From Independence Day to “We the People”

This is the traditional season to celebrate U.S. patriotism. Many people have been taught the nation’s history in the ringing phrases and the lofty ideals of colonial documents we memorized in parts as school children, for example, from the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal . . .” Following the War of Independence, “We the People” established a Constitution to “. . . secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and Our Posterity.” That same Constitution established a way to account for the enslaved at the margins of society: three-fifths of a person for purposes of both taxation and representation.

This is also a season of looking at the reality of colonial life and history. Recently, a Princeton scholar expanded the account of early American life by including the lives of enslaved Africans. In New England Bound: Colonization and Slavery in Early America, Wendy Warren concludes that to understand race-based slavery in the British colonies, including all of North America and the Caribbean, one must also understand how slavery developed and functioned in New England; their interests and very survival were inextricably connected. That is, New England is where the mechanisms of oppression and exclusion of the “other” from government, the economy, culture, and laws were developed. From the beginning, whatever popular concepts grew from that base, including ideas of freedom, justice, religion, capitalism, and protection — all were established as a very narrow framework favoring a select few at the expense of others.

Warren’s work is not the only alternate interpretation of colonial history. Last August, at a commemoration of African ancestors at Faneuil Hall, State Representative Byron Rushing pointed out that New Englanders are fond of citing their history as abolitionists, but not so much as prime profiteers from the transatlantic trade. That assertion is taken up in Logbooks, an account by Ann Farrow of the selective memories of colonials in Connecticut and the construction of a historical amnesia. And many years ago, Lorenzo Greene documented in great detail the profitability of slavery in his germinal work, The Negro in Colonial New England.

But in this season, patriotic flag-waving can be balanced by the reality of several other voices. On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a powerful denunciation of Independence Day from the perspective of one who had been enslaved. His address entitled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” is notable for the comparisons it draws between the freedom vaunted for those unlike himself and for those in bondage. Douglass poses his question and answers it. “. . . To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages . . .”

So today, when the presumptive Republican candidate, himself a second generation immigrant, talks about “making America great again,” those of us who are not of European descent, wealthy, or male are alarmed, even threatened. There is a sense that the definition of “we” will be restricted once again as it has been over centuries. This is especially important today as we grapple with the definition of citizenship. It is appropriate that as July 4th approaches we understand that “we the people” did not apply universally but only to a very select and limited group of persons in the United States. For the past 231 years, various groups of residents have been challenging and expanding that definition of who “we” are – women, Asians, African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Jews, lesbians, gays, the transgendered, the poor, convicted felons, and so forth. The purpose of the Constitution was to accommodate change, and it has been necessary to amend the document as the nation evolved. There is nothing sacred about our laws. Their application and interpretation – some of them have been absolutely unjust – vary in the context of who the “we” is at any given point in time. Let inclusion of all truly make America as great as it has the potential to be.

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Periodically we respond or address issues that surface from our reading. Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape is a recently published work by Mount Holyoke earth science professor Lauret Savoy that merits attention. Her writing is lyrical and thought-provoking. Geographical landscapes and language related to memory and history are her references as she places those living in the present in a broader historical context. Even the meaning of the word used in the title, trace, reinforces the theme: pattern, path, remnant. Employing Savoy’s approach, the reader discovers how miniscule we are in time, how ingrained is the past, and what our potential relevance and responsibilities are in creating the future. Her use of memory as applied to the nation’s history is intriguing, particularly for the MPCPMP’s need to present an alternate or little-known perspective of African American history. Savoy states that since the initiation of European territorial conquest in America there has been a concerted effort to dis-member non-European cultures and societies by war, by occupation, by name, and by appearance; yet, traces remain. She beautifully advocates for a re-membering of these forgotten or unfamiliar places and people. Her scholarship includes examples ranging from the Grand Canyon and mesas in the West to burial grounds and place names in the South.

