Right around mid-January last year I had an epiphany. After conducting a self-administered pop quiz about Black History Month, I realized that outside of some information about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, a handful of books, poets, and familiar African American leaders, I knew precious little about real African American history. I felt I needed more information about African American contributors to history if I were to have any intelligent in-depth discussions about real American History. I was disappointed in myself for being so unaware of the many contributions that went far beyond the usual sports and entertainment arenas into every facet of American culture. I wanted to figure out a way to carve out some time to open my eyes and spend some time in larger, grander, American history.
My awakening began when I first viewed the brilliant and provocative debate between African American author, James Baldwin and renowned commentator, William F. Buckley found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFeoS41xe7wI. When I listened to this debate, I had to try hard to ignore the frequent use of the expression "American Negro" as it is considered inappropriate or even offensive today (though I feel, it should actually be banned from usage forever, historical uses notwithstanding); however, when this debate took place, it was actually considered respectful and appropriate. I was moved.
An eloquent speaker and prolific writer, James Baldwin was quite well known around the world I, however, knew very little about him or his poignant novels: The Fire Next Time, Go Tell It on the Mountain, Notes of a Native Son, Another Country, to name a few. He was a liberal proponent of Civil Rights and LGBTQIA issues. He grew up in extreme poverty yet, despite many obstacles and seemingly insurmountable life challenges, he went on to debate Mr. Buckley, considered by many as "the most articulate conservative in the United States." Sadly, many of these details were new information to me.
After watching that historical video I felt much like I did after watching Kendrick Lamar's awesome performance at the Grammy's last week, mesmerized and transformed all at once. But this time I thought, "How...HOW could I have graduated from good secondary schools and even attended an Ivy League university and yet have lived an existence utterly unaware of the multitude of contributions made by American literary giant, James Baldwin? I began to wonder about what other African American historical figures I did not know? Is Black History Month the only way to learn about their literary, academic, or scientific contributions to our national culture? And just as importantly, I wondered, could the man whom I believe should narrate everything that has ever been written, iconic actor and humanitarian, Morgan Freeman, be correct when he asserted in an interview with Mike Wallace that we don't need a Black History month? Might things in this country be different for all of us if knowledge about African American contributions was fully blended, thoroughly integrated into school curricula in all subject areas?
With these questions in mind, I decided that for the duration of Black History Month 2015, I would research and share a daily post about what I discovered about African American contributions to American history. I would post on Facebook, Twitter and start up an Instagram. Perhaps there were others like me who would be interested in learning something new and even be surprised by the treasure trove of beneficial and amazing contributions made by African American people I was discovering.
A few days into my "project," I was stunned by comments in response to a historical post I wrote about Angela Davis. I had to unfriend an acquaintance who had posted the most hateful vitriol and racist remarks about her, even suggesting she be murdered. His comments were actually far worse than this. I was shocked. After all, I had worked alongside this man helping to raise funds for a children's hospital. I wondered WHAAAT was happening that such resentful, hateful words could spew forth from this man nonstop? I could not let it slide. So, without blinking, I unfriended him. Bear in mind that neither of us had ever met Ms. Davis; this was just a historical Facebook post about her.
Next, I had some commentary and even calls from friends and acquaintances asking me, "What's up with your posts? Why are you posting African American stories?" I thought, "Well, why can't I talk about these stories? Why can't I be interested in this history that I know so very little about?" Moreover, I wanted to share these stories. I thought they were fascinating, and many were completely new historical facts to me. I wanted anyone that read my posts to walk away feeling the way I did: with a clearer understanding of oppressed peoples' struggles, how overwhelming challenges could be met, and why this history mattered to all of us. More than anything, I wanted to dispel the notion that my interest in this facet of American history was unusual or strange. It felt right and quite NORMAL to me to learn and share what I had learned. Why should anyone think it strange that I wanted to know about my country's history--all of it? If anything, it felt to me like an entire group of people and their contributions had been swept under the rug, and I felt that that history, that knowledge would benefit us all.
