FINDING BLACKNESS

I have a friend who does an outstanding presentation to young Black American men. The title of his talk is, “What I would Tell You If I Were Your Father.” By the end of his talk, he is encouraging the young men that it is time to jettison the “Bling-Bling,” of all the superficial chains, rings, sagging pants, disrespectful and vulgar language for a new lifestyle. But unlike many other black leaders, he does not attack the young for their behavior, but instead tries to explain to them why they have a very negative mindset, one that is destructive and detrimental to their growth and demeaning to their culture. The basis of his approach is to reject the assumption made by many conservatives, both black and white, that the young black man’s behavior is of his own doing. That he is not the victim of centuries of an oppressive system, deliberately designed to destroy the black youth’s feelings of self-worth, of pride in who he is, and of the race and culture from which he comes.

But the conservatives are wrong. Two centuries of purposeful and vicious attacks on the most important principle in the growth for a healthy and positive young man, be it black or white or any other race, the belief in one’s self, is still being denied black youth in this country. But shame on us who have allowed this to happen. Shame on us who admire the negative portrayals of blacks in books, movies and on television. It is like we have come to the point that we get the same kind of enjoyment out of the negative images of the race, in the same manner that whites have gotten for over two hundred years. It is time for us to reverse this trend and change the paradigm. It is time for us to no longer be the exception, but instead to be exceptional. Let us begin to point out the great accomplishments of our race, and the exceptional men and women who have accelerated in their particular fields of endeavor. Let’s do something different for a change and take the high road, instead of settling for the ditch. We accomplish change by finding our blackness as a people and a culture. There is a war for the soul of our culture, and it calls for drastic steps from all who are concerned. Here are a few facts that we all can begin to share with our young; facts they need to know so they will know “they are somebody.”

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They NEED TO KNOW that Blacks excelled as jockeys soon after the Civil War. The first winner of the Kentucky Derby was Jimmy Winfield. In fact, 15 of the first twenty-eight Derbies were won by Black jockeys. And the greatest jockey in the history of the sport was Isaac Murphy who won three Kentucky Derby races and 44% of all his races throughout his career.

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They NEED TO KNOW that Jesse Owens embarrassed the German dictator Hitler who had claimed the German runners were invincible, but defeated them in the 100-yard-dash. In fact, Owens won four gold medals in the Olympics that year, proving that Black excellence was unstoppable.

lockebuncheaydavisThey NEED TO KNOW Black exceptionalism does not end with sports, but can be found in academic circles also. There is no question that Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois was the country’s most gifted scholar of the 20th Century. He was the first Black man to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University and was a historian, sociologists, philosopher, novelist and all around brilliant thinker. Dr. Alain Locke, also a philosopher, attained Phi Beta Kappa status and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University. He was the first Black Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and was known as the “Godfather of the Harlem Renaissance.” Jesse Fausett was the literary editor for Crisis Magazine during the Renaissance. She was the first Black female graduate from Cornell University and first Black woman to achieve Phi Beta Kappa status. Dr. Ralph Bunche became the first African American to win a Nobel Peace Prize for his work toward bringing peace in the Middle East in the late 1940’s. Dr. Angela Davis is an accomplished scholar who has taught at the University of California at Los Angeles and wrote many political tracts critical of the oppression Blacks have suffered in this country.

opptymagcrisismagladyThey NEED TO KNOW that Black Americans have been publishers since 1827 when Samuel Cornish and John Russwum published Freedom’s Journal. Frederick Douglass published North Star in 1847, Robert S. Abbott, the Chicago Defender in 1905 and Edwin Nathaniel Harleston, Pittsburgh Courier in 1907. Black Americans also published some very influential magazines. Dr. Du Bois was editor and publisher of the Crisis Magazine associated with the NAACP, Charles Johnson published Opportunity Magazine for the Urban League, John Johnson published Ebony and Jet, Earl Graves Black Enterprise and Edward Lewis, Clarence O. Smith, Cecil Hollingswroth and Johnathan Blount founded Essence Magazine, first published in 1970.

jb_stratfordluoullawilliamsThey NEED TO KNOW that Black Americans were successful entrepreneurs and that they can accomplish the same. They need to read about the great businessmen in 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma. Blacks had built a self-sustaining infra-structure of businesses, led by the great John Stradford, the richest man on Black Wall Street. He owned the most luxurious 54 room hotel and it was said that it matched for beauty, extravagance and comfort any hotel in the state of Oklahoma. Laurel Stradford, his great granddaughter is presently working on publication of his memoirs, and when they are released they should be required reading in every Black high school in this country. Other business men and women included O. W. Gurley who owned property in Tulsa, John and Loulla Williams and Dr. Andrew Jackson, all a part of the successful business class on Black Wall Street. Tulsa was not the only city where Black businesses flourished, just the most glaring example of success.

The NEED TO KNOW categories are extensive and I could go on for pages writing about successful Black Americans whom we must begin to share with our youth. I know there are many different organizations that are doing that very task as I write. But we must do more and I will continue to write about the successes either on this blog or through future novels and anthologies. Hopefully, you all will do your part and together we can help our young find their Blackness from a very different perspective than what they have received over generations, from a racially biased education system.

