Writing Grant, and served as Poet in Residence at the Caribbean Literary and Cultural Center in Brooklyn. In 1994, Boyce-Taylor was the first Caribbean woman to present her work in Trinidadian dialect at the National Poetry Slam. She has toured the country as a road poet with Lollapolooza, and performed for Mamapolooza in New York City.

Cheryl Boyce-Taylor’s work has taken her around the world, to Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. She was a poetry judge for The New York Foundation for the Arts and The Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, and has performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Aaron Davis Hall, The Bowery Poetry Club, Lincoln Center, and Celebrate Brooklyn! in Prospect Park. She also has facilitated poetry workshops for Cave Canem, and Poets & Writers.

Boyce-Taylor, who has been with her partner, Ceni, for 21 years, has been open about her journey in becoming an out lesbian, which included the difficult time when she had to tell her husband, Walt.

“I began realizing I wanted to have a serious relationship with a woman by myself, because I began to realize that I might be a lesbian and that was the hardest, most painful thing. To leave a husband that was so loving and supportive and present,” Boyce-Taylor told “The Magic Makers” in 2007. “It was the hardest time in my life, and it took a few years to evolve so I could come full circle with that idea.”

Cheryl Boyce-Taylor is a poet’s poet. She is widely respected and supported by others who practice her craft, and earns the high praise she receives from other artists who appreciate her body of work, her skill in crafting language that speaks to the very soul, and her ability to help us understand common experiences in these extraordinary times. Boyce-Taylor’s life papers and portfolio are stored at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City.

We thank Cheryl Boyce-Taylor for her many contributions to the literary world, and for her support of our community.

Howard Rollins

Rollins, Howard 2017

Howard Rollins was born on October 17, 1950 (to December 8, 1996). He was stage, film, and television actor, best known for his portrayal of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in the 1981 film, “Ragtime,” for which he earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Rollins also had a successful career on television as Virgil Tibbs on the television series, “In the Heat of the Night,” and on daytime’s “Another World,” for which he received an Emmy nomination.

Howard Ellsworth Rollins, Jr. was the youngest of four children, born in Baltimore, Maryland, to Howard E. Rollins, Sr., a steelworker, and Ruth R. Rollins, who worked as a domestic. He thought he would become a teacher, but at 17, a friend convinced him to attend a casting call at a local Baltimore theater, where he won a role in the John Steinbeck classic, “Of Mice and Men.” Rollins surprised himself with the talent he displayed. Of that experience, he told “The New York Times” in 1981, “Things made sense to me for the first time in my life.” He studied theater at nearby Towson State College, but left in 1970 to play the role of Slick in the PBS soap opera, “Our Street.” In 1974, he moved to New York, and appeared on Broadway and in television films, including “Roots: The Next Generations.”

Rollins celebrated performance in the 1981 Dino De Laurentiis/Miloš Forman motion picture, “Ragtime,” almost didn’t go his way, despite his leading man good looks and his dependable acting. When Rollins tried out for the film, for which he was later nominated for an Academy Award and two Golden Globes, he had to beat out 200 other actors for the leading role, including O. J. Simpson. When he found out that he got the part, Rollins told “People” magazine that he “just fell down on the floor and cried” because he was so happy.

Success eluded Howard Rollins after his success in “Ragtime,” and he did not get another strong role until he played Captain Richard Davenport in “A Soldier’s Story” in 1984. It was an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning stage production of the same name. The movie’s director, Norman Jewison, told “People” that Rollins had a “quiet elegance and dignity” about him; critics did not treat him so kindly, with one saying he gave an “adequate performance.”

Rollins’ life and career took a positive turn when he won the part of Detective Virgil Tibbs in the television series “In the Heat of the Night” in 1987, a role previously played by Sidney Poitier in its original film version. “Heat” took place in the deep South, and its central characters were police chief Bill Gillespie (portrayed by Carroll O’Connor of “All In The Family” fame), and detective Virgil Tibbs (Rollins), a transplanted Philadelphia police officer. Racial tensions often ran high in the South and were portrayed on screen in the lives of its central characters.

However, Howard Rollins found the work in the series to be formulaic, and often felt uneasy and isolated. He said that when he would leave the set, certain words that were used in reference to blacks and treatment of blacks bothered him. The onscreen racism was too close to the real life racism he had encountered, and that made shooting the series uncomfortable for him. Rollins stated that he did not find the environment welcoming or friendly.

