Sunday, February 22, 2009

Ave Maria Montegue: An Angel Among Us

Yesterday at the Memorial for Ave Montegue, when the time came for community comments, and I was fifth in line, the time was cut from 1 minute to 30 seconds, so the words which I had so carefully crafted just an hour earlier were rendered useless—I couldn’t figure out where or how to cut them, so I gave them to one of Ave’s family members who is collecting the recollections in a book.

I winged it and called on the spirit of Nina Simone, whose life I’d been studying for a radio segment early Saturday that same day, what would have been the consummate artist's 76 birthday.

Nina Simone was an appropriate angel to call on when remembering and celebrating the life of our sister, Ave Maria Montegue, who passed from our earthly presence Wednesday, January 28, 2009. Like Dr. Simone she was a prodigy, supported by family and encouraged by in her dreams in fashion design.

Dr. Simone, raised in Tryon, N.C., was supported in her dream of becoming a black classical concert pianist. She studied briefly at Juilliard in New York to prepare for the entrance exam to Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She received a letter of rejection. They were not ready for a black woman and the young Nina was crushed, but not for long.

I can imagine the same must have been true of a young Ave, who was among few women graduates from the Fashion Institute of Technology and later Macy's executive training program, but unlike Dr. Simone Ave was admitted and what she learned in these environments shaped her into the woman we knew as friend, entrepreneur, philanthropist: the Executive Director and Founder of the San Francisco Black Film Festival, Ave Montegue.

To listen to the tribute to Nina Simone and El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, who was assassinated 44 years ago, 2/21, visit (2/21/2009).

This is what I’d planned to say, revised of course with comments on the Memorial:

Ave’s passing has been hard on me. I can’t imagine a world where she is not busy organizing and planning African lives. She knew her products and her customers and if she suggested something to cover, I was there if at all possible—she’d greet me with a laugh ‘cause I was generally late. When I heard the news I called her phone, I don’t know what I expected, her ghost to say, “Ave,” but it didn’t. There was bitter sweet joy hearing her voice…I promised myself, I’d listen again and record it just as a keepsake for times when I am scattered and need someone like Ave to prioritize events for me. She wasn’t pushy, but in our busy black media world, especially at Kwanzaa and Black History Month and of course at Inaugural time this year, hers were the emails to watch.

Now there are other publicists who have to step forward and take up the slack, the poorly staffed publicity offices at the nonprofits, the non-black publicists Ave used to partner with—I hope they learned a few lessons.

I am hopeful, but I don’t think so. Ave gave journalists the feeling that you were her one and only choice for the story…she made me feel special and I didn’t want to disappoint her because of all the publicists I knew, she seemed to really value my skills as a journalist and recognized my ability to bring a certain constituency to her events. She knew everyone and if she didn’t she soon would.

Her circles were wide and affluent. She’d wield mighty power and knew how to make a small event look classy. She spoiled her patrons and their guests, a clientele which, at times, wasn’t used to gift bags and limousines, but quickly grew accustomed to the finer things when budgets allowed and even when it didn’t –money never seemed to be a problem…if Ave wanted something to happen.

I hadn’t known she was one of the founders of the Sisters of Faith Fancher or the chair of the board of the American Heart Association or that she’d started the Black Juneteenth Beauty Contest and from this came the Black Film Festival at Juneteeth.

She would look you in the eye as if to say, “Cut the crap,” the language a bit more gentile but the intent the same. She was no nonsense, quiet and as I said an elegant presence I miss.

I think I have been mourning her loss more than Chauncey Bailey’s, perhaps because I always had something to read that Ave sent me, spoke to her almost weekly, often more than that. She was like a sister, yet I didn’t really know her, know her. She invited me to her home to review films, but the distance was too great to take her up on it, and Powell’s Place closed before we could have brunch there. 1300 on Fillmore was another venue I was unable to cover or attend an Ave event there.

I wasn’t one of the “beautiful people,” but I didn’t feel like Cinderella either…she was Ave an institution within herself, and like many others in the field, she was taking on too much…but if she hadn’t, then much of what we love about this area, its rich African American culture would not have happened on the grand scale that it did.

