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Oscar Brown Jr.

As a performer, he acted his songs more than he sang them; as a songwriter, hedrew as much from gospel, the blues and folk music as he did from jazz. He preferred to call himself an entertainer, although even that broad term didnotgo far enough: he saw his art as a way to celebrate African-American life andattack racism, and it was not always easy to tell where the entertainer ended and the activist began.

His song "Brown Baby," recorded by Mahalia Jackson and others, was both a lullaby for his infant son and an anthem of racial pride. Other songs, like "Signifying Monkey" and "The Snake," took their story lines from black folklore. The album, "We Insist! Freedom Now Suite," for which Mr. Brown wrote lyrics to the drummer Max Roach's music, was one of the first jazz works to address the civil rights movement. His commitment to art as a tool for social change was most evident in the numerous stage shows he wrote and directed in his hometown Chicago.

Oscar Cicero Brown, Jr. made his earthly debut on October 10, 1926 at Chicago ’s Provident Hospital as the firstborn child of school teacher, Helen Lawrence and Oscar C. Brown, Sr., a prominent lawyer and real estate owner. Oscar was raised in a two-church house hold: his mother attended St. Edmond’s Episcopal Church, and his father was a member, and attorney for Pilgrim Baptist Church for over fifty years. Oscar Jr.’s verbal skills stood out early in his academic career as evidenced by thefact that he often took first-place in “elocution” contests. He attended Willard Elementary and Englewood High Schools, and by age 15, he had launched his professional career in Studs Terkel's children's radio series, called " Secret City ." His father, however, encouraged him to pursue a college career and study law, with the hope that he would take over the family business.

As a result of two “double promotions” in elementary school, he was only sixteen years old when enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 1943. After attending several colleges and universities, including Lincoln University (Pa.) and the University of Michigan, where he excelled in English composition, but failed everything else, it became clear that creative writing was his primary interest, rather than academic study or the business world.

In his twenties, he returned to work in radio, spending five years as the “world’s firstNegro newscaster,” for a Chicago program called “Negro Newsfront,” where he also managed to include a musical menu, as well as poetic works by Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. In addition to his media work, he continued to dabble in real estate, advertising, and public relations; but he soon turned to activism"both inside and outside electoral politics. One of his first jobs along these lines was as program director for the progressive United Packinghouse Workers union. Activism was part of his father’s legacy"Oscar Sr. had served at the helm of the Chicago NAACP, but had also been part of a nationalist effort to develop a 49 th state for African Americans. In 1948, Oscar ran for the Illinois legislature on the Progressive Party ticket, and for the U.S. Congress as a Republican in 1952"a party he conveniently selected in order to get on the ballot. Oscar was actually a member of the Communist Party from the time he was 20, to his resignation in 1956 at the age of 30, when he concluded that he was “just too black to be red.” From 1948 to 1950, Oscar played a key role in Richard Durham’s “Destination Freedom” Black Radio Days series. He then went on to serve two years in the Army, after which he began to pursue his hobby of composing songs by singing a little in local nightspots.

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