Thursday, November 27, 2008

By jingo, another barber

By strange coincidence, after yesterday’s post about Edmund Harrold, here’s another post about a diarist barber or barber diarist. This one is not a Mancunian but an American, and he lived not in the 18th century but in the 20th century. Charles Everett Ellis is in the news because a Kansas City production company, Outpost Worldwide, which is making a film based on his diaries, has recently launched a website called The Barber’s Diaries.

Ellis was born in 1887 and raised in Altamont. He took on barbering, like his father, and eventually owned his own shop. Ellis and his wife raised seven children, all of whom were also born in Altamont; but, during the Great Depression, he sent his family away to live on a farm near Alton. Ellis himself stayed in Altamont until 1933, but then moved to Chicago and Detroit for brief periods, before working again as a barber in Arizona. Eventually he was reunited with his family. He died in 1971. Today, only three of his children are still alive - Marguerite, Adrienne and Wilma.

On 22 January 1927, his 40th birthday, Elllis began writing a diary, and this is how it started: ‘Forty years old today by Jingo. Looking back over those years have brought many revelations. Youthful dreams have failed of materialization and stern realities have replaced them. Many mistakes have been made which are daily exacting their certain toll and are holding back my onward progress but with experiences gained in those years transformed into wisdom in the future I yet declare that my next forty years shall not be ineffective in service to my Maker, mankind and my own family. Many things I have to be thankful for. A happy home and family, a good business and perfect health - much to be thankful for. I am very grateful to my Maker that my faith in Him has sustained and soothed me in my trials and each day I will try to deepen that faith that in my affairs there shall be no doubts nor fears but shall labor onward and upward that my life shall be a successful one. Forty years in number are many but in one’s life filled with varied experiences they are not many but in that span one either has his plan well laid or is drifting. Mine is planned in detail and my future efforts shall be its maturity.’

Ellis left the diary to his daughter Adrienne (Ellis Reeves) but only now, 35 years later, is it attracting public attention. This is largely due to David Henderson, a former CBS News correspondent, who, having met Adrienne in 2006 and read the diary, was keen to find funding for a documentary film about Ellis. Kansas City production company, Outpost Worldwide, has taken the project on, and has even set up a special website - The Barber’s Diaries - to promote the venture. (The quote above comes from that website.)

The website explains that Ellis lived at a time when African Americans faced threats of racial cleansing across the South and Midwest: thousands were murdered, tortured and publicly executed; property was stolen; and communities eliminated overnight. For most black men, the way to survive was to remain invisible and never speak out. Ellis, nevertheless, had hopes and dreams for himself and all black Americans, and he wrote about them in his secret diary. ‘His writing,’ the website says, ‘is a celebration of life that rises above the violence and challenges of the time. His words inspire and endure to this day.’

Here are several more quotes from the diary, thanks to The Barber’s Diaries website.

‘Man is what he thinks, not what he says, reads, or hears. By persistent thinking, however, in the right away, the way of truth, you can undo any condition which exists. You can free yourself from any claims, whether of poverty, sin, in health or unhappiness.’

‘. . . I hereby set forth some resolutions which I hope to build into permanent habits within my own being.
1) Daily reading of the Bible; prayer and meditation
2) Constant seeking for wisdom and understanding
3) Development of will-power and constructive thinking
4) Effective reading with development of memory
5) Concentration upon all matters at hand
6) Infinite pains unto the smallest detail
7) To look upward and onward – never downward nor backward
8) To properly value time and perseverance
9) Promptness and decision where needed
10) To speak clearly and express accurately’

‘When things get bad, so very bad that worse they could not be, hold fast to hope, cling hard to faith, that someway out you’ll see.’

Some further information, though not much, about Ellis and his diary can be found on the Effingham Daily News website. Adrienne told the paper that her father’s diary was ‘a marvellous compendium, especially for a black man who had gone no further than high school,’ and that ‘his customers were all white, and they spoke about many things as if he wasn’t there.’ She also noted that ‘by jingo’ was one of her father’s favourite expressions and that she’d never heard anyone else say it.

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