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Black History Month, day 15

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, traces the history of two branches of a family, from the Asante woman Maame through her two daughters, who are unknown to each other, and their descendants in West Africa (mostly Ghana) and the United States. The telling moves forward in time, alternating between the two lines of descent. We the readers are given what the characters themselves can’t access: a view into the characters’ history. As one of them says, “My grandmother used to say we were born of a great fire. I wish I knew what she meant by that.” We know, because the book begins with the fire. But few of us know much about our ancestors’ lives more than a few generations back, if that.

It is a stunningly beautiful book, making it un-put-downable despite the painful subject matter (war, slavery, convict labor, rape, drug addiction . . . ). It manages to be epic in scope despite being only about 300 pages long. Each portrait is so vivid that I wanted to read an entire novel about just that character. Then the story would move on to the next generation, each person’s story both anchored in history and drifting on its own.

How do we go home, if we know so little of our own heritage? For my part, after reading Homegoing, I feel homesick for villages whose names I don’t even know, where ancestors whose names I might be misspelling lived and dreamed and died. Maybe all we can do is learn the history of those regions, those peoples, and imagine the specific stories, as Gyasi does for people with roots in West Africa and everywhere.

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Black History Month, day 14

If people get anything from these posts, I hope it’s something like this: a list of things to read / learn / experience that is so extensive that they have to (and want to!) make black history and the cultural creations of black people a staple of their lives year-round.

It’s absurd and insulting to suggest that black history can fit into one month a year, or that it can or should be separated from the rest of history. I appreciate the focus, and join in it, because it helps direct me into a gorgeous garden that I might otherwise have missed, but I cannot possibly appreciate that garden properly in this brief amount of time. For example, I have read mostly work by African-American writers this month–Yaa Gyatsi, Jacqueline Woodson, Morgan Jerkins, Edward Jones, N. K. Jemisin–but I can only read a handful of books in four weeks. The pile of African-American works still to read takes me into the rest of the year, and that’s the point.

So I would love to know, as February motors toward its conclusion, what you are going to read next month that you haven’t read before, or what artist you will seek out, or what piece of history you will learn, because of a tidbit you have seen here or in one of the many lists of “little-known black history facts” that circulates each February. The comments page is open!

Black History Month day 13

First, the apology. Several years ago, when Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for Brown Girl Dreaming, Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) made a comment that undermined her achievement in a racist way. He apologized (whether adequately from Woodson’s point of view, I don’t know), but I haven’t done so myself, and I need to. I resisted understanding the problem, resisted hearing the voice of my better self, and thus amplified the harm. I won’t go into the details of my response at the time, because I think White People Publicly Repeating Insults They’ve Inflicted Upon Non-White People is part of the problem, but I’ll be happy to go into it privately to anyone who wishes to know more. I just want to apologize: to Ms. Woodson, though she will most likely never know or care anything about my struggles to awake to white supremacy, but more importantly, to friends who patiently tried to get me to see what now seems obvious. Thank you.

I gave my daughter Woodson’s book Harbor Me for Christmas, and of the big pile of books she got that day, it was the first one she read. She recommended it highly and I read it last month. Now I want to read everything Jacqueline Woodson has written. (I didn’t get my daughter Brown Girl Dreaming because I thought it was the one she was most likely to have read already, but she says she hasn’t, and plans to soon.) It’s about a small group of students who become close through sharing their struggles with each other: grief, racism, deportation. Each unsafe in their own way, they seek harbor with one another, as Sweet Honey in the Rock sings:

Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?
Would you harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew,
A heretic, convict, or spy?
Would you harbor a runaway woman or child,
A poet, a prophet, a king? . . . (lyrics by Ysaye M. Barnwell)

The book deals with so many issues, but it soars above the young adult “issues” book genre because the characterizations are so  real and the writing so poetic. Stories unfold the way they do in real life, bit by bit and reluctantly. Some loose ends remain loose. I want to learn so much more about the characters, but we probably never will; we were given a glimpse into a few months in their lives and we will just have to wonder what has become of each of them. And try to make their real-life counterparts’ stories end well, by harboring whomever we encounter who needs it.

Black History Month, day 12

Argh, I am getting more behind this weekend. But I can easily post twice tonight, after a quiet day of house-tending.

