Black History and Me

I struggled with trying to determine what I would speak about today. My sense of black history as it played out in my life, vs. knowing the history of black people – African Americans – and how understanding our past opens the door to the future of prosperity and community among all people.

Then I remembered that I had 3-5 minutes to speak and thought, well – damn.  I can’t do that.  So bear with me, please.

I was born on August 15, 1964. The Civil Rights Act was pushed through Congress in June of 1964. For my parents, I was born into a world of “better times ahead.”  I grew up in South Phoenix, in a neighborhood that was primarily black and Mexican.

Every summer, my parents would take my brother and sister and me to Ardmore, OK, where my parents grew up and met each other in high school. Because of those many years of development and growth and experience with my grandparents and cousins, I have a vibrant and vivid memory of hot summers, afternoons at the activity center swimming pool, cold sodas from my grandmother’s icebox that she sold out of the house to neighbors. I remember going to sleep in a bed next to a window and staring out at the fireflies winking in and out in the yard. Waking up in the mornings to a cool breeze of the cleanest, freshest air. I also clearly remember being traumatized and giddy at the same time as my grandmother would go out to the chicken coop out back and grab a chicken by it’s the head – sometimes two – and literally mimick a propeller airplane as she rung their necks simultaneously.  That was dinner that night.  Yeah, don’t play with grandmomma.

I grew up respecting my elders because that’s what I was taught. And when I didn’t remember, a switch from the bush out in front – which I had to choose myself – would be used to remind me of my errant ways.

It was a glorious time. It was a different time. And it wasn’t until I was older before I realized how our country’s history affected my family. Let me share just a couple that I remember off the top of my head.

My grandmother was a maid to an oil-tycoon millionaire family. Working as their maid had been her entire adult life. She raised three white children as well as her own. She cooked for them and kept their home clean for decades.

I learned later in life that about a mile away from the pool that we learned to swim was another larger, better equipped swimming pool that only white people swam in.

I remember my cousin Zachary and I playing out in the yard when a white woman in a car stopped and asked us if she could take our picture. We happily posed, and were so excited about getting our photos taken – only to lose that excitement when we told our parents and the went off on us – battering us with questions like “What did she say?”, “Why did she take your pictures?” and “Had we seen her before?”  We didn’t get it.  We were kids.

R&B, Soul, and Funk was the music of choice because that is what I was exposed to. Motown, Earth Wind & Fire, Sly & The Family Stone, and Parliament/Funkadelic were the examples of rhythm that I learned to dance to. It may be hard to believe, but I didn’t listen to Rock & Roll music until I was a teenager in high school when my family moved here to Bellevue, WA, in 1979. It was then that I learned of music by Chicago, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Santana, and Queen, to name a few.

So this leads me into Black History and its effect and importance to me. I ask you to bear with me for another couple of minutes because there is no way to touch on a people’s history in a “couple of minutes.” I want to share what’s important to me and hopefully educate at the same time.

No one has played a more significant role in helping all Americans know the black past than Carter G. Woodson, the individual who created Negro History Week in Washington, D.C., in February 1926. Woodson was the second black American to receive a Ph.D. in history from Harvard—following W.E.B. Du Bois by a few years. To Woodson, the black experience was too significant to be left to a small group of academics. Woodson believed that his role was to use black history and culture as a weapon in the struggle for racial uplift.  He created Negro History Week to ensure that school children be exposed to black history. He chose the second week of February to celebrate the birthdays of President Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. It was 1976 when it became Black History Month. 1976. Most of us here can remember 1976 quite vividly.  It wasn’t that long ago.

The question that I ask today is whether Black History Month is still relevant? Is it still a vehicle for change? Or has it merely become one more school assignment that has limited meaning for children. Has Black History Month become a time when television and the media stack their black material into 28 days of programming? Or is it a useful concept whose goals have been achieved?

