Tag Archives: Black History Month

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.

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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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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

 

 

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Black (Family) History Month

I can trace my paternal family line back to a pair of brothers who left Ireland for America in the 1730’s. Our surname goes back past the Battle of Hastings to a Roman who settled in Normandy. I can follow my mother’s line back to the Mayflower.

A year ago my wife could only trace her line back to her great grandmother who was alive in the 1980’s.img_4337

Family history is hard for many black people in more ways than some might expect. First it is hard because there is a dearth of records, which is a lesson in and of itself, but it is also hard because so often there is stuff in there that can be hard to deal with. Sometimes digging up graves only exposes more questions than answers.

My wife and I are okay with questions. Asking questions is a good thing. Unfortunately we don’t have Skip Gates at our disposal so digging up those questions is largely up to us. We started with DNA.img_1105

It is pretty easy. You order a kit online, then they ship you a tube that you spit in and send back. About a month later they send you an email.

There were no Earth shattering revelations, but there were some small surprises. For instance my wife has often been stopped on the street by expatriated Ethiopians who were excited to see one of their countrymen. Not knowing of any roots past New Orleans in the 80’s, Ethiopia sounded pretty cool. DNA killed that idea. Nope. No Ethiopia. The test results came back showing her lineage to be 61% West Africa, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Mali. The other 38% was white people. 10% Ireland and dribs and drabs of everywhere else, Italy, Spain, etc. This wasn’t really surprising. Most African Americans know there are white people back in the chain somewhere but it isn’t usually celebrated. In fact, quite often, as Skip Gates has illustrated time and again, these white folks get paved over in family legend by the myth of American Indians. Such was the case with her family. Both sides swore there were Cherokee or somebody like that in there somewhere. Her Dad was adamant that his grandfather was full blooded Indian. Her DNA said zero.img_2337-2

To understand why anyone’s whiteness would be something to cover, we should understand that most African American’s European lineage didn’t get there in some interracial romantic way. Not at all. I remember learning about the horrors of slavery in high school but said horrors were mostly whips, chains, and bondage. I don’t recall rape being mentioned. I suppose the idea of rape is something salacious enough that many teachers prefer to gloss it over, but I have since learned that cases of rape weren’t really outlier events. In slavery rape was normal. It makes sense that many would rather claim to be Seminole.

DNA gives data but only hints at stories. Knowing that there are more pieces to the puzzle we have begun looking for more. Thanks in large part to the efforts of Mormon volunteers, the entire Freedman’s Bank records have been digitized and made available online- the same with census records. There is now more promise of finding out who was who then we would have thought possible 50 years ago. Now begins the work of connecting broken links of a chain. It is a work of in-home black history.

Happy Black History Month.

Also… I am 9% Asian.img_4328

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The Great Migration: Black History Month

I call this the “You are okay but ya’ll are not” principle…

When slavery ended, and especially when reconstruction ended, a series of laws were passed, mostly at the state level but later upheld by federal courts, meant to preserve the racial caste system and the money it provided business owners. For example in Alabama it was illegal for a Black person to be unemployed. It was also illegal for a Black person to quit their current job without permission from their employer. Anyone breaking these two laws would be sent to jail (after a trial in which it was illegal for a Black person to testify against a White person).chicago

It was common practice for the state to rent out inmates to steel companies and railroads. These “inmates” are in large part the labor force that rebuilt the South’s destroyed infrastructure.

One thing that wasn’t illegal was leaving town, though this was a one way ticket since it was illegal to quit your job. Black people chose to leave and did so in large numbers. They went to places like New York, Chicago, and Detroit. Later, in a subsequent waves, they went to places like Oakland, St. Louis, and Kansas City.

At this same time America was growing into a world power. It was spreading out to the West coast and people flocked to the land of opportunity from places like Ireland and Italy. These immigrants went to places like New York, Chicago, and Detroit. The same places southern Black folk were going. It started getting kinda crowded.

Without the experience of an historical precedence of sustaining a large Black population, most of these cities scrambled to maintain White superiority. New housing codes, labor unions, and public policy sprung up to make sure Black people didn’t get jobs that White people wanted, live in neighborhoods near White people, or essentially “Ruin things”. Throughout the 1900’s, all the way up through the 60’s, there were race riots and lynchings in nearly every American city where there grew a sizable Black population.

Mob running with bricks during Chicago Race Riots of 1919

Members of a white mob run with bricks in hand, during the Chicago race riot of July and August, 1919.

The North and West which had previously accepted the occasional Black person, realized they definitely did not want a whole slew of them. So basically, “you are okay, but not ya’ll.”

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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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A Lot of People Know Who Booker T Was, but Most Don’t Appreciate How Bad it Must Have Been: Black History Month

Booker T. Washington gave one of America’s most influential speeches in 1895 at the Cotton States and World Expo. I would paraphrase it this way, “We promise not to try to vote, we will accept an inferior place in society, if the white people will promise to stop killing us.”

No really, that was the gist of his speechwallofruins

It became known as the Atlanta Compromise and was seen as the settling of the American social order regarding race moving into the 1900’s.

Now mind you this is Booker T. Washington, best selling author, president of the Tuskegee Institute, huge fund raiser for Black education and philanthropy, and he is saying “we” will settle for being subjugated because it would be an improvement.

I’m not sure we of today appreciate how bad it must have been for smart ambitious people to see subjugation as the best viable option.vintagemate

Whatever the views of the day, and there were other opinions, this compromise was seen as the rule by those in power. It was the foundation for Southern for the next 50-60 years till a bunch of college kids started agitating.

This is a foundational part of American history.

 

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