Tag Archives: black history

Buffalo Soldiers

Bob Marley’s song Buffalo Soldier was played at every youth dance I ever attended. I’m not exactly sure why that song, out of Bob’s hundreds, was such a mainstay on the dance circuit, right alongside Alphaville’s Forever Young, but without fail you would hear that brass prelude, duuuuuuuh- duh dah. Duh-duh, dah-dah, duuh da-da! Then we would all start bouncing and singing along.​

​They didn’t play that song at the National Buffalo Soldier Museum grand opening in Houston Texas this Veteran’s Day. It was noticeably absent. My brother and I on the other hand, were present. So were a grand assembly of 10th Cavalry reenactors. Formed in 1866, the 10th Cavalry, while not being the United States’s first black regiment, they were the first black regiment formed during peacetime. Now of course “peacetime” is a bit of a misnomer since the U.S. was indeed engaged in a number of armed conflicts with various Native American nations, and also Spain, and then Mexico, and also with a bunch ranchers, miners, and farmers intent on putting the “wild” descriptor solidly into the Wild West.

From 1866 through 1918 the Buffalo Soldiers fought against all of them. They fought well enough that over that time 26 of these soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor. All those medal winners are notable for a number of different reasons, but the biggest one, is that despite those hard to earn honors, officials in the United States government, the military, and white Americans in general repeatedly withdrew praise or sanction whenever things got anywhere near complicated. And by complicated I mean whenever white people complained.

This makes sense when considering the relationship between black people and the United States overall. It has always been this sort of “complicated”. Let me offer a few examples that illustrate what I mean by complicated, and remember, these guys earned 26 Medals of Honor.

After the civil war, where black units like the Massachusetts 54th earned high praise, the ever striving Armstrong Custer accepted a demotion rather than accept command of the Buffalo Soldier’s 9th Cavalry. With a lower rank he took command of the 7th and headed for Little Bighorn.

John J. Pershing, before he became the commander of all American forces on the western front of World War 1, was the commander of the 10th. He sang the unit’s praises and in return was mocked by the rest of the army who gave him the derogatory nickname “N—-r Jack”.  When Woodrow Wilson, the president who re-segregated the Whitehouse staff and held screenings of the film Birth of a Nation, placed Pershing in command of the whole army, Pershing abandoned the black units, handing their command over to the French. He refused to allow any other American units to integrate with, or be commanded by, anyone but other Americans.

In 1897 the Buffalo Soldiers were considered the best equestrians in the armed services and it was proposed they take over the riding instruction at West Point. This proposal was ignored or declined for ten years till 1907 when West Point’s cavalry unit was designated as a colored unit. It remained so till Harry Truman desegregated the Army.

It should be remembered that this period in United States history, let’s say 1866 through 1920, encompasses a number of different era’s ie. Reconstruction, Industrialization, the Gilded Age, the Nadir, Westward Expansion etc. I call that entire time “White People Gone Wild”. Those were the days where defeated confederate soldiers burned down black neighborhoods to regain political office. That was back when live ammunition was used to break up steel worker strikes. This was when prospectors got military backing to kick Sioux of their designated homelands, bison nearly went extinct due to recreational slaughter, and Chinese immigrants were encouraged to help build railroads after which they became the target of our countries first immigration law aka the Chinese Exclusion Act. This was an era where America decided, officially on paper, that it was going to not only stretch from sea to shining sea but that it would also continue to be explicitly the home of white people. And the government was more than happy to wield black soldiers in the fight against brown people in order to establish national whiteness.

That is what I mean by complicated.

All history is messy. American history around race is especially so. Things aren’t all that clear cut today either.

But what was clear on Memorial Day in Houston Texas, is that there exists a strong tradition of African-American military service and a well-earned pride in the history of that service. A pride that despite its complications was fought for and claimed, and it is a history that should be preserved.

