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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.

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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 5

I love this picture book of the song that came to be known as the “African American national anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” The words by James Weldon Johnson are thoughtfully, sometimes devastatingly paired with linocuts by the great printmaker and sculptor, Elizabeth Catlett.

I have not been able to find out how these pairings came about. The song came first (Catlett was born 15 years after it premiered, and the prints were made in 1945-6, when she was 30-31 years old, which, by the way, blows my mind) but did she make the prints specifically to accompany this song? Or did she choose them out of her oeuvre almost 50 years later? Or did an editor choose them? I’m curious, though ultimately it doesn’t matter. The words illuminate the art as much as the art illuminates the words.

Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, wrote the lyrics and music, respectively, for a Lincoln celebration in Jacksonville, Florida, where it s sunny by an enormous chorus of children. Thirty-five years later he wrote:

Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it, they went off to other schools and sang it, they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today, the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used.

The lines of this song repay me in elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.

Elation/exquisite anguish. The lines of Catlett’s prints express this paradoxical combination just as the Johnsons ‘ song does. A beautiful book. (The music for piano and voice is printed in the book as well.)

Black History Month, day 4

When I was a wee little thing, entranced by tall tales and morbidly drawn to sad endings, I loved the story of John Henry. Then as I grew up, more and more meanings accreted to it. First, “humanity versus machine,” and then, various racial meanings. John Henry was a black hero. What did the story mean as a metaphor for African American experiences? It held so many possibilities: pride in blackness, exploitation of black labor, the triumph of the spirit even when the body doesn’t stand a chance against the machine of racism . . .

I was so excited when I learned that Colson Whitehead had devoted an entire novel to it, since as I wrote yesterday, I’m a fan of his writing. And next month, a man at the congregation I serve, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, will be presenting an Adult Religious Education program called John Henryism and the Health of African Americans.  His name is Dr. Sherman James; he’s a member of the UU church in Little Rock, and he’s among us all year while he is a Fellow at Stanford pursuing his research in social epidemiology. Dr. James proposed the “John Henryism Hypothesis” to describe how “a strong behavioral predisposition to cope actively with psychosocial environmental stressors” is part of the cause of the high rate of hypertension and other stress-related illnesses among African Americans.

Of various moments of racial-awareness awakening, one that has long remained in my memory was reading an article seeking to explain why high blood pressure is so common among African Americans. It earnestly proposed cultural explanations such as the soul food diet, a genetic tendency toward sensitivity to salt, etc., and I read in disbelief as the reporter danced around the elephant in the room. You know how you yell helpful/angry suggestions at the screen sometimes? You can do that with a newspaper too, with the added benefit of being able to shake the pages for emphasis as you shout, “Um, poverty? Racism? Hello?”

So other than the pleasures of having Dr. James as a member (however transitory) of our church just because he’s an interesting and pleasant person, I’m excited about his professional work, and I’m so glad he’s bringing it to an audience here.

Black History Month, day 3

I learn as much about history through fiction as through non-fiction–probably more. That’s not because it’s historical fiction (it seldom is) but because fiction is such a powerful way into other people’s minds and experiences. Several years ago I made a personal reading list to remedy the lack of African-American writers (and history) in both my formal and informal education, mostly fiction. If you’re like me and love sci-fi/fantasy, you won’t be surprised to learn that one of the books from this genre, The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, had a particular impact on my understanding of history.

Whitehead is a kind of literary surrealist. He takes historical facts, like the Underground Railroad, and adds some dreamlike twist, like the actual subterranean rail line in The Underground Railroad. Or in John Henry Days, he draws a connection between the legendary John Henry and a modern-day self-imposed endurance contest, his character J. Sutter’s junket-a-thon: how many literary junkets can one freelance journalist string together? And Zone One is quite straightforwardly true to life if you accept that zombies are taking over New York City. Maybe most sci-fi is essentially surrealist, which explains one reason I like it (I’m a fan of surrealism in visual art as well).

The Intuitionist has a comically bizarre premise: that elevator inspectors are a powerful political and politicized force. Accept the premise, and the book becomes a heartbreakingly realistic (and sometimes hearteningly hopeful) portrait of African-Americans’ options for their own identity and dignity within a culture where whiteness is held to be superior. I knew as soon as I read it that I would want to pick it up again in a couple of years–that it would have changed me in the meantime and that I’d want to check in on those changes and learn something new from the second reading. It’s about time to do that.

Black History Month, day 2

 

I could do an entire month’s worth of daily posts just on collage by African-American artists. Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, of course, and so many other artists of our own time who are taking collage in fascinating directions.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby is new to me, and I love, love, love her work. It’s mostly painting, with Xerox transfers and other collage elements, and frequently makes striking use of negative space. In the piece I Refuse to Be Invisible, invisibility seems to threaten each figure. Faces and hands, flat, recede into the design. The woman in the orange stripes seems less real than her clothes. The face of the woman turned toward us, though, defies being disappeared. She will be seen, and on her own terms.