My daughter, who is intrigued by languages in general, has wanted to learn American Sign Language for a long time. I taught her the alphabet bit by bit when she was nine and we were living in Oaxaca, Mexico–it became something we did on bus journeys–but she hasn’t had access to a class, until now. San Francisco Rec and Parks has an after-school class once a week, total immersion: no speaking. She comes back each week jazzed and remembering every sign they learned that afternoon. They have a day camp this summer, so we’re hoping she’ll get to do an entire week of ASL.

So I was very glad to come across some information about Black American Sign Language. There are many sign languages around the world, and on reflection it isn’t at all surprising that black and white deaf U.S. Americans would generate and learn different languages. Schools for the deaf were segregated just like schools for the hearing, and while the first one was founded in 1817, it did not admit black students for its first 125 years. Deaf people have invented their own languages in the absence of formal schooling; it may be (here I am speculating) that the black and white Deaf communities were as isolated from each other as the black and white hearing communities, leading to similar differences in language.

Sadly, as with white modes of English, white ASL is treated as normative and “mainstream”–note how its name isn’t actually white ASL, but simply ASL–while Black ASL is separate and commonly regarded as inferior. Users of American Sign Language struggled to have their language recognized as a language; do BASL users have a similar struggle within the Deaf world?

I don’t know, but I’m glad that my daughter can be aware of different ASL vernaculars from the beginning. When she knows better sign, she can watch videos such as this one by Dr. Joseph Hill, a linguist and native signer of BASL, to learn more about BASL and maybe even learn two varieties of American sign languages at the same time. The Black ASL Project at Gallaudet will also be a great resource. And she and other people interested in language, power, race relations and culture might want to read The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL, by Dr. Hill and three others.

 

Black History Month, day 11

Claude McKay was born and raised in Jamaica, where he began writing poetry in his childhood. He came to the United States in his early 20s and became one of the voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Among his writing, which includes both fiction and poetry, are many poems concerning racism and resistance (such as “Exhortation: Summer 1919,” which seems to respond to the racist riots I wrote about a few days ago). But since today is Valentine’s Day, here’s one of his love poems, ambiguous, honest and moving: Romance.

Black History Month, day 10

Whenever research digs up a racist attitude by someone from history who was formerly admired, we rehash the “that was a different time” argument and ask, sometimes rhetorically, whether we can rightly judge people of the past by today’s ethical standards.

I agree that it is important to assess people of the past in the context of their own times, as much as possible. Context is an inseperable part of meaning. Referring to one’s co-worker as a “Negro” today would strongly suggest racism; in 1965, it was the anti-racist term of choice.

However, sometimes we wrongly assume that the context was more different than our own than it actually was. We say “She was a person of her time,” as if to say that she would have had to have been an extremely unusual person to have held views at all like our own. We might even hint that a person’s hypocrisies, so evident to us, were invisible to him.

We can’t claim that about Thomas Jefferson and slavery, because Benjamin Banneker wrote him a letter in 1791, when Jefferson was Secretary of State, lamenting “that [he] should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which [he] professedly detested in others, with respect to [himself].” Banneker, you may know, was an astronomer and surveyor who helped set the boundaries of Washington, D.C. He was best known in his own time for the almanacs he created and published. He wrote to Jefferson the same year he completed the first almanac, and enclosed a copy–as a gift? As proof of his ability? In the flowery style of the time, he expressed his hope that as regarded the conviction that black people were inferior, Jefferson was “far less inflexible in sentiments of this nature, than many others”–and then, naturally, he quoted the Declaration of Independence.

[Y]our abhorrence [of slavery] was so excited, that you publicly held forth this true and invaluable doctrine, which is worthy to be recorded and remembered in all succeeding ages : “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Here was a time, in which your tender feelings for yourselves had engaged you thus to declare, you were then impressed with proper ideas of the great violation of liberty, and the free possession of those blessings, to which you were entitled by nature; but, Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression.

As we know, Jefferson was unmoved. He neither changed his views nor freed the people he had enslaved. And to a friend, he snidely described Banneker’s eloquent letter as proof that he had “a mind of very common stature indeed.” Sadly, it was Jefferson’s mind that was too limited to accept influence, even that of Banneker’s modest manner and logical argument.

Benjamin Banneker’s 1791 letter to Thomas Jefferson

Black History Month, day 9

One hundred years ago, citizens of Omaha; Chicago; Washington, D. C.; Longview, Texas; Elaine, Arkansas; and 15 other places around the United States were terrorized by beatings, arsons, and murders. Their attackers, mostly white men, were angry that black men were working. Literally. Unemployment was high, and if a white man couldn’t find a job, he had a scapegoat in his black neighbors. By the time that terrible summer ended, hundreds of African Americans had been murdered and thousands displaced.

