“They did not take slaves from Africa; they took people from Africa, and made them slaves.”
For years, they brought them out like Christmas decorations, only it was February: Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Banneker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the ever-ubiquitous Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry, Mahalia Jackson and Louis Armstrong.
No one but my father ever spoke of those with more militant stances, more edgy, prickly points of view: Eldridge Cleaver (Iceberg Slim) Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale (founders of the Black Panthers) Malcolm X before his renouncing of the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad, and Imiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones).
I did not know of the brilliant, biting edge of James Baldwin, the struggles of Josephine Baker, the strength and vulnerability of the tragic, plaintive-voiced Billie Holiday, the towering courage of Paul Robeson and the fiery Vernon Jordan.
These figures made people ‘afraid’ and ‘uncomfortable.’
We learned that 6 million Jews died and saw films on the horrors of the Holocaust, but as black children we were not taught about the 9 million Africans who died on the journey across the Atlantic Ocean on a sailing lane called the Middle Passage, where slaves still chained together were tossed overboard, either deliberately to lighten cargo, or jumped willingly in order to die free, or just because they didn’t survive, but neither did we learn about Nat Turner (except that he led a rebellion and died, as if that was all there was to know) or the legal victory of the black men of the HMS Amistad.
And over the years, we learned the stories of our annual decorations. We saw films on the Civil Rights movement taking place in the south, having no idea those attitudes existed in the north, and given no awareness through our history textbooks that it was a global truth, if not universal:
Dark skin is evil.
It didn’t matter what form of evil, because all sorts of stories were concocted based generally around these two principals: Black was unclean, White was pure. Black was inferior, White was superior.
Yet, I was taught in science class that in the spectrum, black is the absence of color, and white contained them all. Why were we being persecuted for something we were not?
When I sang, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, until fourth grade I did not know my fathers died differently, I believed that Pilgrims and Indians lived in harmony. When I sang America the Beautiful, I did not know that its Natives had been stripped of their dignity, slaughtered like sheep, ravaged like Sabine virgins, and tossed aside as rubble.
I didn’t even know that as low as they were, they still owned Black men and women.
I was taught that the Quakers helped slaves escape to Canada to freedom. I have learned, only recently, that it was not so. There were slaves in Canada, too, and some who were free, were sold back.
Long buried in the archives of old libraries lay the story of my people, the mixing of my own ancestry, not just here in America, but across the world, doomed to die dusty deaths in the recessed shadows of long abandoned archives, unless one truly took the time to unearth them.
And then the Internet came, and grew, and evolved, and the archives were dredged and lovingly sorted, restored, and made available. And I learned that far more Black people achieved great things in the face of impossible odds and incredible oppression: denied admission, having no transportation, being ripped off, gutting of project financing, threats of death, and they kept going and became pilots and doctors, nurses and teachers, judges and lawmen, cowboys and business owners, so many, many names bubbling out of the soil after so much blood soaked in…
Their vision was clear and focused, their drive to succeed unstoppable, unshakable, and unswerving.
And all, all, having one common thread: ancestors brought here not to live, but to work, as commodities, not people, as beasts, and not men.
And they survived.
And I do indeed live here now, a free man in America, because of their sacrifice and vision, not limited to twenty-eight days in a government building. The storehouse is mine to visit, whenever I choose:
These are just a few of the storerooms available online these days, rich with information. If you would gain some perspective, I invite you to celebrate with us, and not just for the month.
There are no ‘colored only’ signs on these doors….