Hidden Figures… and Signatures: Black History Month

William Benjamin Gould was a slave in Wilmington North Carolina. His owner Nicholas Nixon would rent Gould out as a plasterer working on mansions and public buildings around town.  When he was finishing up the interior trim work inside the luxurious Bellamy mansion, he did a risky thing for a slave, he signed his work. He scrolled his name on the inside of a section of some ornate molding before he attached it to the wall. No one knew of it till 100 years later when his signature was uncovered during a mansion renovation. It was quite the find, not just because it was unexpected, and not just because slaves weren’t supposed to be able to write, but mostly it was unexpected because historians actually knew who William Gould was.bellamysignaturebetter

In 1862, one year after that mansion was completed, William and six other slaves stole a small boat and rowed it out into the Atlantic Ocean where the Union Army had a series of ships blockading the Southern coast. They were scooped up by the USS Cambridge and now finding himself a free man, Gould joined the Navy.

At the war’s end Gould settled down and started a family in Massachusetts. He became an active member of the community and his story appeared in occasional articles in various periodicals. Not long after the signature was discovered in Wilmington, Gould’s diary was published as a book titled, Diary of a Contraband.

Remarkable story.

Even more remarkable is that out of the millions of black people who have lived in North America since the late 1600’s, we have such comparatively few records of their names or their stories. We know some, like Fredrick Douglass, but there were so many more. There was Henry “box” Brown, or Crispus Attucks, or William Gould. Black people have been present and participating in every step of the United States’ evolution and it is when we consider the level of that contribution that we realize how they are disproportionately invisible; so few names and even fewer stories. But if we learn to look closer, there is still a legacy.whole-hand

Trinity Church in New York City was built by black men. So was the U.S. capital. Dozens of universities, Harvard, Princeton, UNC, UVA, were built by black people. We can imagine that somewhere, even if only symbolically, in all these buildings, hiding under the plaster molding, are thousands of signatures just like Gould’s. The dome at Monticello, the columns at Mt. Vernon, and the masonry walls of St. Augustine, all built by people with hidden names. Look for them. Ask about them. On Bourbon Street, in Charleston, or even St. Louis, look for the black people. They were there.

But you have to look.

Leave a comment

Filed under history, places

Marginalization

I am a Mormon. You cannot tell that just by looking at me, but it is very much a part of who I am. I could even argue that it is everything that I am. But you cannot really see it.img_5762

There are plenty of Mormons who like to think their Mormonism is visible, that we glow, but this is simply self-affirmation. You can’t see it. It isn’t like Orthodox Judaism or some forms of Islam with proscribed hair and clothing. We don’t even have any actual symbols to announce our faith. No crosses, no Star of David, no half moon and star. Some of us have created symbols, like Angel Moroni lapel pins, but these came “from the streets” not from God. But we know our own. We know who we are because we are obsessed with ourselves.

This is arguably why many people do not like us. We do not sit quietly in a corner, we let you know who we are. We knock on your door and ask you to join us. Odds are, if you want to be left alone, we still won’t leave you alone. This is one reason why, even if I am personally leaving people alone, they still might throw beer bottles at me, swerve their motorcycle to run me off the road, mock my faith loudly during board meetings, accusingly tell me what I believe in job interviews, misrepresent me in classrooms, sing songs mocking me in bars, spit chewed food at me, or the ever hard to really pin down- deeply ignore me. I have experienced all of these things personally.

Sometimes it happens without the other person knowing my faith. They say something negative with no intent to upset me because they don’t know. But most people I know, know what I am, and when the digs come they are intentional. It will not happen, but theoretically, I could always choose to simply not be Mormon. People leave the faith all the time. It isn’t like my last name ties me to an ethnicity like say, Lifshitz or Austerlitz, though I should say that names are how I know Ammon Bundy and Manti Teo were born Mormon. I could hide if I really wanted too, but odds are if I ever became somebody I would get outed. We out our own all the time.

For instance Derek and Julianne Hough, Aaron Eckhart, Ryan Gosling, all born Mormon. Roseanne Barr’s family joined when she was a kid and thanks to my favorite Pop-up Video bubble, the singer Jewel was Mormon till the age of 8. This was my favorite insider Mormon joke because we all know you cannot officially be Mormon until you turn 8, but the point is we are self-obsessed enough that even if you leave us, we will find and claim you. Just the other week I got a text while sitting in church informing me that the real life Rudy, the guy the movie portrayed, had just been baptized a Mormon.

