My Dear Readers,
Black History Month concludes this week, so I am using this week’s post to explore its meaning.
Black History Month means different things to different people, so I am very aware of the mixture of feelings, particularly pride, sadness and yes, anger that can arise. I feel them myself. So, as my grandmother would say, I intend to “rake the mud on the bottom and watch the muddy waters rise to the top.” So cometh the muddy waters. As I have stated before, my comments are solely my own and do not represent the thoughts of others within my community.
We live in two worlds. In one, we are shown the glamour experienced in one of those worlds, and yet, what is hidden is the world of pain and suffering that may have been the foundation for these individuals’ successes.
As a kid growing up in the southern United States, the black history I lived was not the black history I was to learn later on in school. I learned about the contributions, achievements, and the accomplishments of Black Americans such as:
Crispus Attucks: the first casualty of the Boston Massacre and the American Revolutionary War. He became the icon of the anti-slavery movement.
George Washington Carver researched the promotion of alternative crops to cotton such as peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes.
Sojourner Truth was among the first women’s rights activists.
Harriet Tubman served as an abolitionist, humanitarian and spy for the Union during the Civil War.
Frederick Douglas was a leader in the abolition movement, a social reformer, a writer and statesman. He was the first black American nominated for the Vice President of the United States in 1872.
These contributions, accomplishments and achievements are important, but the common theme is that all of them, at one time, had either been sold into or born into slavery.
What can we as a nation, a society, as a community of African-Americans and as individuals learn from the struggles of these five individuals? We can understand that their struggles and traumatic experiences in their personal histories led them to great achievements as they assisted in sculpturing the American political and economic landscape.
It is in the duality of living in two worlds that the pain and suffering of one population and the guilt and shame of the other population are both hidden away. The history remains so far removed from our modern lives that in our outrage as a nation regarding the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot in a locked cage by the blood soaked hands of ISIS, we lulled ourselves into ignorance of this country’s past in which 4,743 African-American men, women and children were lynched between 1882 and 1968.
One of those lynched was Jesse Washington in 1916. A young white man who witnessed the murder wrote in a postcard to his family about the “carnival like atmosphere” in which he and his young friends “enjoyed front row seats.” He included a picture of Washington’s charred body with the caption:
“This is the barbeque we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe.”
A historian describes the photograph:
“…Jesse Washington’s stiffened body tied to the tree. He has been sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman. No witnesses saw the crime; he allegedly confessed, but the truth of the allegations would never be tested.
The grand jury took just four minutes to return a guilty verdict, but there was no appeal, no review, no prison time. Instead, a courtroom mob dragged him outside, pinned him to the ground and cut off his testicles.
A bonfire was quickly built and lit. For two hours, Jesse Washington, still alive, was raised and lowered over the flames, again, and again, and again.
City officials and police stood by, approvingly. According to some estimates, the crowd grew to as many as 15,000. There were taunts, cheers, and laughter. Reporters described hearing “shouts of delight.”
When the flames died away, Washington’s body was torn apart and the pieces were sold as souvenirs. The party was over.
Yet the “party” is not over. The lynchings and other traumatic experiences of African-American people would continue well into the 21st century. During the days of “nigger hunts,” blacks were victimized and killed by a variety of means in isolated sections and dumped into rivers and creeks.
To many whites, killing African-Americans “wasn’t nothing.” As reported by whites, it was:
“Like killing a chicken or killing a snake”
“Niggers jest supposed to die ain’t no damn good anyway—jest go an’kill’em.”
“They had to have a license to kill anything but a nigger. They are always in season.”
“A white man ain’t a-going to be able to live in this country if we let niggers start getting biggity.”
(about lynchings) “It ‘s about time to have another one. When the niggers get so that they are afraid of being lynched, it is time to put the fear in them.”
Learning about and understanding Black History allows us to remain aware that there may always be those who, due to their own fear, maintain their perceptions of what African-Americans deserve, and display behaviors that reflect that. Only in understanding the pain and suffering as well as the achievements and accomplishments, that we can fully understand the importance of staying true to our direction and goals even in the most difficult of times.
People should feel that history is not only about significant achievements of “great” historic figures; it can also be about how the individual lives her/his life. It is from these stories of personal achievement and tragedy that we learn wisdom, perseverance and the commitment to walk one’s own path or direction.
The mistake that is often made with Black History Month is to limit its richness and celebration to the month of February of each year. Instead of limiting it to 28 days of February, let’s utilize this period as a springboard in making or creating or telling our story.
Let’s use March-January to make history, February to be reflective, and then start it all over again, making history.
Black personal history and community history can be gained just from interacting with people in the neighborhood, such as teachers and mentors. The celebrated contributions and achievements often begin with small steps.
“Life is like a marathon. Finish the race; don’t worry about coming in first place. Cross the finish line. Just finish the race. Finish what you start.”
Ten Flashes of Light on the Journey called LIFE.
Until the next crossroads…the journey continues…