Tag Archives: African-American

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.

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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.

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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.

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What we Can, and Cannot, Tell from the Olympics

It was exciting to watch a racially divers group of American women win Gold. I loved the visual illustrating the strength that can come from a unity of diversity. But, I think it is worth taking some time to really consider what this victory tells us, and what it does not.

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First, it definitely displays that America does NOT look like just one color of person. The United States is a racially diverse country. I love this. I love this in theory and in those moments where it appears we are coexisting in some sort of harmony, I love it in reality. Those moments and instances do happen and they are worth appreciating.

But those aren’t the only moment and they aren’t the whole reality.636063899599085136-USATSI-9441778

Remember Jesse Owens? That was way back in 1936 that the United States showed Hitler that his Aryan ideal was in fact inferior. Now keep in mind that once Jesse went home he had to sit at the back of the bus, enter through the back of a restaurant, and he better be really careful if he had any intentions of trying to vote. But he did win America a gold medal.owensgold

Then there was Duke Kahanamoku who won gold even further back in 1912. The USA has been winning athletic gold with a diverse population of athletes for more than a century but life is more than sprints and flips. Life, and society, are complicated.Duke1912

Society is also not on a continual march forward toward utopia. This is illustrated by the fact that Jackie Robinson was in fact NOT the first African-American to play pro baseball in the USA. That honor belongs to Moses Fleetwood Walker who played in 1883. We think it was Jackie because we conveniently forgot that back in Moses’s day we (America) reacted to people like Moses playing, and winning, pro baseball by banning all black people from the majors.

You see, things were getting better before they got worse. History is not a straight line.

I do not point this out to illustrate how horrible we Americans are, but rather to caution us against looking to integrative success and then assuming that we are on a natural progression toward improvement. Improvement only happens through intentional sustained efforts. Things can just as easily get worse as they can get better.

And let us keep in mind that we Americans are not the only ones.

France. France is decidedly old world European with everything that moniker connotes. This is the French Olympic rugby team.french-rugby-team

And the Australian.aussiegold

And South Africa.south-africa-rugby-medal-injured-seabelo-sanatla

Oh wait but then there is Fiji. Fiji, who has before yesterday never won an Olympic gold medal, crushed England, the country that invented rugby, with a decidedly non-diverse team.fijigold

Not only were/are they not diverse, but they won with what may be one of the smallest populations pools in the world from which to draw. Fiji, a group of tiny islands ravaged by the world’s worst cyclone, struggling financially, stepped onto the world stage and won with one of the most beautiful games of rugby 7s I have ever seen.

Shall we then assume that Fiji’s lack of racial diversity is superior to the efforts South Africa has made to unify?

No.

Because diversity is never the whole, or only, story.

So let us appreciate the American women’s gymnastics victory for what it is. It was wonderful. I love what it looked like, I love the potential and promise it illustrates.

But it is a snap shot-not a panorama.

Oh, yes… and this. Simone Manuel. Congratulations Simone.usa-today-9450107.0

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The Word of the Day is Nadir: Black History Month

In 1876 Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, made a deal with the Democrats, that he would end reconstruction if they would let him be President of the United States. In this same year the Supreme Court ruled that only states, not the Fed, could prosecute violations of the Ku Klux Klan Act, a law meant to protect Black people from White violence. States refused to prosecute.

That was a rough year for Black Americans.27state rights

That year facilitated a swift slide back toward the America that existed before the civil war. The difference this time was that a constitutional amendment prevented slavery, so in its place rose up a system, both formal and informal, legal and/or practical, that pushed Black people back away from being considered Americans.

This period, from around 1890 up through the 1940’s, is called the “Nadir”.blacksketches

The Nadir is considered not simply the low point in post slavery American race relations, but more so the low point in the lived experience of Black Americans. this is the time where it was normal for Black people who got “too successful” or even just sassy, to be publicly murdered.

This is the time period that most directly set the table for the racial America we have today. If you want to understand #blacklivesmatter, the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP, #oscarsowhite, or  the whys and hows of the Civil rights Movement, you need to first understand the Nadir.IMG_0941

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In the Studio: Nina Simone

Sometimes things don’t work out on the first try.IMG_8235

 

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Meh…IMG_0211

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Better.