Public domain. Reprinted from the Chicago Commission on Race Relations, The Negro in Chicago; a study of race relations and a race riot (1922)

I never learned about any of this in school or anywhere else when I was young. I heard about race riots, but they were about black anger and destruction: viewed sympathetically, at times, but also patronizingly (“Burning down their own neighborhoods!”). I did not know that race riots were ever instigated by white people until years after my graduation from high school and college.

It wasn’t unknown information. Even Woodrow Wilson, who was openly white supremacist, blamed the 1919 riots squarely on white mobs. But in the 65 years between then and my high school years, it disappeared from the history curriculum–if it was ever there.

Black History Month, day 8

I was so sleepy last night that I fell asleep while writing this. I’m not feeling so well tonight either, so tomorrow I will post two.

Did you ever read the fairy tales where someone spins flax into gold? El Anatsui reminds me of that person. With the help of many assistants, he gathers up the trash left by civilization and weaves it into something rich and beautiful.

The artist’s website

Often his material is related to alcohol. It’s the tops of beer bottles, the labels of liquor bottles, which evoke both the problem of alcoholism in the community today, and the role of alcohol in the transatlantic slave trade that had such a drastic effect on his homeland.

One doesn’t have to be a scholar of West African folk art to recognize kente cloth and appreciate its beauty. But looking at Anatsui’s work is enriched by knowing that kente is a characteristic art form of the people of the region. (El Anatsui was born and raised in Ghana, and has made Nigeria his home since he was about age 30.) Different weaves are considered men’s or women’s patterns, to which he is surely referring when he calls a piece “Men’s Cloth.”

There’s also an element of collaboration in his sculptures, or perhaps I should say “installations,” since he delivers the enormous metal weavings to the exhibit site and gives the curator considerable discretion in how to drape them. Like fabric, each has infinite possible forms. His letting go of control over them is a model the viewer can emulate.

Black History Month, day 7

Darn. I am too tired to write a proper post. I want to give this wonderful artist his due, so I’ll just post a teaser for now and write more about him in tomorrow’s post.

I love this photo for three reasons. It pulls back far enough to convey how fluid and soft Anatsui’s sculptures appear (they are in fact made of thousands of tiny bits of scrap such as bottle caps). It shows the scale of the piece. And–oh, my heart–it is a portrait of our late, beloved friend Bean.

(Thanks to Gilad Kfir for taking this gorgeous photo of them, and his kind permission to use it here.)

Black History Month, day 6

Reading about Elizabeth Catlett for yesterday’s post made me curious about Mexicans of African heritage. Catlett was an immigrant late in life, like other artists from the U.S., but Mexico does have a small population of people whose ancestors include Africans. As in the United States, many are descended from people who were enslaved, though the Spanish conquistadores brought comparatively few slaves to Mexico from Africa, preferring to enslave the indigenous population. The state my family and I lived in for six months in 2016, Oaxaca, actually has the 2nd-largest percentage of people who identify as afromestizo, people of mixed race that includes African roots, but I had no idea until now.

A significant number settled in the Costa Chica (little coast), defined here as the stretch of Pacific Coast “from the port of Acapulco, Guerrero to Huatulco, Oaxaca.” Huatulco is a beach town my family visited and loved so much when we were living in the city of Oaxaca–which is inland, a short plane ride over the mountains from the coast–that we just had to squeeze in a trip when we spent three weeks in Oaxaca city the next year. Next time we go, we’ll know to seek out afromestizo music and dance there, and not just swimming and snorkeling.

Even if you haven’t lived in Mexico, you have encountered Mexican afromestizos. The actor Lupita Nyong’o identifies that way, having been born in Mexico City and holding dual Mexican and Kenyan citizenship, though she is ethnically Luo (Kenyan) on both sides. That explains her first name, a nickname for Guadalupe, which for obvious reasons is a common Mexican name. The afromestizo probably known best to people who know a scrap of Mexican history, though, is Vicente Guerrero, a hero of the War of Independence, Mexico’s second president, and namesake of a street in probably every city in the country, as well as a state.

I didn’t know much else about him, so I looked him up. One of his notable achievements before being deposed by his vice president and assassinated: freeing Mexico’s enslaved people.

Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña

Portrait of Vicente Guerrero, by Anacleto Escutia after an anonymous portrait. Chapultepec Castle [Public domain]

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