Trace provides the reader with an opportunity to view this country with another assessment and scale – certainly a more textured ecological and environmental analysis of time and habitation — from the Ice Age, to the present, and into the future. In all the research related to the MPCPMP, we are drawn to that which states that we are directly influenced by the past and that we determine the blueprint of the future – as we breathe.  The values and principles we select do affect other people and our physical world in ways that are unknown to us but can be traced by future generations. That boils down to a responsibility to live consciously within a global community.

Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project encourages you to read this book. It may result in a determination to better define self and life goals – to walk a clearer path.

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Birth of a Nation: Another Creation Angle

From time to time those of us working with the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project (MPCPMP) find ourselves re-emphasizing several points about U.S. history as the country addresses the day’s pertinent issues. These themes bear repeating:

  • The nation’s “Creation Story” normally taught in schools is incomplete and often inaccurate.
  • In order to understand what we are presently experiencing in our society, citizens must know the details of birthing this country.
  • No matter which European country claimed a territory or region in the Western Hemisphere, within the first 20 years of that colony or state’s creation, Africans and their descendants were integral to its development – economically, culturally, and socially.

Our research informs us that if history is only presented from a Euro-centric perspective, it is lopsided, unbalanced. There were many people from various parts of the world who influenced the products and the process of westward expansion. Metaphorically and literally for many, the birthing was a breach of justice, status, identity, and community.

The current example of a limited interpretation and perspective on the country’s history is the issue of the right to bear arms and the push back against control of them. President Obama’s recent modest proposals to regulate the sale of guns have revved up much hoopla around the 2nd Amendment once again. If a complete narrative is presented, it is worth noting that there have always been gun control and exceptions to the right to bear arms based upon need or perceived threat by those in power. Consistently, after the first thanksgiving and welcome was extended by Native people it was soon discovered that the European invaders were permanent. These new settlers’ guns would become the means of their expansion, oppression, and defense.

As American settlers’ objections to English economic control mounted, especially through taxation and on colonial production, the British instituted gun control to restrict armed protest in the American colonies. This was a direct trigger for the conflicts at Concord and Lexington. The right to bear arms, however, was also quickly denied in most of these same colonies to Native people and to enslaved Africans based upon their anticipated threat to colonial and national security. On the other hand, when White colonists defended themselves against Native attack in particular, African-descended people were temporarily allowed to use guns to protect households and settlements. Understandably, gun control was incorporated into the “Slave Codes” and Black Codes throughout this nation in order to thwart Black rebellion and resistance to the unequal status quo.

In the South, where enslaved Black people routinely outnumbered whites, fear of armed Black people went hand in hand in determining weapon use policy until the Civil War. Historically, European Americans have been the only group for whom access to arms has seldom been restricted or regulated. Not until after the Civil War was any limitation placed upon White Americans (Confederates), and for the first time Black people as newly-constituted citizens were permitted in some cases to own and use firearms for daily survival and protection against hate groups.

Access to firearms for non-Whites and the White push back against it has been illustrated time and again. Throughout our national history from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, there has been a reluctance to allow armed Black soldiers in any military undertaking within U.S. borders until desperation left no other choice. There was less resistance to Black armed men fighting for U.S. interests outside of the country. Teddy Roosevelt included Buffalo soldiers from Western Indian territories in the Spanish American War in Cuba; W. E. B. DuBois advocated for the inclusion of Black troops in World War I; and certainly during the 20th and 21st centuries Black soldiers have been major participants in military campaigns in Europe, Asia, Arabia, and the Middle East. The issue was always their return to a segregated and racist country as trained gunmen. In 1919, returning Black soldiers across the nation were met with fierce White resistance – lynchings and sometimes in the form of race riots. Washington, DC in the late 20th century (1975) became the first major city to experience a Congressional universal gun control measure. Many believed that the root impetus for such a drastic action was the city’s Black majority. The rise of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense pushed the button in Oakland, CA. Images of Black people with weapons in public was viewed as dangerous, while a White person in the same stance would be accepted as a citizen’s right to bear arms. There is frequently a racial aspect to this issue as well as an urban/rural dimension. Witness the current standoff in Oregon as armed White farmers and ranchers are holding the federal government at bay and preventing an order to call off their protest on grazing policy. We wonder if the government response would be the same if the farmers and ranchers were non-White.