There are some good explanations for this obsession; both historically and due to what it is like to live as a Mormon day-to-day. For example the governor of Missouri signed an extermination order in 1838 authorizing the use of deadly force to remove all Mormons from the state. During much of those years Mormons lived as refugees fleeing from place to place relying on each other for survival. Identifying and sticking with our own was critical. Then we went and founded a city. Then we went and founded a whole bunch more. Salt Lake, Las Vegas, San Bernardino, all Mormon. But manifest destiny couldn’t be stopped and in 1857 the United States declared war on the Mormons in Utah and occupied Salt Lake. As a kid my family regularly drove past the army base originally established by federal forces to keep us Mormons in line.

But that was forever ago, everyone who lived in those days is long gone. Yet this era is such a part of the Mormon cultural legacy that to this day every congregation across the United States send their youth on small summer “treks” where they dress in 19th century clothing and pull rickety human powered wagons called “hand carts” for a week in the woods to ingrain in these kid’s minds what their predecessors endured. If you visit Utah in July you will learn that July 24th, “Pioneer Day” commemorating the arrival of Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley is celebrated bigger and louder than the 4th. We refuse to forget.

But it isn’t just history, being Mormon today does draw some attention. While you cannot see my Mormonism, the fact that I have never tasted coffee, or alcohol, or that I was willfully a virgin at my wedding, have put me in some serious spotlights over the years, especially in high school and college. I weathered that storm, but even in the professional world I have had bosses question whether or not I could be an adequate host to important accounts if I was unwilling to drink at the bar with them or share a good glass of wine. I was of course willing to host clients at a bar, but I have learned through repeated experience, I repeat-much experience, that most people are uncomfortable drinking with a person who isn’t doing the same. Yet this one little thing which is such a miniscule part of my faith and an even smaller aspect of who I am as a person, has become my defining characteristic to a huge portion of my associates; clients, rugby teammates, neighbors, colleagues. It becomes rather annoying having that same conversation time and time again, “No not even a little bit. Nope never have. No it isn’t really that hard. Yes hats off to me and yes I still like karaoke.” My religious views on sexual expression influence what I watch in movies, television and online. I love movies and television, and the internet, but every Oscar season there is a large swath of nominated productions that I have not, nor will ever see. This makes me different than other cinephiles and makes me almost unable to meaningfully communicate in those circles.

Faithful Mormons are largely expected to marry other Mormons.

This can make things a little tricky if you don’t live around a critical mass of other Mormons. This is one of many reasons why so many Mormons want to live in Utah, or send their kids to BYU. They want some options, they want to fit in, and they want to be part of their people. Some of us feel this desire to be among our own very strongly, some of us are annoyed by the idea, but we all understand it. I am an American to the core, but having grown up in Utah, I have felt very much the expatriate living in other states. Looking back, at both my youth and my home state, I am a bit amused at how much I, and we, felt like ex pats even when we were living in Utah.

This is why the local Deseret News regularly prints lists of every identifiable Mormon playing in the NFL, the NBA, NCAA, Olympics, or on TV, or in congress. We take a special pride whenever one of our own does anything. I never watched the old MTV show Real World, till a Mormon named Julie went on the show and embarrassed me. I watched every episode of that season. There is a website, www.famousmormons.org that attempts to list every Mormon doing anything, the church puts out an official portfolio of monthly magazines (Ensign, Liahona, New Era, the Friend) yet you can find all sorts of extra Mormon themed magazines not published by the church, but more just published for Mormons by Mormons (LDS Living Magazine). We have created our own books, book stores, television stations, network of blogs (the bloggernacle), music, schools (SVU), all above and beyond what our hyper organized church produces and we cling to such even when we are already living amongst our own. We are self-obsessed.

But I get it. Sometimes I get tired being different and just want to relax with a group of my “brothers and sisters”. Sometimes I want to watch something like Napoleon Dynamite with hard to explain inside jokes. Sometimes I would like to see a doctor who understands why I might be a couch potato yet have this health nut styled prohibition on tobacco and alcohol, yet won’t drink green tea. I would love a dance company for my daughter to join that understands why she won’t train on Sunday. But I also want to live in New York.

So I get it.

Because I get it, I refuse to listen to any white Mormon who makes the complaint that black people think too much about race. I reject any critique coming from people like me regarding black colleges, black television, a congressional black caucus, or a black history month. It is hard being an “other” in America. I know this because I am one. And as one who has experienced how “hard” it is to be Mormon in current society, yet only glimpsed what it might be like to be black, I testify that America is harder on black people than it is on Mormons.

Leave a comment

Filed under history, people

Black History Month: Paid Protesters

I do not intend to discuss any particular protest, or issue, or take a specific stand on any current topic (at least not right here right now). I do not intend to say who is right or wrong (at least not right now). But I do want to point out a couple of things just to make sure we all understand a certain argument, or rather accusation.img_5782

Martin Luther King Jr. was a paid protester.

