Tag Archives: USA

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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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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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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The White Side of Black History: the cow jumped over the moon

Peter Tosh had a song with the lyrics, “We teach the youth to learn in school, that the dish ran away with the spoon. We teach the youth to learn in school, that the cow jump over moon. So you can’t blame the youth (when they don’t learn), you can’t fool the youth.”

It wasn’t exactly a hit single but he was making a point. Our children are not stupid, but we often treat them as if they are, and even worse, sometimes we make them that way. For instance, when my oldest was in 1st grade and just learning about holidays, which were very exciting since they included lots of activities in class, and days off from school, she asked about Martin Luther King Day. Her teacher explained that a long time ago black and white people weren’t allowed to be together. Martin Luther King Jr. thought this was wrong and helped get those laws changed so we could all be together. It was a nice age appropriate story, except is was horribly misguiding.

It was misguided not only in this instance but also in that this foundational error rarely gets corrected throughout the entirety of most American kid’s classroom education.

The soft pedaling of lessons on American racial history is damaging because we do everything we can to remove perpetrators. There are great injustices in history, and those who suffered through them did some amazing things in overcoming thanks to remarkable leaders like Fredrick Douglass, Rosa Parks, and Abraham Lincoln. But somehow, these injustices just were. No one did them, it wasn’t anyone’s fault, it was just the way things were. When contrasted with the Revolution caused by King George and Redcoats, and world War II caused by Hitler and the Japanese, it is silly to think Jim Crow was created by a cow jumping over the moon. Yet that is pretty much how we explain it.

So we can’t blame the youth when they don’t learn.

But kids grow into adults and we often hang on to what we learned when we were little. It is important for people to know, and not just in light of current political atmosphere but because it is the truth, that those laws were made by white people. Those Jim Crow laws were made by white people who at best were trying to protect their own position and possessions with complete disregard for black people, or at worst, with the intention of hurting and repressing black people. The makers of those laws represented and were what made up “America”. That was us.

My eight year old understands this. She is old enough to get it. She is also old enough to understand, but still be shocked by, the knowledge that when Martin Luther King, and a whole lot of other people, started working to change those laws, it was the police who tried to stop them. She got a new respect for MLK once she realized how dangerous it was to stand up for rights. After seeing photos of police dogs and fire hoses my little girl paused for a minute, thinking. She looked sort of sideways at me, her white father, and asked, “was it dangerous for white people too?”

Great question.

I told her about a young white man named Jonathan Daniels who tried to help black people register to vote in Alabama. He was shot by a Sheriff in the middle of the day with witnesses. The Sheriff didn’t get in trouble. We talked about how it was safe for white people if they just left things the way they were, because the police were on the side of the white people, but anyone, no matter their color, were in danger if they tried to change things. I also explained that black people were in danger no matter what they did.

She understood that. She didn’t like it, which is appropriate, but it made sense.

It is important that we as a society understand that problems, and especially laws, are never “just the way things are.” We make things how things are. All the high minded ideals of the American experiment rely upon us as a populace participating. That is what makes our nation remarkable. Despite our flaws and imperfections, we have built in mechanisms that allow change and have held us intact despite violence and horror and centuries if injustices. We actually CAN do something. Of course it might be dangerous- but so is roller skating.

So, on this first day of February, Black History Month, I write about these things, and urge us to learn about these things, not to foster anger or hatred or “dwell on the past”, but to simply understand the truth. We were taught that the dish ran away with the spoon and consequentially we don’t understand how we got to where we are… and we can be better. We need to learn about our history so we can be better.

Happy February.

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MLK and John Lewis: people tried to kill them.

