Coombs, Orde M. 1939–1984
Orde M. Coombs 1939–1984
Orde Coombs wore many hats in his short life, working as a film producer, an editor, an author, and a television host. In his central work, beginning in 1970 and lasting until his death in 1984, he struggled with questions of racism in America and abroad. In anthologies like Is Massa Day Dead? Black Moods in the Caribbean and essays like “On Hearing the Drums in Haiti,” Coombs brought his unique point of view—that of a West Indian living in the United States—to bear on the legacy of slavery, colonialism, and segregation. “As I looked around,” Coombs noted in Do You See My Love For You Growing?, “I began to see that the solutions to the problems of black people must rest, finally, in black hands.”
Coombs was born in St. Vincent, West Indies, in 1939. As a young boy, he peeled sugar cane in the fields, watched Tarzan movies, and borrowed books from the local library. By the time he was 13, he became conscious of the difference between the white population, which was a minority on the island, and the blacks like him. Even when the whites lacked money, he recalled, they maintained titles leftover from the colonial days and carried themselves with pride. Coombs later remembered the pride he felt when his father, who owned a store, forced a retired English major from his establishment. “There was an almost atavistic joy in seeing this white man humbled, in looking at his retreating back…”
Before he headed to Yale for his undergraduate degree, Coombs began producing documentary films dealing with West Indian culture, focusing on the life of the black people in the community and the hardships they faced. In 1961 he traveled to the United States, and graduated from Yale in 1965 with his bachelors degree, beginning his graduate work at Clare College in Cambridge, England, in the same year. His experience in Cambridge, where he had attempted to escape from the torment of civil rights politics in the United States, shaped his life’s work. During the spring semester of 1966, Coombs became depressed, realizing that he would never settle in England and that his home in the Caribbean was too confining. He believed that America, despite its racial divide, held the key to the questions he had begun to ask. “In some pithy way I knew then what was bothering me, and I knew that I had to come back to America because American blacks knew what I wanted to learn…. I knew that American blacks had decided that, head-on, they would face white arrogance and temper it with their strength and their truth.”
After returning from England, Coombs worked as an associate editor for the publisher Doubleday from 1966 to 1968. He left publishing from 1968 to 1969 to work at Western Electric, even though he knew he disliked large corporate systems. “…I knew that I was arrogant and that there existed in me a tension that did not easily allow me to [tolerate] fools—white ones,” he later wrote. “But I was greedy and there were bills to be paid.” He quickly tired of the job and went to work at McCall Publishing as a senior editor between 1969 and 1971. Coombs co-wrote Eastern Religions in the
Born in 1939 in St. Vincent, West Indies; died on August 27, 1984, in New York, NY. Education: Yale University, BA, 1965; graduate study, Clare College, Cambridge, England, 1965-66; New York University, MA, 1971.
Career: Producer of documentaries dealing with West Indian culture, 1958-61; Doubleday & Co., New York, associate editor, 1966-68; Western Electric Corporation, New York, senior public relations specialist, 1968-69; author, 1968-84; McCall Publishing Co., New York, senior editor, 1969-71; journalist, 1970s-1980s; “Black Conversations” (talk show), New York, co-host, 1970s; New York University, adjunct lecturer, 1973.
Awards: Alicia Patterson Award, 1974; media award for public service reporting, 1974.
Electric Age with John H. Garabedian in 1968 and edited two collections of African-American writing, We Speak as Liberators: Young Black Poets and What We Must See: Young Black Storytellers, in 1970 and 1971, respectively.
In 1972 Coombs published Do You See My Love For You Growing?, a book of essays that probed the black experience in contemporary America. Weaving autobiography and his knowledge of life in New York City, these essays examined the immigrant experience, the trappings of class, and the civil rights movement. “From the confines of my spirit,” Coombs wrote, “I will speak honestly about the Diaspora of black people, and if my vision is true, our homeward march into ourselves may be made easier.”
In the mid-1970s Coombs hosted “Black Conversations” on WPIX-TV in New York, and he received a media award for his skills as a reporter in 1974. He collaborated with Chester Higgins on Drums of Life: A Photographic Essay on the Black Man in America and edited Is Massa Day Dead?: Black Moods in the Caribbean in 1974. He published a second book, Sleep Late with Your Dreams, in 1977. Coombs could have been writing of himself as a young man when he noted in the introduction to Is Massa Day Dead?: “Here, then are the views of… West Indians as they face the questions of color and identity in their native lands….”
In 1980 Coombs collaborated with Higgins once again, completing Some Time Ago: A Historical Portrait of Black Americans, 1850-1950. The book included photographs by Walker Evans, Dorothy Lange, and Gordon Parks taken for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression of the 1930s and annotated by Coombs’ writing. “Orde Coombs’s text celebrates the triumphs and struggles of blacks,” wrote Julius Lester in the New York Times. “One closes the book with the satisfying experience of, yes, this is how it was ‘some time ago’ and, not so easily understood but also true, that this is how it is.” Some Time Ago revealed the many facets of black life in America from slavery to early civil rights demonstrations, and displayed the work of many lesser-known African-American photographers.
Coombs also wrote for the New York Magazine and New York Times. In one book review he recalled a reunion with his Yale classmates and wondered why so many had lost their youthful idealism about solving African-American problems. “What has become of those middle-aged men who asked younger men to join the Peace Corps and take their skills across the world to help feed and organize those whose spirit had been corroded by poverty and colonialism?” Coombs, however, retained his idealism, working until the end of his life to illuminate America’s racial divide and to reveal African-American accomplishments despite incredible odds. “As this country rides into its third century,” he wrote in Some Time Ago, “may the sons and daughters of this country’s former serfs find in the fullness of their lives, a vigorous wisdom that lies beyond retaliation or despair.” Coombs died at the Memorial Hospital for Cancer and Allied Diseases in New York City on August 27, 1984.
(With John H. Garabedian) Eastern Religions in the Electric Age, Grosset, 1968.
We Speak as Liberators: Young Black Poets (editor), Dodd, 1970.
What We Must See: Young Black Storytellers (editor), Dodd, 1971.
Do You See My Love For You Growing?, Dodd, 1972.
(With Chester Higgins, Jr.) Drums of Life, Doubleday, 1974.
Is Massa Day Dead? Black Moods in the Caribbean (editor), Doubleday, 1974.
Sleep Late With Your Dreams, Doubleday, 1977.
(With Chester Higgins, Jr.) Some Time Ago: A Historical Portrait of Black Americans From 1850-1950, Doubleday, 1980.
New York Magazine, December 1, 1980.
New York Times, May 17, 1976, p. 29; February 6, 1981, p. C21; September 1, 1984, p. 28.
“Orde M. Coombs,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (March 1, 2004).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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