Rollins began to indulge in crack cocaine and alcohol. In 1988, while filming the television series in Louisiana, he was arrested for crack cocaine possession. He tried rehab in 1990, but soon his drug and drinking problems overwhelmed him. This affected his work, and Rollins reportedly arrived late on the set—and sometimes did not show up at all. His problems continued as he was arrested three more times in Georgia during 1992 and 1993 for driving under the influence. His last arrest resulted in a 70-day jail sentence.

Because of continued legal problems, Howard Rollins was ultimately dropped from “In the Heat of the Night,” despite his popularity with fans, and replaced by actor Carl Weathers. After completing drug rehab, Rollins was invited back as a guest star on several episodes in the seventh season, but further legal problems led to his being totally banned from the county where the series was filmed. During this time, Rollins changed his appearance and reportedly began acting erratically.

The show’s producer, Herb Adelman, said Rollins would be welcomed back after he worked out his problems, but Rollins would never return. In an August 1993 interview with “Jet” magazine, Rollins discussed his recent brushes with the law. “I now have found other ways to try to make my situation work. I don’t regret anything I’ve done in my life because they’ve brought me here and I’ve become a better actor based on those things,” he said.

After serving his sentence, Rollins returned to New York and isolated himself in his apartment, where he lived alone since the early 1980s. He did not find work for months until he landed the role as a Harlem minister on a “New York Undercover” episode in 1995. The show’s producer, Don Kurt, told “People,” “We were apprehensive about hiring him, but he was a treat to work with.” According to Kurt, it appeared that Rollins had turned his life around.

To his colleagues in the business, Rollins was an extraordinarily gifted performer who felt deeply the emotions of the parts he played. Anne-Marie Johnson, who played Rollins’ wife on “In the Heat of the Night,” told “People” about a scene in which Rollins had to inform a mother that he had shot and killed her son. Johnson said, “Something in the scene really touched Howard. He just broke down.” She said of Rollins in the same interview, “Howard was such a sensitive artist. He was a tortured soul.”

In 1995, Howard Rollins played the part of a recovering alcoholic in Peter Cohn’s “Drunks.” While the show received mediocre reviews from the movie critics, Rollins was acknowledged as a talented actor. That same year, he also played the role of Chimbuko, an activist and former drug addict, in “Harambee,” a PBS special. Of his performance, director Fracaswell Hyman said in the “Detroit News,” “Howard has had his own trials and personal troubles…He was a joy to work with. His sensitivity and talent is so strong that he works very hard.” In the last years of his life, Rollins also appeared on the TV show “Remember WENN” (his final acting role).

Those closest to Rollins believe that he had turned the corner and that his career and life were moving in a positive direction. He was an impassioned, often tormented individual who, at times, became emotionally embroiled in his parts. That, many feel, made Howard Rollins the extraordinary actor that he was, and will be remembered as.

Rollins was a frequent patron of gay clubs in Los Angeles, along San Francisco’s Castro Street, and in New York’s Greenwich Village. He would often go clubbing with fellow gay thespians, Raymond St. Jacques and Paul Winfield. But he was not public about his homosexuality. Rollins often played romantic leading men, and the common industry standard at the time held that public disclosure of queer desires would break a career, especially if you were cast in sexy and romantic roles, opposite sexy and romantic women.

In the fall of 1996, Rollins was diagnosed with AIDS. Six weeks later, he died at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York at the age of 46, from complications from AIDS-related lymphoma. As was typical at the time, his publicist issued a statement claiming he suffered from lymphatic cancer, but it was later revealed by his family that Rollins had been diagnosed with AIDS. He was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in his native Baltimore.

Upon hearing of Rollins’ death, Carroll O’Connor was quoted in “Entertainment Weekly” as saying, “My wife and I are deeply saddened by Howard’s death. He was a friend who we loved dearly.” O’Connor understood what Rollins was going through, and made this statement in the “Detroit News” after Rollins was replaced in the cast of “Heat”: “Howard has a problem, but it’s a problem that 1-in-3 Americans face. There isn’t a family that doesn’t face this in some way.” O’Connor knew of Rollins’ suffering first-hand because O’Connor’s son, Hugh, who played a law officer on the show, committed suicide in 1995 at the age of 33 after losing his 16-year battle with drugs.

On October 25, 2006, a wax statue of Howard Rollins was unveiled at the Senator Theatre in his hometown of Baltimore. The statue is now at Baltimore’s Great Blacks in Wax Museum.

We remember Howard Rollins in appreciation of his skillful and often touching acting, and for his many contributions to our community.

Sapphire

Sapphire 2017

Sapphire was born on August 4, 1950. She is an award-winning novelist, poet, and activist, best known for her widely acclaimed novel, “Push,” the basis for the Oscar-winning 2009 film, “Precious.”