After about 28 days into my postings, I was excited. I was finding so many rich, wonderful stories about African Americans who contributed to American culture. These powerful stories appeared to have been lost or worse, deliberately ignored or deleted from history books. I felt even more compelled to share what I had discovered. Then after one month of sharing my posts, I began to understand why Mr. Freeman suggested that we did not need a Black History month. Contributions of generations and generations of African American innovators and pioneers could not be squeezed or relegated into one month. How can anyone tell the 400-year old history of a people in just one month? So I decided to take not one month, but all of 2015 to catch up on the history I missed, and I would share daily posts I tagged #TIAH (#TodayInAmericanHistory ).
During my yearlong writing journey, I found myself teary-eyed over the tragic images from our recent past. Consider 6-year old Ruby Bridges. I wept over what her family risked for her to attend an all-White elementary school during the Civil Rights unrest in the 1950's. I tried to imagine how they felt as they saw their little girl on national television, walking quietly to school amidst the taunts and hateful shouts of an angry mob to "get out of our school." Their brave little girl, flanked by body guards, frightened, and on display so others might have an equal education and so we could begin the process of school desegregation. I covered my mouth when I saw images of Anne Moody and her friends having sauces and food poured on their heads for sitting at the "Whites only" lunch counter. I was shocked when I learned that African Americans were not allowed access to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange until 1970. Then, I felt ashamed that I was not even aware of these historical facts. I wondered how African Americans could go about their daily lives enduring these disenfranchising, dehumanizing, and often humiliating acts of intolerance, blatant unkindness and injustice.
So, I did a bit of crying and a lot of soul-searching. My posts were getting only a handful of "likes" and while that truly did not matter to me, it did make me wonder why most respondents preferred cute puppy or little kitten stories for comments. It was difficult for me to share some of the more painful posts that made me cry but did not elicit the slightest remark from others. Did it pain them too? And I thought, "Why can't you just share the post and move on already? Why must you weep?" Where was the compassion?
So, I wept, quietly contemplating and examining my posts, my feelings, the lack of responses to what I felt was important, provocative information. I wept for the people and the trials and tribulations they had to have endured; I wept for my friends and I who had blissfully gone about our daily lives unaware of the pain, the cultural and historical dismissal of our African American brothers and sisters. I wept, too, that it wasn't until I was 44 years old that I even became aware of the real history, the suffering, the strength and resilience of African American people. I believe that these stories must be shared if we were ever going to move forward and truly heal this country.
Unfortunately, once again I had to unfriend a few more people. I had shared the story of Emmett Till, a 14-year old African American boy, around my own son's age, who was shot and beaten beyond recognition by several White men in Mississippi back in the early fifties. They used barbed wire and tied a large cotton gin fan around his neck, then dumped his body in a river. His crime? He whistled at a White woman. Emmett Till was just a child, the only son of a World War II Veteran. His mother insisted on an open casket stating, that this would "let the world see what has happened, because there is no way I could describe this. And I need somebody to help me tell what it was like." I could not even begin to process how his mother went on after experiencing such unbearable pain, outliving her child and worse, realizing her child was murdered because he was Black. And yet, a former acquaintance thought this brutal and cruel murder had humorous elements. I had no words. Tragically, two of the men charged with the murder unremorsefully admitted guilt, got paid $4,000 for their story, and were both acquitted by an all-White, male jury. I only learned about this tragedy this year, and it made me physically ill and sad, for I am the daughter of a woman whose skin is beautiful and darker than mine. As time went on, I realized that my research and posts gave me insight into my own family's often unspoken challenges.
When moments like this occurred, I had to pause, reflect and breathe. Never in a million years would I have guessed that people today would make such racist, disgusting comments about an African American little boy who was murdered. Over a decade ago I recall I was asked during an university entrance interview to share my thoughts on racism in the United States, on whether or not I felt we had achieved racial equality. I wrote an emphatic "NO." It is disturbing, to say the least, that today in February of 2016, my answer remains the same. I shudder at the growing popularity of right-wing extremists, a la Donald Trump, fomenting divisiveness, xenophobia, and racial bigotry. Things have improved somewhat, but not to the extent they should and given the extreme right wing political climate we are experiencing today, it's frightening to think where we could be headed.