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James Brown was Rich

In 1964 when James Brown went on the T.A.M.I. show, he had already earned more than a million dollars. He was rich. He wasn’t only rich, but he was so universally popular that on that show he shared the stage with the Beach Boys and Rolling Stones. A lot of white people loved James Brown- in 1964. That’s kind of a big deal.

The very next year John Lewis’s skull was fractured by a police officer when Lewis attempted to walk across the Edmond Pettus Bridge. The year after that, James Meredith was shot for trying to help black people register to vote. Then, another year later, a song by four black singers, The Four Tops, sat solidly at #2 on the Billboard Top 100 chart. By this time Berry Gordy had been rich for a decade.

All of this, the success of black people and the extreme violent oppression of black people, were happening in the same country at the same time. On the grand timeline of history James Brown and James Meredith are on the same dot. This reality is worth some extra consideration, especially considering where we are right now.

Colin Kaepernick made millions of dollars for playing quarterback better than Alex Smith, in the same year that unarmed Chavis Carter allegedly shot himself while handcuffed in the back of a police car. This is the same year that Wiz Khalifa was featured on a song that hit #4. Same time.

While we are not living in the same America that existed in the 1960’s and plenty of things have changed- some things haven’t.  Human nature doesn’t change. That is why history’s lessons are applicable. It is why, despite retrospect, we sometimes repeat ourselves. We think we do, or have, evolved, but we are really still the same types of people as Nathan Bedford Forest or Frederick Douglass. Or maybe James Brown, James Meredith and Bull Connor.

We cannot simply look in the rear view mirror and assume we are safe from whatever it is that’s back there. It is why when solving the problems of today we must persuade ourselves to do what is right, while simultaneously building protections against those who do, or will, choose otherwise. Because our children will be just like us.

In 2008 people started using the word post-racial to describe a supposed new America. They pointed to the elected leader as proof that the struggles of the 60’s had born good fruit and we were now past the season of labor and into the time of harvest. White America looked around and saw LeBron James or Beyonce just like we might have seen James Brown or Jim Brown, but in 2008 we didn’t see, or we ignored, George Wallace.

Perhaps a part of the reason racism hasn’t been solved, why Dubois’s color line remains, is because we white Americans both forget and deny Bull Connor. Some of us might learn about James Meredith integrating Ol’ Miss, but we don’t linger on the lessons inherent in the fact that it was the local Sheriffs who started the ensuing riot. We just rest on the idea that those who fought Meredith were wrong, but we spend no real time wondering why back then they thought they were right. We could ask Trent Lott, he was there, but instead we march forward with pride believing we are past that and thinking we are now somehow individually better. And we aren’t. And because no humans are magically better than all of the humans that came before we will still fall for the same traps as our predecessors unless we look back and learn. And understand. And own. Then grow. And change. And work. Then teach.

I wonder if Hazel Massery, the white girl seen screaming in that iconic photo of Arkansas school integration, liked James Brown and thought this meant she wasn’t racist. I wonder if the man who shot James Meredith resented Meredith’s college education and saw that as proof that people like Meredith were just snowflake complainers. Maybe most of us don’t wonder this because we have no intentions of shooting anyone. So they are nothing like us now, not really, and I guess there is some truth there. But the people back then, the ones who didn’t shoot anyone, who just went about their lives, but thought it was all a ruse by the commies or who dismissed Martin Luther King as an adulterer, might be just like me. Maybe an unemployed and struggling white man back then, marveled that a bunch of black college kids could find the time and money to spend a summer just riding the Greyhound around starting trouble, and he just knew this meant black life wasn’t so bad. Maybe he thought that their time wasting bus stunt earned them the beatings and burnings they received. Maybe the father who simply loved his children and had never even thought the word n****r, only moved away when the black people arrived because his family’s stability hinged on real estate value. What if the PTA president who watched the Watts riots loved the Four Tops, but simply loved following the law even more?

What if today we are all just like them?