So was Susan B. Anthony.

And Rosa Parks.

Many would argue that were it not for financial backers, both big and small, the civil rights movement would have never happened. It took money.

It didn’t take only money, it took some real strategic planing, organization, dedication, and frankly… it took lives.

Medger Evers was a paid protester from out of town. so was Benjamin Brown, Andrew Goodmann, Michael Henry, Rev. Klunder, Rev. Reeb, Jonathan McDaniels, and Viola Gregg Liuzzo. Vernon Dahmer was a successful businessman who funded protesters. His house was fire bombed with him inside.

So maybe today is different. Of course it is, because this is now and that was then. But before any of us accuse any unrest or protest on paid outside agitators lets just make sure we think it all the way through.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Black History Month: Rastafari

I like reggae. A lot. Sometimes other people tell me they like reggae too, but what they really mean is they like Bob Marley’s Legend album, but they have never heard of Barrington Levy. Or Buju Banton, or Black Uhuru, or Everton Blender, Cocoa Tea, Sizzla, Anthony B, Warrior King, or you get the point. I like reggae.

But I am not a Rasta.image1-5

I point that out because being a Rasta is an actual thing and I am not one but I regularly hear that word bandied about like it is just an adjective synonymous with pot head. I’m not one of those either.

There is a book originally written in Coptic then translated into Ge’ez, an ancient Ethiopian language, around the year 1300. It claims to be a record of when Queen Makeda of Sheba united with King Solomon of Israel. Their son Menelik carried the Ark of the Covenants back to Ethiopia, was crowned king of Ethiopia and the inhabitants began following the Lord God of Israel.

In 1910 Tafari Makonnen (Amharic name) or Haile Selassie (Ge’ez name)  was appointed governor of Harar and given the title Ras, which means head. Hence Ras Tafari. In 1930 Selassie inherited the crown and title of the kingdom of Ethiopia and as a descendant of Solomon was crowned “King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the Conquering Lion of Judah.”rasta

Over in New York City there was this Jamaican guy named Marcus Garvey. He was making quite a stir by telling black people to stop trying to be American and look back to Africa. He even started buying ships so black Americans could move back to Africa. Garvey was famous for proclaiming that salvation for black people would never be found in the West, but rather black people should look to a black king in Africa for their Zion.

One of Garvey’s followers was another Jamaican named Leonard P. Howell. Garvey and Howell both got deported for being loud and black. Garvey went to Europe, Howell went back to Jamaica. Once back home Howell published a tract called the Promised Key, which pointed to Haile Selassie as the promised second coming of the messiah to whom black people should look to for salvation. Marcus Garvey was the new John the Baptist who helped the world turn their eyes to a new King of Kings and that the New Jerusalem or Zion, would be Mother Africa.

Howell is considered by many to be the first Rastafarian.

Now mind you this is 1933 Jamaica. England still owns and runs the place as a colony. New York, where Powell had just spent time, was coming out of the Harlem Renaissance, a time where black thought and expression were springing up out of the everyday misery of being squashed down by American style racism. Howell called for a complete rejection of oppression, of whiteness, of imperialism and the general uplift of all black people everywhere by rejecting Europe and looking to home. To themselves. To Africa. This message got him in a lot of trouble.

But people listened and followed.

When Bob Marley came along Rastafarians were not popular. Anywhere. You would have never seen a shirtless man with dreadlocks on any tourism commercials but more likely would have been told to avoid them because they might snatch your children. Bob did not grow up Rasta nor were the other guys in the group the Wailers. If you saw and heard their early recordings they are a tin sounding R&B act. But then, in 1966, Haile Selassie visited Jamaica and Bob and the crew converted.

Bob changed everything. He became world famous and used that platform to preach his beliefs. Interestingly enough, most of what “crossed over” to the mainstream in his preaching wasn’t really the foundations of Rasta but some of the trappings. Dreadlocks and weed. Howell never wore locks.

Drowned in the haze of the biblical “herb to heal the nations” was the message of Peter Tosh singing “ I don’t want no peace. I want equal rights and justice.” Or the warning to colonial powers that while they might be a big tree, that the Rastas represent a small ax sharpened to cut them down. This isn’t exactly three little birds- but people really like that song.

Howell understandably didn’t like white people very much. His writing reflects that. I also already have a religion that I am comfortable with, I’m not going anywhere. So I am absolutely not a Rastafarian.

But I can’t help but love when a great musician puts music to the words of the Ethiopian Emperor’s speech to the League of Nation’s crying out on their inaction as his country is invaded by Italy.

