Camille Yarbrough: Africa Calls Her

Camille Yarbrough Talks about the trials and tribulations of Blacks in America and our need to unite as one family
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 Nana Camille Yarbrough began our conversation by stating Africa speaks to her. “It is part of the ancestry that calls me,” said she. “In 1996-97, I lived near the great educator Dr. John Henrik Clarke. I saw people in front of his building who came to his First World Lecture Series, so I went inside. There was a ritual being performed by the Ga people of Ghana whom Clarke had studied and lived among. Because of Clarke’s love of the people of Ghana they asked him to be their chief (Nana) in New York. These Ghanaian people held onto their culture and rituals and asked Clarke to bring unity of the African family throughout the Diaspora. The Ga community also asked me to take on the position of Queen Mother to Dr. Clarke who welcomed me to that position as his Queen Mother,” continued Yarbrough. “It is a deep and complicated position. It is a community service. Queen Mothers who also bear the title Nana, sit beside the King and advise him. Dr. Clarke respected my opinion, so it was my job and heart to use my work as a performing creative artist to help heal the damage done to our people by enslavement,” remarked the author of “Cornrows,” a book that features the history of braids.

Other books followed: "The Shimmershine Queens," "The Little Tree Growing in the Shade" and "Tamika and the Wisdom Rings." Multi-talented she went on to write a three-part series “Black Dance in America.” Her Photo Essay, “Female Style and Beauty in Ancient Africa" was published in the Journal of African Civilization’s, “Black Women in Antiquity” a work edited by the famed Ivan Van Sertima. 

Camille grew up on the Southside of Chicago among seven other siblings. “Growing up on the Southside of Chicago was challenging especially when my father could not find work. My grandmother was an essential part of the family keeping our family together. I felt close to her. And, although I didn’t always understand it, I felt she was always watching me and wondered why she called me an 'old head.' Certain things are reborn in us if we had ancestors who were activists. My father was very angry which was reflected in the things he did. I learned the entire community held that same kind of anger because of racism. After all, they held within them hundreds of years of pain. My father suffered from what he witnessed in his childhood…the abuse, the hatred and lynchings. He got some comfort in choir music and I began to listen to music with him on Sundays. It influenced me at an early age. In a way it saved me. I was the seventh child in a family of eight children.”

“There used to be a theater called the Regal Theatre in Chicago where all the great artists came to perform. That was in the 1940s with folks like Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillespie, et al. I was very young then but became aware of racism. I began to understand via reading our history that there was a problem with being of African ancestry due to this racism. A former boyfriend of my sister who came to New York from Mississippi bought a white Cadillac car. He wanted his family in Mississippi to see how well he had done so returned to Mississippi. He was light skinned and his sister was lighter skinned. He was stopped by the cops and an argument ensued because the cops thought he was with a white woman and thus eventually killed him,” recalled Camille.

Josephine Baker who was born in St Louis, MO., lived and entertained in Paris, France, for a long while. She returned to America and told African American people there were places in the world where Black people were not oppressed like in America. Baker inspired the people and encouraged them and this set-off a flame within Camille. Some of the flames possessed others who later displayed the life and times of Black people via the New Federal Theatre and the Negro Ensemble Company to name a few.

In 1955, Camille joined the great Katherine Dunham’s Dance Company for five years. After leaving the company she then moved to New York City where she performed in her first Broadway show entitled “Kwamina.” She went on to perform in Lorraine Hansberry’s play “Young, Gifted and Black,” which centered around three generations of family. Yarbrough participated in a national tour and wrote an article inspired by the tour which resulted in her published piece in the New York Times. She was also a part of the national tour “God’s Trombones.” In television, she performed in the soap operas “Where the Heart Is” and “Search for Tomorrow.” She was in the Television Special; Soul; CBS Special;" Caught in the Middle" and appeared on Gil Nobles show “Like It Is.” She was one of the first African Americans to do commercials. Eventually, creating her own one-woman show, “Tales and Tunes of an African American Griot” resulted in her album “Iron Pot Cooker.” Iron Pot Cooker has been recently re-released due to the popularity and international hit, renamed “Praise You” via Fatboy Slims’ sampling based on Camille’s song “Take Yo’ Praise.” She produced and hosted her long running cable show “Ancestor House,” and also released a CD under the same name.  An award winning performer, Yarbrough eventually taught African Dance and Community courses at the City University of New York (CUNY).

Much of what she witnessed and heard from her people inspired Camille to also speak out. She did so through lectures, performances, via her writings, poetry and through dance. Music became a way to uplift and encourage African American people. 

Camille understood nothing happens for Black people voluntarily. Blacks pressed for inclusion, protested for it, marched for it and went to Court for it until doors began to open. “We felt Blacks had stories to tell and we wanted to tell them. The Black Lives Matter Movement is a continuum. We have contributed so much to America and the world. So, I say 'don’t dare do what you do to us.'  What’s happening to us now is a resurgence. I do not want to be part of the Hollywood depiction of us as maids and Stephen Fetchits. We have to stand up and get the credit for building up the world and America. Our genius has always mattered,” exclaimed the outspoken lecturer.   

Camille has contributed over 60 years of her life in pursuit of the upliftment of African people in America and across the Diaspora. “I am pleased to see our spirit is still there. We are moving forward, although it is a slow, ever evolving process. Young people are taking us forward in newer and better ways. I am pleased to be part of this African family. Thus, I want to continue to support and be involved in our African greatness. We come from the heart which is really at the center of the African way of being family.”


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