Violence is as American as apple pie, and regulating the purchase and use of firearms is necessary in a nation where there are as many guns as people. Regulating who can sell, purchase, and own guns with stiff penalties imposed is critical as the nation comes to grips with this matter. The Second Amendment was implemented in the 18th Century when a single-shot long rifle, complete with powder and musket ball, was the weapon of choice in basically a rural environment. The feature film The Revenant illustrates how essential that weapon was in extending the reach of Europeans over indigenous people. The right to bear arms did not anticipate modern devices with magazines containing multiple rounds that could rip off dozens of shots in seconds. To some of us in the MPCPMP, resistance to gun control is rooted in the long-standard perception of unfettered access to weapons by a protected class of people. Even as gun killings fill the daily news, as the profits of arms manufacturers continue to increase exponentially since the inauguration of a Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President, as campaigns against gun regulation are disparaged as unconstitutional, we wonder where the cries of “foul” come from. After all, in reality limits on guns are nothing new in this nation.

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Chipping Away

We have reached the final month of another year. For the past four years, ours has been a small attempt to redefine and expand the narrative of US American history to include Africans and their descendants as principal and crucial agents in the country’s creation. At times, many in fact, this work has been difficult. MPCPMP repeatedly has found itself in the position of explaining and justifying our mission to people who do not have a clue, who do not see the point, who have their own agendas, who feel threatened, or who are in “head in the sand” denial.

Fortunately, however, we continue also to find those who share our interest in presenting a more complete history of the United States. Recently at ASALH’s Annual Conference in Atlanta, we learned of Anne Farrow’s research of Connecticut’s human trade history (The Logbooks: Connecticut Slave Ships and Human Memory)and in September of this year Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s African American Trail sponsors contacted us requesting inclusion in the MPCPMP. Upon reflection, this helps balance the resistance we have faced. Also rewarding is the fact that people with whom we have worked for a couple of years turn around and “get it” — that the mission of MPCPMP is not about slavery; it is about honoring the enslaved – African men, women, and children, and their descendants who arrived on these shores, helped build the physical and economic foundation of this nation, and contributed to US values and culture.

To say the work is frustrating when we’re in the fray is to understate our experiences. Just this year we were challenged: “Who documented this? “But it was only one ship to this port!” “We can only allow members of the Judeo-Christian faiths to participate.” “Slavery wasn’t the same as in the South on plantations.” “What did Africans do here?” “Why can’t this be an exclusively Black event?” There is frequently the attempt to question our focus, purpose, historical accuracy, and approach — adamant at first and gradually less resistant as we explain the reasons for why we are committed to this mission.

During 2015, as we presented the Project in different venues, we came with a Power Point, one that illustrates how routinely Africans and their descendants have been omitted, limited, and defined almost exclusively by slavery in US history. Two national icons, including their historical background and relation to African Americans, are in the presentation – the Statue of Freedom on the Capitol dome and the Statue of Liberty. Ironically, they both represent national ideals so often denied legally and socially to Black people. A portion of our mandate is to chip away at the current prevailing practice of assigning insignificant and minor roles to non-Europeans in building this nation. We are determined to not repeat the wrongs perpetuated against Africans and their descendants over centuries. Instead of denial and exclusion, we encourage the participation of all people and all faiths in the ancestral remembrance ceremonies in which we are involved. We are focused on humanity, not exclusively Black people. A lot of healing has to take place.

I am reminded of Vincent Harding’s statement in Atlanta during an evening meal. He said that we had no idea how huge an undertaking this Project would be. That was three years ago, and how right he was. It has been encouraging that the spirits of ancestors have helped “make a way.” Somehow, in some fashion, through the efforts of many in the diaspora, half of the 42 US arrival sites have held remembrance ceremonies and some have installed public markers to commemorate the lives of Africans. As we forge ahead in 2016, another four or five Middle Passage ports will do the same, chipping away and mending the broken circle. Thank you for all your contributions that have made this possible. Even on a shoestring budget a lot has been accomplished. We look forward to your support and to completion by 2020.