And so the color line remains.

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Wentworth Higginson

6pm on a Tuesday 

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National Women’s Day: Bree Newsome

The confederate battle flag was not just the banner flown by an army fighting for the right to own black people, it was also the banner that was revived and waved by those who opposed desegregation and civil rights.Bree

In honor of the centennial celebration of the Civil War in 1961, South Carolina decided to raise the confederate battle flag over the state house. No black people were on the commission that made that decision.

Not only were they not on that commission, but South Carolina did not allow any black people to participate in their hosting of the national festivities. JFK tried to force the South Carolinians by moving the festivities to an integrated Navy base in Charleston, but the white people led a walk out and held their own official celebration in a segregated hotel. In that celebration Strom Thurmond gave a speech saying integration was evil and that the US Constitution never promised racial equality.

That is when that flag went up on the South Carolina capitol building. Black people (and some allies) have been asking for that flag to come down ever since. Those in authority continually refused.

On June 17th, 2015 a white supremacist murdered 9 black worshipers in a Charleston church. In the subsequent outcry against violent racism, there was some talk of the flag coming down. Those in authority thought they might allow it.

On June 27, 2015 a full 54 years after that flag went up, a black woman named Bree Newsome climbed the 30 foot flag pole and tore the flag down in defiance of the police who waited below to arrest her. She refused to wait for some democratic action to recognize her humanity when God had granted it from birth.

She was of course arrested when she came back down.

On July 9th the SC House of Representatives voted to remove the confederate battle flag in some seemingly gracious act of conciliation. It was an act that came not only 23 days too late, but 54 years overdue.

Bree, in her act of theater, gave America a symbol illustrating  bravery and self determination in blackness.

Here is my nod to you Bree Newsome.2

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HBCUs and the Current Administration

Yesterday the white house played host to presidents of historically black colleges and universities. You may have seen the picture. It is the one with our nation’s president at his desk, a smiling Amarosa at his side. The office is packed with black people in dresses and suits, and of course Mrs. Conway kneeling on the couch.main-bldg

I wasn’t there. I don’t really know what happened and I can only guess at why.

But Dr. Walter Kimbrough, the President of Dillard University was in that room and he wrote about it. Oddly enough just last week three freshman were in my office asking me questions about student support and I printed out two different peer reviewed articles written by Dr. Kimbrough to help them.

Here is what he said about yesterday, “…the goal was for officials from a number of Federal agencies (about 5 were there including OMB) and Secretary DeVos to hear about HBCUs. That all blew up when the decision was made to take the presidents to the Oval Office to see the President… there was very little listening to HBCU presidents today- we were only given about 2 minutes each, and that was cut to one minute, so only about 7 of maybe 15 or so speakers were given an opportunity today.”

Today is the last day of Black History Month. The image I saw online had the potential to communicate some hope for these institutions. Sadly, as is the precedent, it fell far short.

Then I saw the Education Secretary’s statement following their meeting.

“Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have done this since their founding. They started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education. They saw that the system wasn’t working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution.

HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”front-gate

This is the kind of statement you make if you aren’t listening. But again, I wasn’t there so maybe she did listen, or maybe she didn’t get a chance to hear them, or maybe it is worse. Maybe she listened and then still chose to release the above.

It should be clear that Black colleges did not start because of too few choices, they were founded because of exclusion. There was a system in place that was working for white people, and those people fought hard to keep this benefit exclusive.

Once these schools were founded they did not represent an additional choice, or even an alternative, they represented the only option.

Had the Secretary chosen to listen to Dr. Kimbrough, the president of one of these lauded schools, here is what he would have said (which we know he would have said because he published it today),

“Fifty years ago a philosophy emerged suggesting education was no longer a public good, but a private one. Since then we’ve seen Federal and State divestment in education, making the idea of education as the path to the American dream more of a hallucination for the poor and disenfranchised.”

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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.

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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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