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Black History Month, day 16

At the time of its rediscovery in 1981, Our Nig was the earliest known novel written and published by a black woman in the United States. I learned about it at a lecture by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., that I attended with my parents not long after that–I think it took place at my high school auditorium. Gates was a young scholar at Yale at that time, and told the audience about how he had come across it in an antiquarian bookstore and, based upon the title, put it on his “Racist Literature” shelf. It wasn’t until later that he opened it and began reading, and realized that the narrator was a black woman whose agenda was fervently opposed to slavery. So was the author, research revealed: Harriet E. Adams Wilson.

At the time that Gates did his research, he wondered why the book didn’t receive more attention at the time of its publication. It was published by a Boston firm in 1859; Boston was the center of a great deal of abolitionist activity; it was known to be by a free black woman (though she remained anonymous at that time). Yet judging from its reception, it was barely known to her contemporaries. How could that be?

Eric Gardner, doing further research ten years after Gates republished the book, proposed an answer that I’m afraid is probably correct: the abolitionists did know all about Wilson’s novel, and did very little to publicize it because it indicted Northern abolitionists.

Many abolitionists may not even have recognized Our Nig as having an anti-slavery message simply because the story takes place in the North, where most abolitionists were not prepared to recognize “slavery’s shadows.”

Furthermore, he writes, it is “far from flattering to Northerners or abolitionists.” He makes the case that Our Nig is the opposite of most slave narratives, and other sympathetic works, of the time, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in that the North is not “portrayed as a magical land where the protagonist will eventually realize the promise of freedom.”

My parents owned the book (they must have bought it after the lecture) and I am pretty sure I read it at that time, but I don’t remember the plot at all. It sounds extremely relevant to our own troubled times, when many white liberals will go so far for racial justice and no farther. Another one for the reading list!



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.

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 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.

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