My mother-in-law spoke to us about growing up in a small town in Mississippi a decade after the first depression. Everyone in the room, particularly the half dozen teenagers were awe struck as she reminisced about working in the fields from sun up to sun down under the scorching sun. Mouths dropped when she spoke of the primitive living conditions most Black folks in that era had to endure: Eating what you raised, and having to use an outhouse in the dark.
Jaws were still agape as she recalled “those men in white sheets who terrorized the Black families.” The Klu Klux Klan posed a constant threat to Black people of all ages. Lord help you if you were on their list for crimes as simple as staring, “acting uppity,’ or not saying ‘yes sir’ or ‘no sir; to even a bum other Whites called ‘trash.’”
And God help the Black man accused of looking at a White woman. Remember Emmit Till?
“MaDear’s” father was illiterate, she explained, but wise in the ways of the world, and most importantly about the tactics needed to survive in a hostile environment. Even though he couldn’t read or write, he did what was necessary to provide for his family, to keep them out of harm’s way. Equally important, he stressed the importance of his children getting a good education. Education was the 20th century emancipation proclamation.
My great nephews and grandchildren listened intently as MaDear told her stories. They were in awe, not fully realizing what our ancestors had to endure in America’s past, or of the blood, tears and sacrifices they made to build the foundation on which they now stand.
MaDear was one of nearly two dozen family members who participated in our family Black history program at my house last Sunday. Surrounded by original Black art, African drums and hundreds of books primarily written by Black authors (that I encouraged the younger generation to take with them), we were each tasked with bringing a Black history hero or shero to life, prior to our sitting down to a potluck supper.
There were five generations present, ranging in age from 81 years to three months. Most of what the seniors talked about were events that shaped their lives. The youngsters had to research an African, or African American whose contributions changed the world even slightly.
My father spoke of early Milwaukee, when Black residents were not allowed to live north of North Avenue. He spoke of a famous Downtown Black hotel and how the White folks took it over when they learned the value of the property. Pops spoke of how Black families supported each other back when a community really meant “community,” and the few courageous Black men and women who bucked the system lobbying for equal rights for the growing Black population.
Jaws dropped when he spoke of a World War II German concentration camp that was built on Port Washington Road. Many of Milwaukee’s early residents were German, so it was only natural that they brought the Nazi prisoners of war here. Ironically, Pop told the astonished family members the Nazi POWs were treated better than Black citizens. And it wasn’t a coincidence that Negroes were not allowed jobs at the prisoner of war camp because we were considered inferior beings, both by the Nazis and the White Milwaukeeans.
My brother-in-law Clarence started a trend when he decided to introduce his subject by deed instead of name. He wanted us to guess who the figure was, a tactic that would reveal how much Black history we had absorbed over the years. “He was an escaped slave,” Clarence described him, “who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some felt he was the spark that led to the American Revolution”.
My brother-in-law learned of him when he attended a school named in his honor in Chicago. Few of the Black students who attended an elementary school named after him probably appreciated the story of the Black man who was the first to die in the Revolutionary War. Some of them today, given the history of this great nation and its exploitation of people of color, probably would look at him as a sucker, because the freedom he fought for would not be extended to people of color for another 100 years.
One of my nephews tried to stump me (I’m considered the family historian, the Black sheep of the family who provides Black history trivia at the drop of a hat, always ready to put things into proper context based on historical facts generally not found in the public schoos), with a story about the first Black graduate of a northern college. I couldn’t come up with an answer, which from my perspective was good because I’m always open to learn new things. Moreover, it showed that my nephew was serious about his assignment; he had to scan through dozens of history figures before he found the subject of his lecture.
Of course, sometimes you can misread our history and dilute the importance of a point.
That’s what happened with my niece, who posed the question, “who was the ‘actress’ who popularized the Afro, while drawing attention to American injustice?’
Everyone was stumped, until I figured out after another clue or two that the historical figure was not an actress, but an ‘activist’–Angela Davis. My sweet niece had read the bio wrong.
Davis was indeed an important figure in the fight for justice, I explained, while trying not to embarrass my niece. She was put on trial in the early 1970s for her alleged involvement in the attempted prison escape of Black revolutionary George Jackson, author of the “Soledad Brothers.” Later Davis joined the Communist Party, ran for vice president of the United States twice, and lectured around the country on civil rights and social equality.
