Black History Month Spotlight on Clarence Muse

by Tom Warner, Best & Next Department

Baltimore native & 1st African American Actor to appear in a starring film role

Clarence Muse

Clarence Muse was the first African American actor to appear in a starring role in film (1929’s Hearts in Dixie, an early “talkie” that was also the first film to feature an all-Black cast) and the first African American Broadway director (1943’s Run, Little Chillun). Born in Baltimore on October 14, 1889, Muse acted for over 50 years and appeared in more than 150 films. He was also a screenwriter, director, singer, composer, and author, and helped pioneer the Black Theater movement as an acclaimed performer with two Harlem Renaissance troupes: the Lincoln Theater Players and the Lafayette Theater Players. He was a co-founder of the all-Black Lafayette Players, who gained national acclaim with stagings of Orson Welles’ Voodoo Macbeth (1936) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Of the latter production, Muse famously said the play was relevant to Black audiences because, “It was every Black man’s story. Black men too have been split creatures inhabiting one body.”

The Broken Earth

Among Muse’s many accomplishments in the arts, he co-wrote the screenplay for Way Down South (1939) with Langston Hughes and in 1931 co-wrote “When It’s Sleepy Time Way Down South,” which later became a signature song of Louis Armstrong. Highlights of his film career include star turns in The Broken Earth (1936) and Broken Strings (1940), co-starring with Joe Louis in Spirit of Youth (1938), and playing Peter the Honey Man in Otto Preminger’s Porgy and Bess (1959). After being considered for the role that went to Dooley Wilson in the 1942 film, Muse appeared as “Play It Again” Sam the pianist in the 1955-1956 TV version of Casablanca. Other notable film credits include the Disney TV miniseries The Swamp Fox (1959), Buck and the Preacher (1972), Car Wash (1976), Larry Clark’s Passing Through (1977) and Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion (1979).

Spirit of Youth
Car Wash

Muse was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1973 and in 1978 received a doctorate from Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law, where he studied Law briefly in 1908 before leaving to pursue an acting career. He continued acting up until age 89, last appearing as fruit and vegetable seller “Snoe” in 1979’s The Black Stallion. He lived until October 13, 1979 – one day shy of what would be his 90th birthday and four days before the release of The Black Stallion.

Broken Strings
The Black Stallion

Despite a celebrated career, many of Muse’s early films remain hard to find. Thankfully, Pratt has a number of Clarence Muse films, including a rare interview taped just months before his death, available to check out using our Sidewalk Service or Books-by-Mail resources:

Host Dr. Winona Fletcher (Indiana University) interviews Black actor and vaudevillian Clarence Muse a few months before his death in 1979. Muse reminiscences about his professional life, particularly the formation of the Lafayette Theatre Players.

Creativity in the Time of Covid: Notes from Past Poetry Contest Winners — Part Three

Our free Poetry Contest is accepting entries through March 1, 2021. We asked past Poetry Contest winners to answer either or both of these questions: How has your writing changed during the pandemic? How have you stayed creative?

Mya Green
(@o.myag on Instagram) won the 2014 Poetry Contest with “Resolution,” which includes this:

The real reason I still follow

the catechism. Because I know what it’s like

to be truly hungry. Calm sea, startled


Mya wrote this about staying creative:

I wish I could say this pandemic has provided respite for creativity and writing. But, that’s not really the case. I recently took the plunge and did some traveling; a trip by train and a sailing trip! It was a refreshing change of scenery. During this time, instead of doubling down on my personal writing practice, I’ve actually been inspired to share poetic craft through virtual writing workshops and one-on-one sessions with folks who are interested in deepening their own writing practices. In the wake of Black Lives Matter and the socio-political landscape of our current national and global “moment,” I’ve chosen to invoke myriad writings and teachings from Black American poets, scholars, and thought-leaders as the vehicle for pushing the boundaries of my students’ writing processes. Working with others has allowed me to stay deeply connected to other narratives and consistently kept my eyes on fresh pages.

Inga Lea Schmidt won the 2015 Poetry Contest with “Sole,” which begins,

Sole: a flatfish,

small fins, small eyes,

small mouth, it looks

like a tongue. 

Inga wrote this:

As someone who writes in their free time, outside of work, I’m always trying to carve out this elusive “free time” for myself, with varying results. In the first month of the pandemic, suddenly I was up to my ears in free time, so I put a lot of pressure on myself to be productive. This was initially great, but ultimately unsustainable — did you know that living through a pandemic is stressful? It became important to balance writing time with stress management; phone calls with my family, taking daily (masked) walks, writing ideas for a poem if they came to me, and not punishing myself if they didn’t. One thing I’m really appreciative of with writing (and reading) during a pandemic is being able to imagine other realities and not feel trapped in the status quo. I’d like to believe that this isn’t just escapism (though a little escapism now and then is good for the soul), but the valuable experience of living outside of yourself and outside of a world that can falsely feel incapable of change.

Creativity in the Time of COVID: More from Past Poetry Contest Winners — Part Two

Our free Poetry Contest is accepting entries through March 1, 2021. We asked past Poetry Contest winners to answer either or both of these questions: How has your writing changed during the pandemic? How have you stayed creative?

Lori Powell won the 2013 Poetry Contest with “To the Bird that Wakes Me,which begins,

Beyond my window,

a stairway floats in the trees.

Three notes up, three down:

your song at first light

climbs to unlock the morning.

Lori wrote this:

“The biggest challenge for me creatively during the pandemic has been the narrowing of my world. I ended up not embracing this new state of being exactly, but trying to use it, to explore it. I will be forever grateful that I shared the first two months of quarantine with the perfect teacher for this creative venture: my six-month-old grandson, who was exploring himself and his world with an energy that ranged from delight and wonder to frustration and fury. As much as possible, I joined him. I tried to really pay attention to sights and sounds and people, to take nothing for granted, and to carry this renewed sensory connection, this focus on the small and the extraordinary-ordinary, into my life and poetry. The pandemic built walls, but attention is boundless.”