Leave a comment

Filed under history

True Action Hero: Eugene Bullard

Eugene Jacques Bullard was a real life action hero. James Bond, Indiana Jones, Wolverine, he was all of them.bullard Born in unreconstructed Georgia he ran away from home and joined a group of English gypsies where they employed him as a jockey. In 1912 he stowed away on a steamer and landed in Scotland. In Europe he began travelling along side a vaudeville troupe as a prize fighter. He was boxing in Paris when World War 1 broke out, and he joined the French Foreign Legion. He fought in Verdun, earning the Croix de Guerre, France’s medal for bravery. After being wounded twice in the trenches Bullard joined the Lafayette Flying Corps. He had flown more than 20 missions before the USA joined the war, but when he tried to join the American fly boys, they turned him down for being black.

After the war he stayed in Paris and bought a night club. He hung out with Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, and even married a Countess. When the Nazi’s started gaining power in Europe, Eugene was paid to spy till things got too hot (1940) and Bullard escaped to Spain, and then New York.

Once stateside, Bullard hustled from job to job, a perfume salesman, an interpreter, and a security guard. I’m not sure which one of those jobs he was doing in 1949 when the press got a photo of Bullard being beaten by cops as they rioted at a Paul Robeson concert. Just to be clear, it was the cops who were rioting, not Bullard.

In 1954 Bullard was called back to France where he re-lit the everlasting flame and was knighted by Charles de Gaulle.

He was working as an elevator operator and living alone when he passed away in 1961 and is buried in Flushing Cemetery in Queens.

4 Comments

Filed under history

How Do White People Historically React to Black Accomplishment: Whitelash

There is a strange thing you notice if you spend some extra time looking at the lists of achievers or “firsts” in African- American history. They are spread out all over the place, both geographically and on the time line. Stranger yet is that there is quite often a huge gap between any given “first”, and the subsequent seconds or thirds. Why would you suppose that is?Image result for black woman bayonet

For example the third black man to play professional baseball was Jackie Robinson. You read that right, he was third. The First was back in 1884 when Moses Fleetwood Walker took the field for the Toledo Blue Stockings. The second was Moses’s little brother Weldy.  Jackie didn’t get to play till 1947, because in 1887 the league banned black players from the majors. I could reword that without changing any of the facts, by saying white people banned black players. The Walker brothers proved they could compete, but the white people got together and simply decided they weren’t allowed to.Related image

The first black person to get into an American college was John Chavis who enrolled at Washington & Lee in 1794. This was not only long before the civil rights movement, but 69 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. Oddly enough, John Chavis starting college was also 29 years before the first black person to actually graduate college. That was Alexander Twighlight who graduated from Middlebury in 1823.

If there was a 29 year gap between a black person getting into college and another black person actually graduating, as well as a 60 year gap between the first group of black baseball players to make the majors and Jackie, my white American meritocracy minded brain might guess that this was because the first black people were given a shot before they were really ready. Maybe this group of people, for whatever reason (being held back by slavery or poverty or whatever) just weren’t ready to compete in American free markets. Maybe it just took them more time.

I remember learning something like that in history class related to reconstruction. I might have even heard something like that in church when I was little.

But then you see things like the picture of the Little Rock 9 being the first kids to integrate a school in Arkansas.Image result for little rock 9

Or maybe if you look at how the ‘Ol Miss student body reacted when James Meredith was allowed to enroll.Image result for integrating ole miss

Then maybe you start looking into the reactions of white people surrounding all sorts of African American 1sts whether it be in sports, college, politics, business, pretty much everything, and you start to realize something. The reasons why black people were not accomplishing things was because white people were very intentionally stopping them. Intentionally and very regularly violently. What was it like for Chavis in school or the Walkers playing ball?

What is most amazing, is that despite this, and I should say despite “us” they persist. There have always been black achievers and strivers and thinkers and all the while they have had to achieve and strive and think despite a nation of countrymen standing in opposition.

Leave a comment

Filed under history

Everything Isn’t About Race: racist math

I have heard many times that “everything isn’t about race”, and that perhaps people, or groups, who try too hard to find racism where it does not exist, are today’s primary cause of racism, or at least the primary cause of perpetual racial issues.church

I get it. I understand where they are coming from and I hear what they are saying, but for the most part… naw. That isn’t our problem today. Not any more than any other annoying and possibly wrong headed thing any number of any population is predisposed to doing. Like double parking, or talking loudly on a cell phone in close quarters. It might make you nuts but it isn’t a real problem. But I know what those people are saying because that is what I used to think.