Posted in African American History, ancestors, captured Africans, descendants of slaves, Middle Passage, slave ports, transatlantic slave trade | Comments Off on Chipping Away

Bubbling to the Surface – Coincidence?

Summer is cooling into recent memory, but an article in the New York Times Magazine by historian Douglas Egerton provided important background information on Emmanuel AME Church in North Charleston, SC, where nine people were murdered almost three months ago. This church’s history includes Denmark Vesey and the killing of SC state representative Reverend Benjamin Randolph during Reconstruction – both of whom challenged the status quo of slavery and white oppression, and paid with their lives. Professor Egerton reminds us that the date on which these horrific murders occurred in 2015, was the anniversary of Vesey’s unsuccessful uprising. Is it coincidental that Roof acted on this particular day and in this historic place? Probably not.

Murder, violence, in any venue is despicable. Many are outraged because it took place in a church, at a prayer meeting, in a place of worship. For them that was the last straw eliciting outrage and sympathetic response. There were others who indicated their disgust with an interview in SC when a Black person stated that Dylan Roof is forgiven. Roof’s supporters are paying into a defense fund. Around the country, especially in the South, there were rallies to support the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern heritage, while others demand that the stars and bars – a war flag of Virginia – be removed from all public grounds and buildings. Unfortunately in America violence is a powerful catalyst – at times it makes us “do right.” The human response is to strike back (fight), remove oneself (flight), or develop a strategy to make change – the 1960s Southern civil rights movement is a prime example. Our ancestors used all of the above at various points in this nation. Now we need to figure out what we are going to do.

For those of us working with the MPCPMP, it is another indication that history is important. The back story, the why, informs us. We need to make sense of what is happening today. Hatred and fear are fueling responses on both sides. That this should bubble to the surface repeatedly across the nation during the tenure of a Black president is not unexpected. An entire way of life is being challenged and the standard advice offered is to pray, to be patient, and to proceed within the boundaries of lawful activity. Someone asked is there a Mau Mau group in the U.S. In the direction we are heading that may be an eventuality. If systemic change cannot take place, peacefully or violently, within or outside of legal constraints, then the nation is doomed. For us to vent and then do nothing enables this hatred and viciousness to continue and spread. We have been basically spectators and observers, not actors. Each side will become more desperate unless we act for change that improves all of us – jobs, education, health care, and decent neighborhoods. We all know what is needed, yet we allow our politicians in Congress and others to posture, pontificate, and spout ideologies that restrict options to improve the country’s quality of life and extend social benefits to everyone. It is easier to dramatically address and spend resources on terrorists than infrastructure, jobs, and education. Simply listen as the various candidates ramp up for the 2016 election.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in his ruling on gay marriage and the civil rights of a specific group of citizens stated that slaves and people placed in internment camps during World Ware II are examples of persons who lost their liberty but not their dignity. He argues that it is inappropriate to assign to government the role of change agent. He went on to state that slaves did not lose their dignity or humanity because the government allowed them to be enslaved. WHAT! Who and what does he define as “government?” The Preamble of the Constitution clearly states, “We the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect union….” Let’s get to work, folks, and come as close to perfect as we can. Get the back story first and then get to stepping! “Coincidence” occurs when we don’t have the full picture. History will repeat itself. Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is detrimental to our very existence.

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Black Enslavement and Emancipation – How Long

In an address given on August 23, 2015, to an audience gathered at Faneuil Hall in Boston, Massachusetts, for an ancestral remembrance ceremony to commemorate enslaved Africans, Massachusetts State Representative Byron Rushing made a remark that struck a chord – that sanctioned enslavement existed in the United States over a longer period than there has been emancipation. In his speech, Rushing marked 1619 as the starting point, but to be accurate when referencing the United States of America we have to begin the timeline from 1513, with the arrival of the Spanish in Florida.