Change

The Oxford Dictionary defines change as to make someone or something different. It further defines improve as change for the better. Using these two verbs, allow me to apply change and improve to a brief analysis of the cultural evolution of Black America.

I believe we can identify four specific periods in our history when change occurred specifically within the Black race. The first obviously was from slavery to freedom. The second occurred during the first three decades of the Twentieth Century and especially during the 1920’s. The third period is identifiable with the Civil Rights Movement. We are now witnessing the fourth period of change that began sometime in the 1980’s with the crack epidemic and the introduction of a specific genre of RAP music. Now please keep in mind to improve is change for the better. Conversely is the possibility that change may not be improvement, but could be just the reverse. Therefore, a critique of those four periods of change is only relevant if we can determine if they also improved the condition of Black people in this country.

One would be hard pressed to argue that the change from slavery to freedom was not an improvement in the condition of our ancestors. Yes, they confronted some very insurmountable odds. They understood the tremendous obstacles facing them on a daily basis during the apartheid years. Every major institution in this country lined up against them. The national, state local governments, the courts, the police and even the military set out to keep them in a subservient status. But there was something very special about those beautiful Black folk who united together against their oppressors. They never became negative but instead turned to love, prayer, and an uncanny determination to never give up, never quit, and never succumb to the evil all around them. Their spirit strength and unity became the foundation for our culture. They survived so that we might live.

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The second historical period of change occurred as Blacks, three generations removed from bondage, jettisoned the old slave mentality and rejected the notion that somehow they were inferior and must always remain subservient to a race of people who assumed their superiority. This period of change can best be understood through the works of the Harlem Renaissance artists. Moving into the 1920’s and led by the godfather of the movement, Dr. Alain Locke, these artists made it clear in their works that a new Black consciousness had evolved. The writers, painters, poets and musicians had one common theme; they were proud of their race, believed in self-reliance and demanded their rights as American citizens. Dr. Locke expounded on this theme in his anthology, The New Negro, published in 1925. Dr. Locke recognized the damage done to the perceptions of Blacks right after Reconstruction failed and during the next fifty years. His goal, as he stated in the foreword to the anthology was “to document the New Negro culturally and socially, to register the transformation of the inner and outer life of the Negro in America.” According to Locke, the old Negro had been socially constructed as “Uncle Toms,” “aunties,” “mammies,” or “sambos.” He went on to describe the New Negro as one who operated with the dual purposes of bringing new leadership to modern America and “rehabilitating the race in world esteem from that loss of prestige for which the fate and conditions of slavery have so largely been responsible.” (Aberjhani and Sandra L. West, Harlem Renaissance, Checkmark Books, An Imprint of Facts on File, Inc New York, 2003). These artists also began to take pride in their African heritage and often argued that the “New Negro” was Pan African in outlook and determined to link Blacks in this country with people of color all over the world. This particular period of cultural change had a positive impact on Black Americans. It allowed Black artists and spokespersons to express new perceptions of the race and take pride in who they were and from where they had come. According to Aberjhani and West the New Negro phase of cultural development allowed educators at Black high schools and colleges throughout the United States during the latter half of the Twentieth Century to employ its general philosophy to motivate their students to set and achieve goals beyond what they expected. (Ibid, 234)

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The third phase of change occurred with the advent of the Civil Rights Movement in conjunction with the Black Arts Movement. Activism rather than the arts dominated this period of change. The artists were complimentary to the warriors who took to the streets throughout the south and marched against apartheid. This period represented the greatest coming together of activists, writers and musicians in the history of the struggle. James Baldwin, John Killens, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron, Nina Simone, Malcolm X., Kwame Ture, John Lewis, Julian Bond and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are some of the significant contributors to the cultural change in the third phase. It was an improvement within the core of the culture because it was a continuum of accentuating the beauty of our race and love we shared among ourselves as initially expressed during the Harlem Renaissance.

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We are now in the fourth phase of change. It began in the 1980’s and was influenced by crack cocaine and a specific genre of RAP music, “gangsta rap,” and a specific genre of books called “street lit.” Activism became less important and race pride was relegated to a lesser position of importance. This phase has an existential theme. Nihilistic behavior runs rampant within the Black community. There seems to be more concern with the individual than the race. The expression of Black consciousness instilled into the race during the 1920’s and perpetuated throughout the next five decades lost its importance. We no longer refer to ourselves as “Brothahs” and “Sistahs” but instead as “Dawgs,” the “N” word and the “B” word. Gangs dominate our youth in urban areas and money made from the sale of crack cocaine is often glorified. Brothers selling this poison can launch successful careers that take them from the crack house to the White House. Movies like Straight Outta Compton and television dramas like Power and Empire subtly send a message that money is more important than ethics and morals. At this juncture, I will withhold assessing whether this change has improved on the quality of the culture and leave that to the reader.

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Inevitably, there will be a fifth phase of cultural change. It happens in every race and every country. A major question and concern will revolve around what characteristics of the previous cultures will be adopted by future generations. Will the creators of the future phase build on the second and third phases or will they continue to build on the changes made in the past thirty years.