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How Modern Racism Works

I once spent a week in a Manhattan office as a sort of test drive for a possible new career. The staff were friendly and competent, the work was interesting, and the opportunities were sky high. I liked the company well enough and they liked me. They liked me quite a bit. I was exactly what they were looking for. I had met the founder/CEO of this top notch firm in church. We were both serving in leadership roles and had worked together in differing roles there. He liked how I went about things and asked if I would consider a career change that would include coming to work for him. It looked like a great opportunity.lestermaddox

The moment I stepped off the elevator I saw that this was not like any company I was used to. Everyone was Mormon. Not just Mormon, but graduates of BYU. It is not normal to find such a place on the East Coast where Latter-Day Saints are about as common as Panda Bears. At all my previous jobs I was forced to spend an abnormal proportion of my conversational time explaining why I wasn’t drinking like everyone else, why I was wearing an extra layer under my clothes, or why I never dropped the F-bomb like everyone else. I found this a bit frustrating as I would have rather spent my time talking about literature, movies, or maybe football. Rarely did I get a chance as my Mormonism trumped my other interests, or at least trumped anything else that may have been interesting about me. None of that would happen here. If I took this job those days would be over. I was intrigued.

civilrights2“I like hiring Mormons. I understand them, they understand me, and we can have a work environment more in line with my values,” The boss told me. “I can start off at a level of trust with a new employee that I wouldn’t have otherwise and in this business there has to be trust.” I don’t think this employer was completely against working with non-Mormons, I know that nearly none of his clients were LDS, but he knew what he was looking for, knew where to find it, and he just did what he knew. He knew Mormons.

In the end I didn’t take the job. We just couldn’t get the numbers to work. That was years ago and they are still going strong. I don’t know everyone there but I can pretty much guess a thing or two about whomever it was that took the job that I did not. I’m pretty sure they were Mormon, went to BYU, and were extremely capable. I think about them, and my experience there, quite often. Strangely enough I think about it when I read in the paper about affirmative action, racial profiling, and income inequality. I thought about it during the Treyvon Martin trial, the Cliven Bundy showdown, and now during the Donald Sterling drama. In all these cases there is so much talk about racism, or false accusations of racism, or reverse racism. Everyone has an opinion, everyone knows what should be done, and everyone, no matter what side they take, is upset.

So many are upset in part because we, the collective we, do not really understand how racism works. We think racism is, or happens when, we hate someone who is different. We think it is when we act out on this hatred in some way. While this may be one way racism works, it is very much not THE way racism works. The truth is that today, and in years past, for the most part racism works just like that office in Manhattan.

Racism happens when we simply show a preference for our own.schoolkid

Preference for our own is a precarious thing. It makes sense. It’s easy. It’s also very exclusive and insular. Not only is it those things but it is also the justification most all overtly racist policies or groups have used to justify blatant discrimination. Most of those who supported Jim Crow laws did not claim to hate black people, they simply wanted to “protect” their own. Real estate agents and neighborhood alliances didn’t say black people were horrible, they simply wanted to make sure white people could live amongst their own. Labor unions, employers, and colleges never had to say they hated minorities; they only had to say that they had a level of trust in the abilities of their own.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily calling that office full of Mormons racist. Nor am I calling the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints racist. But I will say that all the people in that office were white. There were also no Jews. There were plenty of women and during that week I never heard one person say anything negative about any group previously mentioned. But the level of niceness, affection, or broad respect for humanity possessed by those who worked there didn’t, and doesn’t matter to any black people; because they aren’t there. Unless something changes, they never will be either.enhanced-buzz-12728-1381176127-6

That is the problem with a racist past never being addressed by the “non-racist” present.
The group we belong to now, and what that group has or does, is a direct result of what the members of our group did before. So, if that office would like to stay Mormon forever, so be it. Who cares right? It is one company, one office, what’s the big deal? In the grand scheme of things there really aren’t that many Mormons, especially in New York, so why even bring it up? I bring it up because this office is how modern racism works. That office is Mormon not because the people there hate anyone; they simply have a set way of doing things. The same could be said for Ford, Bain Capital, Tiffany & Co., the United States Senate, NBC, CBS, ABC, Morgan Stanley, Stanford, any local police department, the carpenters union, and on and on and on. Wall street firms don’t have to hate black people, they only have to really like Wharton graduates. Wharton doesn’t have to hate black people, it only has to really like the children of alumni. Alums don’t have to hate anyone, they only have to really want their own children to get into a great school. It goes on and on, spirals down, down, down.george-romney-civil-rights

The only way things will ever change is if someone intentionally changes it. It really isn’t enough to simply not be racist. Not hating someone is not the same as giving them a chance. Really, what it will take, and I call out that Mormon office because my own personal bias tells me that Mormons, my people, should be great at this, is to think of someone other than themselves. Look at someone new and give them a chance. Do the uncomfortable thing. Open up and let someone new in. Realize that if people are people, then “strangers” deserve the same sort of favoritism we give the familiar.

 

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