Institutional enslavement of Africans, slavery sanctioned by state and church, arrived on European ships and flourished for more than three centuries, from 1513 to 1865 (352 years), and it will not be until 2217 that national emancipation, which began in 1863, will equal that length of time. What does it mean when measured in time to be not even halfway into freedom and full citizenship for Black people? This prolonged history may explain the continued legacy of racism and prejudice, certainly, and the constant effort required to recognize and push against these vestiges of slavery that are experienced daily. To reverse the attitudes and habits that maintained this level of injustice and inhumanity will mean that each of us will have to raise our personal awareness of this history and its ramifications.

There are young people today who would state that they are not racist and that they are living in a post racial society. There are people who emphatically argue that in no way are they attached to or responsible for enslavement. If, as Ta Nehisi Coates and others contend, racism is part of the very fabric of our national identity, then reparation and healing will require more extensive methods than simply good intention and legislation. As a nation, we have to examine how we got here and where we want to go, especially with regard to economic, social, and cultural structures.

The nation is one year away from another presidential election, and already the candidate getting the most media attention is the one who espouses racist views. Little or no critical analysis is even taking place in the public forum, Many are actually enjoying the entertainment while others are disgusted. For the majority of US citizens there is a wait and see posture, as if someone, some external power force, will decide what the issues are and which candidates we should seriously consider. It is all too passive. There is a saying that all that is needed for evil to triumph is for us to do nothing. Nationally this appears to be the common stance.

It is inhuman that across this country Black and Brown lives continue to be endangered or unjustly ended, but once we understand that we are not that far removed from America’s history of enslavement, it is not surprising. The phrase “the struggle continues” is not a cliche. After all, not until 2217, if all remains the same, can our descendants draw a line in the sand and honestly declare that efforts to nationally repair and heal the wrongs resulting from Black enslavement have failed, because that is when the number of years Africans and their descendants were enslaved equals the number of years we have been free. Unfortunately, the nation may run out of time before that.

Where to start? Learn your national and local history. Visit the places where it all began. Over the next five years cities are celebrating their colonial “births,” and in each of these places Blacks made contributions – from the beginning. There are 41 documented African arrival sites in the United States from New Hampshire to Texas. Are the African presence and contributions publicly recognized; where and how are they acknowledged; and what is the general status of people of color in each of these places? That should at least point us in the general direction of how to proceed.








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If I am not who you say I am then you are not who you think you are.

Whenever observance for July 4th approaches, historical reflection is appropriate. This year, 2015, has been a time when chickens came home to roost. The racism and prejudice fostered in this nation for centuries have triggered events that we Americans are confronting and hopefully have the will to change.

Recently, on the suggestion of New Orleans National Park Service Superintendent Lance Hatten I read Soul by Soul by Walter Johnson (1999) which focuses primarily on African enslavement and the domestic human trade. Very clearly the author presented how enslavement functioned and how slavery created identity – white, black, inferior, superior, power, wealth – on not simply falsehoods but pure fantasy. Johnson writes that since its beginning, this nation has believed in a fantasy and developed laws, a culture, and institutions that supported and sustained it. Today we are not dealing with only the vestiges of illusion and self-deception but its legacy of privilege and disadvantage. We have to rethink who we are.

We are not referring to mythology, all nations have their heroes and usually they are based upon some portion of historical reality. This American fantasy of race and belief in the inferiority of non-white or non-European descended people was totally fabricated for purposes of sustaining human oppression and rationalizing territorial expansion. To heighten the issue is the contradiction perpetuated from the beginning of enslavement with the country’s stated ideals of each person’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Non-white people bought into these national ideals lock, stock, and barrel; and for good measure they added equality. This struggle has been ongoing for more than 450 years. Whether you mark the country’s beginning in 1513 (Spanish), in 1607 (English), or in 1776 (U.S.) the issue persists. Over a period of time by legalizing slavery and defining people as inferior and unequal to the power holders a fantasy, a political “Disney World,” was deliberately constructed. Inevitably fantasies, like sand castles, crumble. They cannot be permanent.