I stopped being surprised to see her—she was Ms. Black San Francisco…I don’t ever recall seeing physically seeing Ave in the East Bay but evidence of her work was there from the now defunct Oakland Ensemble Theatre and Dimensions Dance Theatre, to San Francisco International Arts Festival, to MoAD and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and ACT, Marcus Books and the Metreon, the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Jewish International Film Festival…not to mention all the celebrities she knew personally—if Ave wasn’t in the mix, then it wasn’t worth a gander. She even supported events at community centers like the Bayview Opera House, at the San Francisco Public Libraries, and of course the Center for African American Art and Culture. I was up early hosting a special radio show honoring the memory and legacy of Nina Simone and Malcolm X, Saturday, February 21. Malcolm was shot and killed 44 years ago this day and Nina, well as my guest said this morning, Nina was Fanny Lou Hamer at the piano. Ave was like air, invisible but necessary…I need a respirator now and haven’t been sleeping well…since she fell into her final sleep at the computer. I think about other super black women I know, myself among them…traveling without sleep…food…the tank a finger snap away from empty.

I passed out from exhaustion later on Saturday once I returned home to prepare for events that evening. It scared me, one minute I was awake, the next I’d fallen-over asleep. I am so happy I was sitting down and not at the wheel of a car.

Ave was connected to the clergy, her pulse on what ailed Black America and what we needed in our lives as a cure…the perfect film, a piece of chocolate, or perhaps the ultimate networking opportunity. Ave was about connecting people and ideas and making magic happen. She honored filmmakers who were just coming into the business and those who’d laid the groundwork.

The memorial or celebration of Ave’s Life at the West Bay Conference Center, a lovely venue, hosted by Belva Davis and Barbara Rogers, attracted hundreds of people to pay their final respects to the family, Ave’s son and daughter-in-law, and her two grandchildren. When I walked into the full room there was a Tribute in Dance by Dimensions Dance There being performed as a slide show was projected of Ave in all her splendor which repeated for the entire afternoon. Deborah Vaughan was seated on the front row, as was Tamika who worked closely with Ave, on the Black Film Festival. As my eyes perused the audience I saw many media friends such as Lee Hubbard, Harrison Chastang and Sheila Moody. I also saw Timothy Simon, London Breed, singer Kim Nalley and Tammy Hall, though I’d missed Kim’s song for Ave. In line to say a few words, I saw David Roach, Oakland International Film Festival and Kevin Epps, whose first film Straight Outta Hunter’s Point was a SFBFF premiere many years ago, and this is how I met Kevin whose The Black Rock is opening at the Red Vic, in San Francisco, February 27.

I saw my good friend and colleague Karen Larson, director, Larsen Associates, as I stood in the hallway getting ready to leave. I thought about going back into the room to take more photos but I couldn’t. This was a hard event to cover and I was there because it was Ave, my last personal call from her to honor.

Some of the comments that afternoon were personal. Childhood friends from her hometown spoke and gave us a perspective on this dynamic woman born in East Orange, New Jersey, where she left after graduating from East Orange High School to attend the Fashion Institute in New York City where she earned a marketing degree. She went from there into the Macy’s executive training institute where she became one of the company’s first African American senior managers. There she was a group sales manager and buyer for J. Magnin.

Between New York and San Francisco Ave had a son, though not much was said about him or his father. I hadn’t known up to a month ago, that she was a mother and a grandmother, but as I said earlier…I knew her more professionally. No one mentioned her body either…what happened to it? Was there a will?