Joseph Ross won the 2012 Poetry Contest with “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God,” which includes these lines:

No one would wear cotton

clothing, every cotton field

would be burned in praise

of fourteen

year-old boys

and their teeth.

Here is what Joseph wrote about being creative now:

“These days, I teach facing a computer screen instead of facing humans. Just as it has for many people, the Covid-19 pandemic has upended many of my daily routines. However, there is one routine I’ve deepened, not changed. I need solitude more than ever these days and since moving to Washington, D.C., more than 20 years ago, I have found it at Rock Creek Park. In the pre-pandemic world, I would find my way to Rock Creek Park at least once a week, sometimes more often. Whether to read at a picnic table or hike toward Pulpit Rock, the park offers me its silence, stillness, and solitude. During the pandemic, I find I need those offerings more than ever. These practices: silence, stillness, and solitude are essential for my well-being and my writing.”

Dave Eberhardt won the 2020 Poetry Contest with “After ‘Blade Runner 2049’ and Anton Webern ‘Piano Variations’- Op 27 / Ruhig, fliessend,” which begins…

Your code is to sing the following tone row:

Pale grave stones the color of Indian Pipe…

“Soundless as dots on a disc of snow”

Dave wrote this about being creative now:

…I seem to be getting more interesting dreams  very few pleasant  with recurring not so poetic themes  often concerning important life turning points  moving to a new house, starting a school year, etc.

I think visuals have played a greater role during the pandemic, altho they always have   that is bits of movies or TV  bits from HLN’s true crimes channel or how it really happened with serial killers or from the Discovery Channel re catching drug smugglers or monster fish.

…At 79 one does wonder about being written out  as with maybe Wordsworth, or Rimbaud  who else. I am not worried about that  since I am finding shorter poems all the time   some very local  e.g., “For animal trapped inside/ call 311.”

To learn more about how to enter go to,

Anti-Racist Reads to Download on Overdrive

Curious about how to become a better ally this Black History Month?  Learn more about Anti-Racism and gain a new perspective on social justice with these titles available on Overdrive.

Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad and Robin J DiAngelo
One Person, No Vote
by Carol Anderson and Dirk Durbin
Five Days
by Wes Moore and
Erica L. Green
Hood Feminism
by Mikki Kendall
Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
What the Eyes Don’t See
by Mona Hanna-Attisha eBook
White Fragility
by Robin DiAngelo and Michael Eric Dyson
How To Be An Antiracist
by Ibram X. Kendi
Tears We Cannot Stop
by Michael Eric Dyson eBook
Women, Race, & Class
by Angela Y. Davis
The Fire Next Time
by James Baldwin
A Guest in the House of Hip Hop
by Mickey Hess

Creativity in the Time of Covid: Notes from Past Poetry Contest Winners — Part One

Our free Poetry Contest is accepting entries through March 1, 2021. We asked past Poetry Contest winners to answer either or both of these questions: How has your writing changed during the pandemic? How have you stayed creative?

Jalynn Harris won the 2019 Poetry Contest with “Phyllis Wheatley questions the quarter,” which begins,

Who head of the quarter?

Who 25 pennies add ‘em up

Who spangle the liberty of in god we founded

Who tie till the black hand

Here are Jalynn’s notes on creativity during the pandemic:

I have been writing more prose for publication and more personal poetry for myself. Fresh out of grad school during a pandemic, I had been doing freelance work which has been featured in BmoreArt and Black Archives

My poetry has been entirely for myself, though I have shared new work at virtual readings. My poetry has been very raw, unprocessed, and from the position of myself as speaker. My pandemic poems are personal and deal a lot with longing for touch, love, libraries, and random conversation — things that, by nature of the pandemic, are waaaay harder to come by. My recent work is a lot different than the Enoch Pratt piece, “Phillis Wheatley questions the quarter,” and other personae poetry featured in my chapbook “Exit Thru the Afro” — a future museum of Black queer musings in verse.  

I have stayed creative by reading across genres — Juliet Takes a Breath by Gaby Rivera; Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat; the autobiography of Assata Shakur; etc…. I have also been biking lots, swimming when I can, and creating all kinds of new *to me* vegan delights. Gotta keep my belly as inspired as my mind! 

Saundra Rose Maley won the 2016 Poetry Contest with “Charlotte Darling,” which includes the lines,

She’d crack a joke

About the guy she was seeing,

Adjust her gooseneck lamp

Put her head down and draw—

Saundra responded to our questions with this piece:

The Poem as Bridge in a Dark Time

I have found myself working more on my poems during the pandemic. I read where Shakespeare worked on three of his great tragedies during the plague of 1606 and while I am certainly no Shakespeare, I think he had the right idea. If you find you have more time to do your “work,” then do it.

Disappearing Act: Poems
by Saundra Maley

I’ve been trying to pull a manuscript together since my first and only book of poems, Disappearing Act, was published a few years ago. The “inspiration” for a new book came to me before the pandemic when by chance I picked up a small volume of Rumi translations in a bookstore. Coleman Barks, the translator, started his introduction with this sentence:

                                                I sometimes fall in love with bridges.

That was it — that sentence burst a dam in me and poems started flowing and taking me to new places. These months of “quarantine” have given me time to follow these poems wherever they lead. I don’t know where that will be, but I’m taking this pandemonic time to find out.   


Every poem is a bridge, an arcing

that closes the distance

between us

steel strands cascading

over shoulders

and breasts

spandrels of ecstasy

and ah!

bright wings