And so, this year the product of that racism resulted in multiple killings of Black people across the nation and the decision to remove the Confederate flag from government grounds. President Obama as a Black Man in the White House has elicited vitriolic response and irrational unprecedented disrespect from some citizens. These all are connected. The fantasy is very slowly being dismantled and discarded as we challenge ourselves to redefine who we are as a nation. The question is what do we see our selves becoming? Who are was as Americans? What ideals do we want to nurture? Change is never easy.

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense once hate is gone they will be forced to deal with pain.

The Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project has assumed the responsibility of physically marking the places in the United States where the price of this fantasy became the reality of captive Africans. This effort cannot be restricted to descendants of the enslaved because everyone was involved. It will take great effort to heal from this history.

The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.

The three quotes in bold italics in this post are by author James Baldwin.

Posted in African American History, African American literature, American legal system, American politics, ancestors, captured Africans, descendants of slaves, Slave economy, slavery, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Fantasy

Protest, Image, Black Struggle and Legacy

All black progress in the United States has begun with confrontation and resistance. This is a basic fact of American life and the only way to understand the current protest focused on police violence. As the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it in 1857, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress….  Power concedes nothing without demand.” Abraham Lincoln reluctantly abolished southern slavery to pressure the Confederacy at the height of the Civil War. The war itself- inevitable in my view of history leading up to it – resulted in a progressive, though limited and quickly destroyed, black empowerment in the South. It took almost 100 years to regain some of that lost ground, and constant struggle filled those one hundred years. President Lyndon Johnson and the U. S. Congress did not wake up one morning in 1964 and suddenly decide to outlaw segregation in public accommodations, or in 1965 to grant long-denied voting rights to black southerners. Johnson’s administration and the Congress were under pressure. Black protest in the streets and community organizations at the grassroots formed the largest part of that pressure.

Two entwined aspects of this history are relevant to any discussion of the anger and protests that have taken place on the streets of Baltimore and in other U.S. cities. Fear of black people and the manner in which this fear is embedded in U. S. culture is one aspect. This is not something new. Slave revolts accompanied slavery, and slaveholders lived in constant fear of them. Alongside the fear of the economic consequences if the slave system – the slaveocracy – was overthrown, there was fear that the rebellious slave would seek murderous revenge. Gun control laws were first born out of the fear of slave revolts (and Native American resistance to the seizure of their lands.)

Right at the beginning days of this nation, the idea of the dangerous Negro, the Negro with weapons, began shaping the culture of the country, manifesting concretely in various systemic ways – slave patrols and other forms of policing black people; law – federal law that made it illegal to assist runaway slaves, and after abolition, vagrancy laws that provided convict labor for farms and plantations. As part of that system, there was until the middle of the 20th century coordination between terrorists groups like the Ku Klu Klan, and sate and local government, especially coordination with “law enforcement” – county sheriff’s departments, state highway patrols and local police. The federal government deliberately chose to ignore this.

Crucially important to this systemic design was keeping black people out of the political process. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brook Taney made this clear ruling in 1857 that Dred Scott, an enslaved man who sued for his freedom after being taken by his “owner” to a free sate, must remain enslaved: If constitutional rights were given to black people, “it would give to persons of the negro race … the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects [the right] to hold public meetings upon political affairs and to keep and carry arms wherever they went … endangering the peace and safety of the state. Above all, to summarize the obvious, white power had to be protected. Black men, Taney went on to declare, “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

This leads directly to the other aspect found in the history and culture of black-white relations needing emphasis here; the blinkered view so many in the white majority have of black people and black life. In the South, where I worked in the 1960s as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) many whites thought blacks were satisfied with their status as second class citizens; that they were being stirred up into protest by “outside agitators.” The student sit-in movement is now celebrated as heroic, even noble in its nonviolent dignity, as are the Freedom Rides; but most of the country opposed them when they erupted and spread across the South. Nonviolent protest was often defined as assault and many saw these actions as part of a Communist conspiracy. If I had not worked in the South as a SNCC field secretary, I would be surprised at how rioting by a few in comparison to the number of protesters in the streets has come to define what took place in Baltimore.