Then I moved to Atlanta.

In Atlanta everyone and everything was black.12thecity

The people were all black. The billboards, Santa Claus, the tv shows, the churches, commercials, the bus driver, the street vendor, even the grocery isle. I had never even seen or heard of chitterlings or collard greens and the grocery store had two isles of that stuff. Ox tail soup? This was all new to me. I couldn’t get a good hair cut. I didn’t have a car and being limited to public transportation I visited every salon and barbershop within a two hour radius of where I lived and never found anyone who knew what thinning sheers were for. I stopped arguing with barbers about how I didn’t need to be lined up or how my part doesn’t need to actually be shaved into my head and started getting haircuts from a friend in my kitchen. This was all amusing and eye opening for about three months. After that it became exhausting.

More wearying than the inconvenience of living in a world that wasn’t built with me in mind, was that same conversation I had over and over and over again. The one about me being white. Till this time I had never thought my color was all that relevant, it was never a big part of how I saw myself. I had never really discussed it with anyone and after three months of having my whiteness pointed out to me by every single person I met, I was tired. I was sick of it. Even the police questioned my race. I was stopped regularly by white officers wondering if I was lost. On more than one occasion after telling the officers I actually lived “right over there,” I was called stupid and told I was on my own when they (the black people) decided to kill me.  I lived there two years.

I had never felt so white in my whole life. Every hour of every day it was all anyone could see or wanted to talk about. It didn’t matter what I wanted to talk about, or how I saw myself, everyone else decided for me.

But that was just Atlanta. I guess maybe it could have been parts of the Bronx, or Chicago, maybe Oakland, but I’ve been to those places and none are as broadly and deeply black as Atlanta was then. The place is unique that way.

It is unique and I have never relived that experience because America is largely a white space. There is talk of the browning of the United States and predictions of a majority minority nation in the years to come, but those predictions forget that to outnumber the white, every other group must be lumped together to squeak out a majority. America may have adjusted some, but it was originally, and is for the most part still, built for people who look like me.

So is everything about race?img_5719

Well, no, unless you are black, then kind-of, yes. It isn’t like every issue or interaction is race-ist, or that race is all that everything is about, but it is always there.

Sometimes I illustrate how this can be true by personifying math. For instance, lets look at the simple formula 2+3+1=6.

The digit “2” is only one of four digits. So maybe we could say it is at most 1/4th of the total digits, or if we wanted to dive inappropriately deep into things, or “try too hard”, we could say the digit 2 is at best 1/6th of the equation. The equation isn’t all about the 2.

Unless you are the 2.

If you are the 2, you cannot escape that you are 2. No matter where you are plugged in, things change. 2 is what you are. I suppose you could try to lessen yourself and become two ones, but you are a digit and not a quantity. If you are part of an equation your 2ness isn’t everything, but it will always be something.

But this is an imperfect metaphor because we are not our race. Race is a social construct and its relevance is something painted onto us by society.

For instance, let’s use the equation 3(5-4)=3

The digit 2 has nothing to do with this equation. If 2 is blackness, or race, then race has nothing to do with 3(5-4)=3.  Now here is how race really works. When race is inserted into an equation it is an exponent. 3^2(5-4)=9. When race is added onto any digit, it changes everything. It isn’t everything, but it always matters.

Still imperfect.img_5699

Maybe race in America is 5+5+5+5+2+5=27. The 5s don’t think 2s are a big deal, they are barely a blip in the equation yet those annoying 2s won’t stop caring about 2s. I mean come on, there is a digit “2” on both sides of the equal sign, that is a lot of representation, 2 needs to chill out and just try harder to be a 5. Perhaps the 2s don’t really need to be angry all the time, but maybe they would be less likely to be upset if the 5s would just realize that 2s are 2s and understand that they factor into the equation differently than 5s.

Can I stop now?

I once knew a guy who was convinced the cartoon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had racist overtones because everything negative had hip hop references (Shredder) and all the good guys were European renaissance artists. He was a little bit too much, but his inserting race into a cartoon was much less of a big deal than double parking. He isn’t the cause of mass incarceration, racial profiling, the achievement gap, and income disparity.

When you look into American history you have to realize that race has always been there. You might think the Constitutional convention wasn’t all about race, sure, but how many of the men who participated would have been able to do so if they didn’t have slaves at home planting crops? How many of those men would have been educated if the schools hadn’t been in large part been funded by the selling of people? In all of those years when the American equation was being built to accommodate the “5s” we need to know that the “2s” were here the whole time. Not off on another land mass, here.

In the end, race does matter. It matters a lot and in America, it always has.

Happy Black History Month

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under history