I need to see this artist’s work in person!

As I’ve done before, I’m challenging myself to blog about African-American* history, thought, and culture every day this month.

Today’s post arises from my having just finished the audiobook of Letters to a Young Artist, by the actor, playwright, professor, and author, Anna Deavere Smith. She reads it herself, naturally, and I’m glad I heard it in her voice, though I am going to buy a paper copy as well. It’s a book I’ll want to reread, thumb through, underline bits of, pull off the shelf frequently, and give copies of to friends.

She’s writing to a painter, and many of her examples come from acting and writing, but the advice–no, the wisdom–goes far beyond any particular art form. In fact, what the artist M. C. Richards once said kept running through my head as I listened to Smith’s direct, engaging, humble yet confident words: All the arts are apprenticeships; the true art is our life. It’s life wisdom she’s imparting here, as valuable for minister-me as artist-me, and most of all for human-me.

Not having a print version before me, I can’t properly remember the things I wanted to underline and share. (I couldn’t even place electronic bookmarks, because I was driving.) But if you’re looking for a hopeful, urgent response to the crisi/es that we 21st century people face, try listening to the voice of Anna Deavere Smith.

*or African, or African diaspora

Black History Month, day 28

I’ve tried to make many of these entries positive, so as not to suggest that African-American history has been nothing but sorrow. The genius of black poets, leaders, artists, composers, dancers, writers, and organizers is the heritage of African-Americans and other Americans–for that matter, of all of humanity.

Still, there are tragic passages of history I have wanted to include. First, they’re part of our history and think we can learn who we are by learning our country’s history, just as we learn it by knowing our family’s story and our own. Second, they also tell us about the tremendous courage, creativity, and perseverance of African-Americans. It gives me hope for the human spirit even as it makes me feel sick at how cruel and ignorant we can be. And third, they counteract the racism, and internalized racism, that says African-Americans must be near the bottom of the social structure because of some fault within themselves or their culture.

One of the phenomena I didn’t know about until a few years ago is the sundown town: a town where black people were prevented by official policy, enforcement by police or unchecked vigilantes, restrictive covenants, and the like from “allowing the sun to set on them”–in other words, they could pass through, spend money, even work (usually as laborers or domestics) there, but not live there. (There have also been towns that were “sundown” to Jews, Chinese, Native Americans, Mexicans, and others. San Jose, California, now home to more people of Vietnamese descent than anywhere outside of Vietnam, used to exclude Asians.) I touched on this a bit early in the month in my entry about the Green Book. The national expert on it is James Loewen, whose book, Sundown Towns, is a fascinating read; you can also read about sundown towns on his website, and look up towns you know.

Surprise: they will mostly be outside the South. He began his research in his home state of Illinois, and eventually confirmed 456 sundown towns there; in Mississippi he has confirmed only a handful. The phenomenon of white Americans creating white-only towns (sometimes by violently expelling the towns’ black residents) took hold around the end of Reconstruction and was most widespread from 1890-1940. It declined, but didn’t end, then; at the time of his research a few years ago, some towns were still effectively closed to certain groups, usually black people. At its peak, Loewen surmises that “probably a majority of all incorporated places kept out African-Americans” (2).

Headline from Appleton, WI, a town whose historian has done some constructive work to acknowledge its past. I guess when your most famous son is Joe McCarthy, you'd be pretty foolish to hide your head in the sand.

Levittown, the famous planned community that began in New York and was also established in three other states, is widely credited with establishing suburbia and the American middle class. It made home ownership available to blue-collar families. Which blue-collar families? White ones. Black people were not allowed to buy houses there. Repeat this pattern all over suburbia and you start to understand why African-Americans have found it so hard to gain a foothold in the middle class.

For the ambitious and history-minded, Loewen provides a guide to determining whether a given town is, or used to be, sundown. If you enjoy researching genealogy or local history, this is a great project, and Loewen will post your results.

Why bother, especially if the town’s status changed two generations ago? Because the reputation lives on, if not among the people who have always been allowed to live there, then among the excluded populations, with the result that they continue to feel excluded. Without ever being told straight out that people like me (Jews) used to be forbidden to live in Darien, CT, I knew it was a town I didn’t want to drive through, much less live in. I would feel very different about it if the town formally acknowledged its history and apologized for the injustices of the past; until it does so, the impression it gives is that it is content to continue to ride the coattails of ancestral anti-Semitism. Likewise, if a town I live in used to exclude African-Americans, I’d want it to explicitly declare that those days were over and all were welcome, so that it didn’t continue to maintain a de facto exclusion by its reputation.

Black History Month, day 27

I love this. Tip of the hat to Esther Bradley-DeTally, on whose blog I saw it, and thanks also for putting me on to Colorlines. com and arc.org (Applied Research Center: Racial Justice through Media, Research and Activism.

from Colorlines.com

Can you feel the power?

I’m printing it out as a poster for my office window.

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