Monthly Archives: October 2015

Let’s Do It Again

On July 4, 1940, the Diamond Jubilee Exposition of Negro Progress: 75 Years of Negro Achievement convened its two-month run at the Chicago Coliseum. The Exposition featured Black contributions to all aspects of American life from 1865 to 1940. Historian Lawrence P. Jackson described it as “measuring the distance between the whips and shackles of the cotton field and the jive-talking Cab Calloway blaring from a jukebox on a street filled with skyscrapers.” (Lawrence P. Jackson, The Indignant Generation, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2011, pg. 93) The exposition took place from July 4 to September 2 and exhibited the contributions of Blacks in religion, press, music, sports, stage, literature, art, science and industry.

According to its stated theme the “Exposition will promote racial understanding and good will; enlighten the world on the contributions of the Negro civilization and make the Negro conscious of his dramatic progress since emancipation.”

“American Negro Exposition Catalogue Cover”:Courtesy of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Americana Collection Covert Art by Robert Pious

dunhamDespite the tremendous obstacles Blacks confronted everyday, these brave men and women still took pride in who they were and in their accomplishments. And they also viewed life with a positive outlook for their future. In doing so, they mastered their crafts. In 1940, baseball great Satchell Page was throwing pitches that made Dizzy Dean look like a rookie, and Josh Gibson hit home runs at such a tremendous distance, his clouts made Babe Ruth’s home runs appear to be singles. In the world of entertainment, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong dominated the music world. And in literature, author Richard Wright’s Native Son was released as a best seller in 1940.  There was also the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, the paintings of Romare Bearden and Aaron Douglas and the outstanding choreographer and dancer Katherine Dunham, and the list could go on for pages.

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There was another message implicit in the Exposition, that told the world of a Black culture capable of standing on its own outside the parameters of the so-called American culture. In 1938 the Swedish scholar, Gunnar Myrdal began research into the relationship between American democracy and the treatment of Blacks in the United States. One of his findings concluded that the Negro culture was the product of a social pathology. It had no value in and of itself and it could only become meaningful if it was brought under the auspices of the larger dominant culture. The Black Exposition was a direct rejection of the Myrdal thesis. The Exposition was a precursor to Ralph Ellison’s response to Myrdal in 1944 when he wrote, “Much of Negro culture may be negative, but there is also much of great value and richness.

It has been 75 years since that celebration in Chicago, and now may be the time for another assessment of Myrdal’s assertion of the pathological nature of the Black culture, and Ellison’s rejection of it. Just like the Chicago Exposition was a proud display of our accomplishments from emancipation until 1940, we need another such event to express our endurance as a people. We readily acknowledge that segments of the culture are negative but, as Ellison pointed out, there is a richness and beauty unmatched by any people in the world. We need to put that on display once again. Along with a Million-Man March that lasted only one day, we need a summer long event much like what happened in Chicago between July 4 and September 2, 1940. Just think of all the glorious accomplishments that would be on display, for the entire world to view. So what do you all say, “Let’s Do It Again!”

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Sanitizing History

Recently when a young ninth grade student in Pearland, Texas noticed that his World Geography textbook referred to Blacks, forcibly taken out of Africa, as immigrant workers voluntarily coming to this country to work in the fields in the south, he alerted his mother. She immediately exposed that distortion of the truth on Facebook. It created uproar of protest. The textbook publisher, McGraw Hill, then went public and announced that they would correct the error on their digital format and also begin to replace the textbooks if requested by the various school districts.

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The most surprising aspect of this fiasco was the publisher’s suggestion that the error was not deliberate and they actually displayed a degree of contrition, almost apologetic. There is no way that the ultra-conservative Texas State Board of Education, the seventeen member body that reviews and adopts instructional material for the public schools throughout the state, was not aware of that particular distortion of the truth. It was just another attempt to sanitize the country’s history of all its blemishes.

The dominant culture has no qualms distorting its past, in order to protect its image for their young. The truth is that cultures exist for the future, but they are built on the past. With that being the case, those responsible for perpetuating the history of the American culture are strapped with a very serious problem. In today’s contemporary world, if their children knew the truth about their ancestors, chances are good they would dislike them. The way to solve that problem is to make the bad guy look good, and they can do that since they write the history books. Both the Americans and the British have been extremely competent in practicing that deception.

Immediately following the end of slavery there was a deluge of plantation novels, written for the purpose of justifying slavery, or an attempt to sanitize an ugly period in the country’s history. Popular author Thomas Nelson Page fictionalized the content slave, who bemoaned freedom and longed for the days when “Dem wuz good ole times, marster de bes’ Sam ever see.” What Page wanted to remember and celebrate in his dialect stories was, “that relation of warm friendship and tender sympathy” between the races. (Leon F. Litwack, Trouble In Mind, Vintage Books Edition, New York 1998, pg. 187) The author Joel Chandler Harris created the Uncle Remus character, which willfully entertained generations of white children with his stories of the simple but happy slave. Harris perpetuated myths about the character and contentment of Blacks, and their enduring love of the white folks they served. (Ibid, pg. 187) There were many more writers who attempted to change the country’s perception of slavery. In another work, Martha S. Gielow published her collection, Mammy’s Reminiscences, in 1898 that glamorized life in the slave quarters. Finally, in the most blatant attempt to interpret the history in a distorted way, Thomas Dixon wrote two novels, The Clansman (which was adapted to the screen play Birth of a Nation) and The Leopard’s Spots.