I would like to suggest that despite the profound change in race relations that has occurred in our lives, Carter G. Woodson’s vision for black history as a means of transformation and change is still quite relevant and quite useful. African American history month, with a bit of tweaking, is still a beacon of change and hope that is still sorely needed in this world. The chains of slavery are gone—but we are all not yet free. The great diversity within the black community needs the glue of the African American past to remind us of not just how far we have traveled but how far there is still yet to go.

While there are many reasons and examples that I could point towards, there are four primary concerns that African Americans — in fact — all Americans — face that black history can help address:

1. The Challenge of Forgetting

You can tell a great deal about a country and a people by what they deem important enough to remember, to create moments for — what they put in their museums and what they celebrate.

In Scandinavia — there are monuments to the Vikings as a symbol of freedom and the spirit of exploration. In Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis celebrated their supposed Aryan supremacy through monument and song. While America traditionally revels in either Civil War battles or the feats of our founding fathers. Yet I would suggest that we learn even more about a country by what it chooses to forget — its mistakes, its disappointments, and its embarrassments. In some ways, African American History month is a clarion call to remember. Yet it is a call that is often unheeded.

Let’s take the example of one of the great unmentionables in American history — slavery.

For nearly 250 years, slavery not only existed, but it was one of the dominant forces in American life. Political clout and economic fortune depended on the labor of slaves. And the presence of this peculiar institution generated an array of books, publications, and stories that demonstrate how deeply it touched America. And while we can discuss basic information such as the fact that in 1860 — 4 million blacks were enslaved, and that a prime field hand cost $1,000, while a female, with her childbearing capability, brought $1,500, we find few moments to discuss the impact, legacy and contemporary meaning of slavery.

2. The Challenge of Preserving a People’s Culture

While the African American community is no longer invisible, I am unsure that as a community, we are taking the appropriate steps to ensure the preservation of African American cultural heritage in appropriate institutions. Whether we like it or not, museums, archives, and libraries not only preserve culture, they legitimize it.

Take a minute and think about where you can find solace, history, and knowledge in the legacies of white Americans. It’s everywhere, even in a comforting afternoon at home watching old movies on T.M.C.

Whether I wanted to or not, I know a wealth of information about white America. What I know about black history, Mexican history, and the woeful history of indigenous people I had to seek out for myself.

3. The Challenge of Maintaining a Community

As the African American Community diversifies and fragments, it is crucial to find mechanisms and opportunities to maintain our sense of community. As some families lose the connection with their southern roots, it is imperative that we understand our common heritage and history. The communal nature of black life has provided substance, guidance, and comfort for generations. And though our communities are quite diverse, it is our common heritage that continues to hold us together.

4. The Power of Inspiration

One thing has not changed. That is the need to draw inspiration and guidance from the past. And through that inspiration, people will find tools and paths that will help them live their lives. Who could not help but be inspired by Martin Luther King’s oratory, commitment to racial justice, and his ultimate sacrifice? Or by the arguments of William and Ellen Craft or Henry “Box” Brown, who used great guile to escape from slavery?. Who could not draw substance from the creativity of Madame CJ Walker or the audacity and courage of prizefighter Jack Johnson? Or who could not continue to struggle after listening to the mother of Emmitt Till share her story of sadness and perseverance? Or when life is tough, taking solace in the poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Nikki

Giovanni, or Gwendolyn Brooks. And I find comfort in the rhythms of Louie Armstrong, Sam Cooke, Dinah Washington, and the music of my youth that I mentioned before. But lastly, I draw inspiration from the anonymous slave who persevered so that my culture could continue.

My question to you is how many of those names that I just mentioned, do you recognize?

Why is that?

So, where do we begin? You could take your own time to dive deep into historical text about the history of people of color. But in the absence of the necessary time and focus, you can also just stop and take in a movie or a T.V. show with a predominantly black cast. Whether it be fiction or non-fiction – you will gain some insight into the history of black people.

At the end of the day, what people have to remember is that for us to really be “a more perfect union,” we have to stop, recognize and educate ourselves on our history. This means ALL OF OUR HISTORY. It is then that we can truly live side-by-side, hand-in-hand, and totally FREE.

Thank you to the History Channel for much of the historical context.