Even when Ave slowed down enough to finally grant an interview after years of denied requests last year, as we spoke about the San Francisco Black Film Festival founding not much about her personal life. We didn’t even speak much about the Black Film Festival Hall of Fame which she was also involved in. I wish I’d been able to speak to the founder of Black Filmmakers, who is now teaching in Los Angeles. I remember when I was invited to screen films for the SFBFF the then director of the BFFHF was a part of the training which was held at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Between Ave’s SFBFF and Black Filmmaker’s Hall of Fame, I learned about black film and the role these early innovators played in documenting and shaping media perceptions for black people first, then later as a residual benefit those interested in truer perceptions of black life, black family and black people in America and elsewhere. BFFHF and the SFBFF organizations were telling our stories as only someone inside the flesh and blood of the experiences spoken of is capable of doing. That said, this meant that each year what SFBFF under the guidance of Ave Marie Montegue, after BFF was gone and before David Roach’s Oakland International Film Festival came on the scene to somewhat fill the vacuum in the East Bay that BFF’s left— one was guaranteed a view of black life invisible to mainstream American cinema, even the most well intentioned media outlets because black cinema, the black directors, black life wasn’t a segment, it was the entire program at San Francisco Black Film Festival. The festival grew so big, I couldn’t hope to cover it all, so I was happy to make the highlights and even then, last year, 2008, one of the highlights, an Oscar Michele tribute fell on the same date as the African Ancestor Libation which was an international pouring we have participated in for the past three years. See

My first vivid memory of Ave was at YBCA, when the Center opened with a Black Restaurant. Another vivid memory of Ave was Dr. Julianne Malveaux. The economist, As of June 1, 2007 is the 15th President of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Dr. Malveaux’s career was certainly jump-started by Ave Montegue. Ave was there promoting her books and setting up interviews, I believe before her syndicated column and multiple books, but maybe not (smile). Malveaux was a native San Franciscan and as such Ave’s friend and someone she supported.

Ave Maria –I love the hymn, a friend spoke of Ave’s mother playing the song often when Ave was a child and of course before she was born, thus the name. I hadn’t known Ave had had a stroke 20 years ago and doctors predicted that she wouldn’t walk again, but as her friends stated, she had too many pairs of shoes in her closet she wanted to wear, so she was determined to learn to walk again and she did.

Dr. Joe Marshall, whose Omega Boys Club, Ave represented told how Ave Maria Montegue called him from the hospital, after having suffered the stroke trying to organize the benefit that evening from Emergency. He couldn’t help but shake his head, “She’d had a stroke…”.

Talk about conscientious. That was Ave.

One young man, Mateen Kemet, said that BFF gave him his first screening opportunity and from there he was able to complete graduate school and now has a deal with Dreamworks. I remember his film, Silences.

Ave was a good listener and supported the young entrepreneurs and let them hang out with her and see how she got her work done. There are so many words and then there are no words to fill the space the shoes the …see I have no more adjectives left…to describe our collective loss.

I hope Ave’s journey is smooth, the ride in the boat pleasant, the place on the other side one with options…Ave, after all had class and well…I don’t know if her room will be to her liking at first glance.

“Ave”—our prayer
Imagine, every time we called her, it was an invocation. Now I understand why I wanted to record her voice—the outgoing message on her machine, why so many people at the Memorial stated that they knew her phone number by heart, even though they weren’t in the habit of memorizing numbers. It is fitting that we remember her the week before Lent season…a time of self-reflection or repentance, its conclusion the resurrection or renewal, the chance for a new start.

Here is the song sung by Celine Deon with lyrics translated. I read that the song was a prayer to the Virgin Mary for her grace or intercession. It’s so Ave Maria Montegue isn’t it, her council often sought, as Harrison Chastang ( stated at the memorial when the doors were closed to the Black Press.

Who will hear our prayers now?

Ave Maria!
Maiden mild!
Oh, listen to a maiden's prayer
For thou can't hear amid the wild
This thou, this thou can't save amid, despair We slumbers safely tear the Mother
Though we be man outcast relived
Oh, Mainden, hear a maiden's sorrow
Oh, Mother, hear a suppliant child!
Ave Maria
Ave Maria, gracia plena
Maria, gratia plena
Maria, gratia plena
Ave, ave dominus
Dominus tecum
The murky cavern's air so heavy
Shall breath of balm if thou hast smiled
Oh, Maiden, hear a maiden pleadin'
Oh, Mother, hear a suppliant child
Ave Maria
Ave Maria


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