Black History As A Living Document

This is the third blog I’ve had in about 20 years. With those first two, every February I’d challenge myself to write a biography or history one day for a month. It could be a fun exercise as a writer, especially when I’d get a day or so ahead of myself, and could post and not slack off too much at work. All of those original blog entries are lost. But last Friday I found myself composing new essays for people I’d written about previously. I’m personally only interested in movies and literature and music and grow either bored or overwhelmed by all the other history profiles available. I may have tried to write about the ubiquitous Jackie Robinson one year, but I’m not invested in any sports at all. Neil Degrasse Tyson is awesome, but quite google-able and it feels pointless to write a bio of him. As this Black History Month approached, I ultimately thought who cares? After writing Robert Hayden, whom I’d written about at least ten years ago, I started drafting another essay and stopped–I felt myself going in circles and wondered why I bothered doing this at all.

At some point, Black History month did hold great meaning for me, as I felt myself living in it. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated the year I was born, so for me Black History was never ancient history. Bobby Hutton, the first treasurer of the Oakland Chapter of the Black Panther Party– his grandmother lived across the street from my house. Alex Haley’s Roots was published when I was in grade school and I remember how deserted the streets were when it aired as the first television mini-series. Muhammad Ali‘s fighting prime happened during my adolescence. A Different World made me realize I could not only apply for college out of state, but SHOULD APPLY to a college that was primarily black. I mean, why not?

My mother was a member of the Prince Hall Order of The Eastern Star, a Free-Masonry organization for African Americans. Her local chapter members were mostly black women. My mom was secretary yet hired me to do all the typing as I was a self-taught seventh grader. Years later, her organization hired me as a guest speaker to give an introductory talk about Kwanzaa (which was two years older than me. And I was cheap and immediately available as a speaker, I guess). Nobody I knew really celebrated it, but people were wildly interested in what it was about, and it was easy enough for me to look up and write about. Several years after that, when I’d meet my biological family as an adult, I recall one year there was a major Kwanzaa gathering at my aunt’s house. Has it happened since? Can’t say. Kwanzaa seemed a cool event for woke black families between the 80’s and through the very early 2000’s, but few I knew committed to it as a annual ritual.

Emancipation Proclamation… The civil rights era… It seemed like black and white people, as racial roommates and antagonists, got a public divorce but have never processed or acknowledged or owned our initial relationship truly, truthfully. We never considered the differing Americas we each inherited. Whites collectively shut their doors on the America they helped create and wanted no credit for. Blacks have historically been treated no better than servants or lab mice since this country was founded and it never occurred to anyone in government to even acknowledge slavery took place and issue a formal apology until 2008. A bunch of slaves awoke on a plantation’s front lawn in 1863 without knowing their names, their families, where they were or where they were going. Imagine emerging from amnesia and being beaten every day until you ask for your rights to be written down on paper and notarized. And even then…

For years I honored myself and my history. There is an immortal line written by poet Lucille Clifton from her poem, Eve Thinking which ends thus: “come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.” In this line exists and validates many of the lives of African Americans and our history. Every day we encounter a moment of erasure of some kind– micro to macro, life and livelihood, for both women and men– and still we rise. History gets made by the people who persist and their witnesses; people who confront the largest obstacles and continue to push through, over or under it. Time and again, the people pushing hardest are people of color, my people, and other people who look like me and might refer to me as brother though nothing but chains bondage and bigotry have ever connected us.

In the 90’s, Black History and achievement seemed more alive and necessary than ever. Once I got to Laney College, I began hearing of Black History classes that were described to me how people would describe a church revival meeting. The people being taught in those classes did not feel like dead names in a book, but distant relatives we could relate to. Their history, the histories of Crispus Attucks, Phyllis Wheatley, George Washington Carver, Name Someone, could just as well be aunts and uncles in our family albums as much as our history books. We took ownership of their stories probably because we saw how if we’d been born in their era, we might cultivate the same spiritual fortitude they did. Life was a war and they, those who were name checked by history, were soldiers.

What’s funny to me looking back now, is how all the energy I used in studying, reading and fortifying myself in those history classes would have been better knowledge for a room of white students. The current talk of white supremacy in our culture is astonishing due to its boldness and seat in power. The klan never disbanded, they just went into politics. Where is Francis Cress Welsing to break down all the symbolism and break us out of bondage of ignorance. The knowledge I picked up at Marcus Books in the 90’s would be just as valuable and important to the white people who priced my grandparents from their own houses in a gentrified Oakland a few summers ago, as it was to me. If they saw the active part they play in black history as opposed to seeing it as a weekend cultural event intended for ‘them’, perhaps different choices would have been made. Police training, for example, should include watching Eyes On The Prize to not only recognize how the news from 2016, 2017 resembled news in the 1950’s, but to check if their own parents are in that old news footage; as cops, protestors or antagonists. White people have forgotten how much of this country and culture was thanklessly built or founded by black labor, artists, activists and intelligentsia. Those on social media in an uproar over the spate of officer involved shootings seemed like people who had never read history, or perhaps read a politically correct re-edit of history and can’t understand why black people still seem so uptight. Whites have considered the histories of other races trivial or anthropological and irrelevant to their story, family and lives. But if they consider themselves American’s they are wrong for neglecting the stories of what they deem The Other. Emmitt Till’s story isn’t a black or white story– its an American story. Martin Luther King Jr,’s life may be relevant to Black History, but his work and subsequent assassination is American history– even if Arizona still chooses to not see it, blind to both history and the river of communal blood flowing through it.

Black History should remain more than a catalog of names and random achievements, but a way of life, a kind of living document. It should be far more than just 100 random names of people and events I like or remember or always refer to. It should be as important in America as our Constitution (written while slaves still … slaved away).

I worked a couple of years at the Laney College cable station, PCTV, and during my shift would play this African American lecture series called Free Your Mind. It was interviews with scholars and Egyptologists and writers. When I think of the 90’s and history, I think of that series, two Black men sitting, discussing African history, a history ignored or glossed over in many of the classes I attended. Every episode would offer an explosive surprise, factoid or lead me to some great discovery or book or realization. One episode interviewed scholar John Henrick Clarke, a dude I’d never heard of, but who immediately rocked my little world. I remember a direct quote he nearly whispered, off-hand: “Once a people know something about their history, there are certain things they will not let happen to them.” Its something I always saw as: ‘You are responsible for the things you know… and do nothing about.’ Black history, what I know of it, isn’t valuable for a few weeks a year, its a blood line running through and connecting every family in this country, irrespective of their color, creed, or race or country of origin. That connection, We The People, appears to’ve been forgotten: #Whatchumeanwe? It seems we need to annually re-build a bridge to the future for all people using what we’ve learned from forgotten about the past. But who has time to build connections with others? So busy we are with our miserable, trivial lives.

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