My daughter’s third grade class is reading a book with the N-word in it. I am mostly happy about this. She is old enough to learn and think about right vs. wrong and how complicated these things get when humans interact. I am only mostly, and not completely, happy about this book and subject because I know how teachers of small people usually deal with America’s history of racism and Martin Luther King Jr. and the way they, or really we, teach this subject is incomplete and is in large part why our current state of negative race relations is so hard to eradicate.img_5687

My children were taught in school that back in MLK’s time black and white people weren’t allowed to be together. We were forced to be separate and MLK didn’t think that was right. So he organized a speech and a march and got the laws changed. That is the gist of it. Now today, we have a day of service where in King’s name we do kind things for the community.

I like that general message but it isn’t really how it happened and our children need to know a more accurate truth. They need to know  because “those days” weren’t so long ago that all of those people are gone. And by “those people” I don’t just mean activists and freedom riders like John Lewis, I mean “those people” like the man who hit John Lewis in the face with a club.img_5828

You see, Jim Crow wasn’t really just “how things were”. No, people made it that way intentionally. They made it that way to preserve political power, to gain wealth, and to maintain an hierarchy with white people on top. And when people tried to pry some freedom and rights out of this intentionally created system, those in power reacted with violence. And those people in power were very much white.

In discussing the dangers faced by black people, who weren’t just fighting for a seat on a bus, but for the basic rights to be an American, she asked me if this struggle was dangerous for white people too. She assumed there would be white people helping because that is her experience. I told her about Jonathan Daniels and how he was shot in broad daylight by a deputy for trying to help black people vote. I explained to her that this deputy went to trial and was acquitted. She doesn’t know the word acquitted so I explained this means he didn’t get in trouble. She was appalled.

Me too.img_5719

But she has learned these stories and she is okay. She has learned the truth that just like bullies are real people on the playground, that historical bullies aren’t really just “how things were”.  There were bullies who made it that way and heroes that forced the bullies to change and if we want things to be good, if we want to get to the place MLK dreamed of, we have to face reality.

She is almost nine. Nine-year-olds are smart enough to know that bullies can change. She is smart enough and old enough to know that white people, not some ambiguous “they”, are the ones who created this whole back of the bus thing. She is smart enough to know that this truth doesn’t mean all white people are bad. She is smart enough to know the truth… unless we teach her to be otherwise.img_5704

I fear that we as a whole are not smart enough to get this lesson. At least our schools, the news, our policy, and the whole state of Arizona don’t think any of us are old enough to learn the truth. There can be no perpetrators in America’s racist past, only loving heros. As if teaching this fallacy in some way better prepares us for today’s challenges.

It does not. So today, I will not argue that John Lewis is a perfect man or perfect politician, but I will remember that a cop hit John Lewis in the face with a club because he wanted to be an American.

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Bear Flag Republic and Manifest Destiny: Monterey

California, just like Texas, is kind of its own place. We don’t normally relate the two today, I blame the 60’s, but believe it or not both places have cowboys. Both places have also once been Spanish colonies, then Mexico, then their own country, and then a state. Oh yes, and there were plenty of people living in both places long before Spain showed up (though I wonder why anyone would have ever lived in North Texas or Barstow).img_1552

Californians are always trying to be innovators and ahead of the curve, in any way they can, so naturally they tried to imitate Texas.

As the capital of the Spanish state of Alta California, Monterey was the focal point of Anglo American capitalists and settlers.  Mexicans kicked out Spain in 1821 and then things got a little silly.

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Americans kept immigrating illegally to Mexican California and when they couldn’t get the support from the Mexican government, they decided they would just make the place America.

But first they declared independence. They raised a flag with a California Bear and one lone star… like the one in Texas. These Americans living in Mexico declared they were their own country of California… and then later that same year (1846) America went to war with Mexico and the folks with that bear flag said “just kidding independence. We would rather be America.”img_1529

So in Monterey, amid the nice little coffee shops and a remodeled Cannery Row, you can find an Independence Hall just like in Philadelphia. Remarkably like Philadelphia. feather quill pens and everything.img_1561

Then Texas struck oil and California struck gold, Hippies moved to San Francisco, and depending on who is president, both states talk about secession.  img_1556

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