There was an unusual link between Angela Davis and myself, I told the assemblage. In the late 1970s, then Chief of Police Harold Breier’ organized what was known at the time as a ‘Red Squad.’ Among the unconstitutional tactics this group utilized, the Red Squad spied on Milwaukee citizens who the chief felt were threats to the racist status-quo (activists, Black politicians, journalists). “Subjects” on the list ranged from Father James Groppi to Michael McGee. I even warranted a few pages because of my work with the Community Journal and participation in numerous civil rights campaigns. A surprising reference to me was that I “was known to associate with Communist and Workers World Party members.” In a nutshell, I was a ‘criminal’ because I interviewed Angela Davis and Workers World Party presidential candidate Larry Holmes.
My Black history figure prompted a debate that may never be settled. I had chosen Marcus Garvey, the father of the Pan-African movement, and at one point in time one of the most powerful–albeit controversial–Black men in America. I noted during my introduction that as a child, I overheard my grandmother tell a friend that Garvey was a crook. As I started my introduction, my mother repeated that statement (I never asked if she was serious or not).
What is not in dispute about Garvey is that he polarized Black leadership in the early stages of the civil rights movement (which didn’t begin with Martin Luther King, but decades–actually a century earlier). W.E.B. Dubois called Garvey a dangerous man. Other Black ‘leaders’ of the time called him everything from an anarchist to a separatist.
There is no doubt that he engineered the largest Black movement in American history through his Universal Negro Improvement Association and the Black Star Lines, which he purchased in the hopes of taking Black Americans back to Africa, where we would be removed from the slings and arrows of racial hatred and apartheid here in America.
Garvey was considered the preeminent Black Nationalist, encouraging Negroes of the day not only to have pride in themselves, but work together for upliftment. Garvey was the first to talk about Black empowerment, Pan- Africanism and Black Pride. He also introduced the red, black and green flag, and the concept of Black Power.
As he once said, “Let us in shaping our own Destiny set before us the qualities of human justice, love, charity, mercy and equity. Upon such a foundation let us build a race, and I feel that the God who is Divine, the Almighty Creator of the world, shall forever bless this race of ours, and who to tell that we shall not teach men the way to life, liberty and true human happiness”
Garvey’s down fall came when questions were raised about the financing of the Black Star Lines. The federal government said he was crook (although there is strong evidence to suggest he was set up to break the movement). Many Black leaders supported Garvey, but as you know, once the feds get their claws in you…He ultimately was sentenced to five years in prison and exported back to his native Jamaica
That’s where the controversy over Garvey originated. Many Black people believed the stories planted by the FBI and other agencies. Conversely, many maintained the only crimes committed by Garvey were poor accounting and having the courage to speak the truth.
However you look at it, Garvey sparked a new movement that resonated with Black leaders from Malcolm X to Stokely Carmichael.
In many respects, our Black History pot-luck dinner opened our eyes to the foundation on which we now stand. In some respects, that mean’s my family is better prepared than many Black families whose heroes are rap stars and who believe that lie that our ancestors contributed little to nothing to science, the arts and math.
Its’ no surprise to me that many schools today provide children with a watered down version of Black history. They will tell our children about Booker T., but nothing about Delaney. They idolize Dr. Martin Luther King, but say nothing about Malcolm or Garvey. And I have yet to get an answer from a Black child when I ask them who Amenhotep was.
Several years ago, a sister speaking at a school for Black history month was chastised by the teacher who claimed the speaker’s presentation on the middle passages and slavery were misleading and incorrect. Slaves were not as bad off here America as the speaker claimed, the teacher said, adding had it not been for slavery, we wouldn’t be citizens today.
Aside from that being the most ridiculous, asinine and racist statement I’ve ever heard, I would venture to guess it’s not isolated.
That’s all the more reason we must keep our history alive. Our history empowers us, it gives us a sense of purpose and dispels the myths and stereotypes that America has used (and is still using) to belittle us. And oh yes, we must educate our children not just during the month of February, but every day.
As Garvey once said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
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