“If you knew your history,
Then you would know where I’m coming from,
And you wouldn’t have to ask me,
who the H… do I think I am.”
Robert Nesta Marley in Buffalo Soldier
The turn of the century, the one before the one we just had, is referred to by historians as the “nadir” of Black history. To the rest of us that means it was the worst period for Black people since the end of slavery. This was the period where White people mailed post cards picturing women and children grinning beneath Southern tree’s strange fruit. This was the period in time when Black Americans were generations deep in being American but still generations from being legally allowed to be American. Think for a minute how that would feel.
In 1900 the principal of Jacksonville Florida’s largest public school wrote a poem. The school was the largest because it was for Black kids, Florida had a lot of those, but Florida did not have a lot of schools for “them”. The poem was to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and a visit to the school by Booker T. Washington. A few years later the poem became a song, and the song soon became an anthem. People over time sang it in churches, on busses, while marching, and in prisons. The song has words of hope, of liberty, of God, and patriotism. Patriotism. A Black song in 1900; patriotic.
In or around 1812, America was attacked. From the vantage point of a ship in the harbor, a poet wrote a poem that then became a song, and later an anthem. At that time Black people were 3/5ths a person and 100% percent property. As American’s first put hand over heart and sang of bright stars and broad stripes, they did not intend that the song would be for Black people, because “those” weren’t Americans. It took more than one hundred years to change that.
During those hundred years there was that other song. During those hundred years there were nooses, blowtorches, marches, murders, legislation, military occupation, sit-ins, speeches, there were tears and there was music. “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who has brought us thus far on the way, Thou who hast by thy might, led us into the light, Keep us forever on the path, we pray,” were the principal’s words way back then. Later they were also the words that opened the prayer that followed a Black man raising his hand to be the leader of all Americans. Times change.
Times change but human nature does not. Neither does history. These truths, together, next to each other, make up what, and who, we collectively are. Who makes up this “we” is important. Are we a “we” yet?
When the White we learns that there is a Black national anthem, how do we react? When the Black we realizes the younger half doesn’t know the song, how do we react? When we realize “we” aren’t, do we react at all?