Born Ramona Lofton in Fort Ord, California, Sapphire was one of four children born to her Army sergeant father, and a mother who was a member of the Women’s Army Corps. The family relocated within the United States and abroad on several occasions until a disagreement over where they would settle resulted in Sapphire’s parents separating. Ultimately, her mother, who battled alcoholism, resorted to “kind of abandoning” them when Sapphire was just 13 years old. Like her character Precious, Sapphire herself was sexually abused—molested by her father at the age of eight (allegations he denied).

After dropping out of high school, Sapphire moved to San Francisco, attained a GED, and enrolled at the City College of San Francisco with a major in chemistry and, later, in dance. She eventually left college, and began taking in the Bay Area’s counterculture scene of the 1970s, dabbling in everything from the Black Power and hippie movements to experimenting with drugs. It was also during this time that she began writing poetry and performing public readings of her work. She adopted the name Sapphire because it meant to her “a belligerent, overbearing, Black woman.” Sapphire said in a later interview that the stereotype “was somehow attractive to me, especially because my mother was just the opposite. And I could picture the name on books.”

Sapphire moved to New York in 1977, and did what she had to do to pay the bills, including housekeeping, topless dancing, and even prostitution. In the early 1980s, she returned to writing poetry and performing it at the Nuyorican Café and other venues. Following a brief period of homelessness, Sapphire went back to school and graduated with honors in 1983 with a degree in modern dance. She also took a job with the Children’s Aid Society, and taught reading to students in the Bronx and Harlem. Not all the news was positive for Sapphire: in 1986, she lost both her mother and her brother, who was homeless when he was killed in Los Angeles. Sapphire also lost friends to AIDS.

Sapphire joined the advocacy organization United Lesbians of Color for Change Inc., and became a key figure in New York’s slam poetry movement. In 1987, she self-published her collection of poems, “Meditations on the Rainbow.” Five years later, a poem Sapphire published in an LGBTQ journal became one of her most controversial works. At a time when there were efforts in Congress to attack the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), an excerpt from the poem “Wild Thing,” told from the vantage point of a 13-year-old rapist, was taken out of context and sent to members of Congress:

I remember when

Christ sucked my dick

behind the pulpit,

I was 6 years old

he made me promise

not to tell no one.

National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) chairman John Frohnmayer, who called “Wild Thing” “an important work of art,” eventually resigned amid the furor over Sapphire’s poem.

In 1993, Sapphire enrolled in graduate school at Brooklyn College. A year later, Vintage Publishing put out Sapphire’s book of poetry and prose, “American Dreams.” Each of the selections tells unflinching, brutally honest stories of life in the inner city. The work received glowing reviews, and Sapphire was awarded the MacArthur Scholarship in Poetry, and Downtown Magazine’s Year of the Poet III Award.

Her first novel, “Push,” a graphic account of a young woman growing up in a cycle of incest and abuse, had never been published when it caught the eye of literary agent Charlotte Sheedy. Sapphire submitted the first 100 pages of “Push” to a publisher auction in 1995, and the highest bidder offered her $500,000 to finish the book. The novel was published in 1996 by Vintage Publishing, and has since sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Sapphire noted in an interview with William Powers that she noticed “Push” for sale in one of the Penn Station bookstores, and that moment it struck her she was “no longer a creature of the tiny world of art magazines and homeless-shelters from which she came.” Sapphire won both the Black Caucus of the American Library Association’s First Novelist Award, and the Book-of-Month-Club Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction.

In her volume of poetry, “Black Wings & Blind Angels,” published in 1999, Sapphire addresses a variety of topics, including police brutality, her relationship with her abusive father and alcoholic mother, and sexual identity. Sapphire has also had a number of works printed in several anthologies, including “High Risk 2: Writings on Sex, Death & Subversions,” “Critical Condition: Women on the Edge of Violence,” and “Women on Women: An Anthology of American Lesbian Short Fiction.”

A film based on her novel “Push” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2009. It was renamed “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” to avoid confusion with the 2009 action film, “Push.” The cast included Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, who won the Academy Award for her portrayal of Precious’ mother Mary, Mariah Carey, and Lenny Kravitz. Sapphire herself appears briefly in the film as a daycare worker. Sapphire’s writing was the subject of an academic symposium at Arizona State University in 2007, and two years later, she was the recipient of a Fellow Award in Literature from United States Artists.

Sapphire, who describes herself as bisexual, lives in New York City, and maintains a relatively quiet life out of the spotlight.

We thank Sapphire for her impactful writing, and for her many contributions to our community.