So the possible conundrum, question about the whole Black History month issue. To have it, or not to have it; that is the question. I concur with this hashtag I found on Twitter: #BlackHistoryYouDidntLearnInSchool. Blatantly ignoring the contributions of African Americans (at times seemingly unless it is crime-related) was and continues to be cowardly and weak. Consider the current racially highlighted events in the news. No Black actors at all merit an Oscar? Then there are the people in the news we will never forget like Sandra Bland, Michael Brown (Ferguson, Missouri), Eric Garner, and 12-year old Tamir Rice, etc., all unarmed African American people killed by armed law enforcement personnel. There are also states that appear to be going back to the pre-Civil Rights era like Henrico County Virginia's Board of Education's recent censorship of educational material "pertaining to racial inequality." They claim there is none. Texas did something similar (see here) by suggesting that the Civil War included not slaves, but "workers from Africa." Why, we do not even learn that the United States had established one colony of its very own, the African country of Liberia, with Monrovia, (named for the sitting US president at that time, James Monroe), as its capital. There are so many important facts removed from our history. (See: https://history.state.gov/milestones/1830-1860/liberia). Make no mistake. These types of gross omissions and misinformation played a huge role in contributing to generations of ignorance about real African American contributions to history. We skipped or glossed over important details and facts, and we must find a way to get them into our psyches and our history books. I do not want my children to have to wait until they are 40 years old to learn about an American history that is accurate. unbiased and inclusionary.
So, I am hoping that is what I did this past year through my #TodayInAmericanHistory with a focus on African American contributions/biography daily blogs. While our history can be painful, there are always wonderful things that take place, strengths and enduring lessons that come from even the worst experiences. I smiled when I learned exciting and interesting facts. For example, the first woman in the United States to become a millionaire? Was an African American woman named Sarah Breedlove, the haircare products mogul familiarly called Madame C.J. Walker. I smiled again when my son came home from school with a list of African American inventors that he excitedly shared with me. "Did you know that peanut butter was invented by another famous George Washington? George Washington Carver!" he exclaimed. I beamed from ear to ear as my daughter, a budding cheerleader and gymnast, wrote a biography about Gabby Douglas, the gifted African American Gold Medal gymnast. She had written it for me, and she enjoyed finding out about Ms. Douglas' life. I smile because maybe, just maybe my posts will at least stay with my children as they venture out into this world and interact with others.
With each daily post I wrote, I realized that there were special kinds of people I wanted in my life: kind, thoughtful, creative, inspiring, good people. I'm so happy to know today that I am indeed in very good company. The whole race thing is difficult to talk about because we have never really come to terms with it and its impact on us as a nation. It is time to have the race talk, and it is time to have an inclusive history. I think America, at least the people in my social media family, are ready to have that conversation. They, like me, want to see the truth of our nation's history. At the end of the day it is pretty nice knowing that there are others out there like me, who are open to learning a thing or two, who want to learn about all contributors to our nation. And who knows? Perhaps African American history will become American history, not a sidebar, not something relegated to a chapter or two in a textbook, but woven seamlessly into the pages of our history. I recently came across another hashtag, #BlackFutureMonth and it gives me great hope and promise that together, we still can.
I close with this poem I love that I also discovered in 2015, "I, Too" by Langston Hughes. I hope every one continues to celebrate Black History Month 2016 as we enter our final week and remembers that all this beauty can be woven into the fabric of our beings throughout the year.
Tania Bradkin can be found at: @TaniaBradkin on Twitter, @TaniaBradkin on Instagram and at https://www.facebook.com/tania.bradkin on Facebook.
BY LANGSTON HUGHES
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--
I, too, am America.