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To his dismay and disappointment, Paul Robeson got caught up in that trap while living in England. He was offered the role of the African Chief Bosambo in the film, Sanders of the River. Robeson was excited about his role because he believed the movie would represent an important milestone, as the first comprehensive film on the African culture. However, what it turned out to be was a glorification of British colonialism and imperialism. The message in the movie suggested that the British occupation of Africa was necessary in order to curb the savage nature of the Africans on the continent. Sanders of the River made money, perhaps because it glorified the white man’s Empire, but proved to be an embarrassment to Robeson. (Martin Duberman, Paul Robeson: A Biography, New Press, New York, 1989, pg. 180.

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This practice of deception has been a constant throughout the history of this country. The method may be much more sophisticated today than in the past, but it still exists. Proof is in the description of Africans as workers and not slaves in the McGraw- Hill Geography book. The problem in the state of Texas is that the approved textbook material comes from a contingent of conservatives, determined to protect the positive image of this country that has prevailed over the decades. However, we are not without recourse. What we must do is write our own interpretation of history, and make it available to our young outside the boundaries of the classroom. This calls for parents to take a more active interest in their children’s education. It calls for the ministers to have culturally related classes in their churches on Saturdays. It calls for more of our writers to produce works that tell the truth about our past. It calls for those million Black men who took the time out of their schedules to congregate on the mall in Washington, D.C. to also congregate at home with their child and share with them their history. It calls for all of us to read, study, and become more knowledgeable about our past.

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Dr. Ben Carson: You don’t have to agree with him. But he is one of us!

I can vividly recall the year that President George H. W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to be on the United Supreme Court. It happened years after I had worked as a Legislative Aide to Senator Birch Bayh, while Thomas worked for a Republican Senator John Danforth from Missouri. It was the late 1970’s, and a time when many Senators hired Black staffers in key positions. Thomas was one of those few.

There were about twenty of us who made the decision that we would rise above political parties, and come together once a month for a luncheon to discuss issues relevant to the Black community. We had some very outstanding guests speakers, among them Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Before he began his remarks at our luncheon, the great man told us that he usually did not accept invitations to such gatherings, but was so proud of who we were and what we represent for the progress of the race that he decided to be our speaker. Clarence Thomas did not show up. In fact, he never showed up. So years later when he was elevated to the Supreme Court, I spoke out that he was not a Black man filling the shoes of another Black man. But now as I look back, I was wrong. Clarence Thomas is a Black man who has experienced the same economic and social oppressions that we all did before the Civil Rights Movement. Just because he responded to that oppression differently than most of us, cannot negate the fact that he comes right out of our culture.

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That brings me to Dr. Ben Carson.  The Black liberal community will not support Dr. Carson’s bid to be president. His politics are different from most of us.  But just because he does not share the majority of Black America’s proposed remedies for the problems plaguing our communities, does not mean he is a sell-out. And because he does not agree with us politically is no reason to jettison him out of our culture. Liberals and Democrats do not have a premium on what is acceptable as part of Black America. We are much more than just Al Sharpton, the NAACP, the Urban League, the thousands of Black ministers, the Nation of Islam and all the other organizations that lay claim to be the gatekeepers of our people.

Dr. Carson’s history in this country mirrors most Black Americans. He certainly does with me. I am familiar with the projects in Detroit where Dr. Carson grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s. And I am familiar with the east side of Detroit and Hastings Street. As a young boy growing up in Saginaw, Michigan, I would visit my uncles attending Wayne State University at the time. They lived on the east side and I have memories of hearing the blues coming out of the night clubs, the smell of barbeque, the pawn shops, the liquor stores and the churches. I’m sure those are the same memories that Dr. Carson has of that section of the city.

Dr. Carson’s roots are in rural Georgia, home of both his parents but he was born and raised in Detroit. My roots are in rural Arkansas, where my mother was born about the same time as Dr. Carson’s parents. But like Dr. Carson I was born and raised in Saginaw. I imagine that our parents were all part of the great migration North during the first half of the 20th Century.

My point being that one’s political and ideological leanings are a minor part of one’s cultural identity. Culture reflects the cumulative history of a people. Dr. Carson and Clarence Thomas are products of that history, a commonality shared by all Blacks born in this country. Because of his conservative views and because he is running for president in the Republican primary, I would find it very difficult to support him if he made it to the general election. But if for a moment, we could block out his conservative views and imagine him as a liberal Democrat, wouldn’t he make the ideal candidate for Black America to support going into the election.

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