And, finally, even in 1960s Mississippi where I worked, many whites felt as Thomas Jefferson did 200 years earlier, that black people were inferior to white people – their supposed inferiority the real reason they had been enslaved – that they therefore needed the guidance of white people.

There is a detail that I am not presenting here for lack of space. There are issues of class as well as issues of race at play. Police culture as it has evolved in the United States permits police violence with little penalty on police officers who choose to engage in it. The New York Daily News reported in December that of 179 people killed by on-duty police since 1999, just three officers were indicted; 86 percent of the victims were black or Hispanic. From June 2012 through April 2015, the Baltimore City Detention Center refused admittance to more the 2,600 people in police custody because of a variety of injuries, including fractured bones, facial trauma and hypertension. Of the detainees denied entry, 123 had visible head injuries.

And in some respects police brutality transcends race as is evident in the six officers charged with killing Freddie Gray. Race, however, is central in the national culture; always has been; why Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy are romanticized; “Dixie” is most often referred to affectionately; and why Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey and slave rebellions are ignored for the most part, or send shivers down the backs of whites who even know these names. There is no Spartacus in the romance of U. S. history. It is this legacy that we find ourselves confronted with in American life today.

Some of this has changed, of course. In law for the most part; we have a black president – progress directly related to southern struggle. My children and grandchildren have no experience with segregation and white supremacist terrorism as I experienced it. There are black faces in Hollywood and on television portraying more than stereotypes. Nonetheless, it is culture that in the final analysis defines a society and culture does not change as quickly as law and politics. Slavery was abolished, but white supremacy and white privilege continued to define the United States. It does so today.

What drove southern struggle a half century ago was a rough consensus around certain issues: gaining voting rights, ending segregation in public accommodations. Today in black communities much more divided by class there is clearly a rough consensus around the issue of police violence. This violence does not respect social status. Black parents educate their male children to this ugly reality: that one wrong move, one intonation questioning police authority, can get you killed. And the presumption will be that whatever happened was your fault. Author James Baldwin once pronounced, “To be a Negro and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”

So, although there has been a tremendous expansion of the black middle class, for what I estimate is the bottom quarter of the black community there is even more rage than when Baldwin uttered those words. And, more distance between those claiming black leadership and the people they purportedly lead. This huge question of meaningful leadership hovers over black life today in Baltimore and elsewhere.

In the final analysis, this raises the organizing question. The tradition that defines black struggle is the organizing tradition, a tradition much older than mass protest in public spaces. And it is this tradition that has always thrust forward the most effective black leadership, often an unexpected leadership. SNCC, the organization of which I was part in the 1960s emerged from protest but evolved into an organization of grass roots organizers. New groups, like #Black Lives Matter, that have emerged in protest against police violence face this same questions. The great lesson that emerges from the southern freedom movement that I was part of centers on a very specific challenge as relevant today as it was a half century ago or two centuries ago: As important as the challenges to white supremacy are, more important and what makes challenging white supremacy possible, are the challenges black people make to one another within the black community.

This post was written by Charles E. Cobb, Jr., Chair of MPCPMP‘s Advisory Board,  journalist, and author. His latest book published in June 2014 is This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible.

Posted in African American History, American legal system, American politics, slavery | Comments Off on Protest, Image, Black Struggle and Legacy

Symbolic Images

Among people who are part of the Western Hemisphere’s African Diaspora there are certain images that trigger a gut response – the Door of No  Return is one. Viewing a framed image of the ocean, many of us require no description or explanation. In some way we simply know, by instinct almost, that the image is a human memory of separation, departure, loss, immense suffering and sorrow. A raised fist at the Olympics or in Brazilian jewelry represents pride, achievement, and defiance. In the same way, Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project hopes that eventually its logo will be the symbol of ancestral arrival, the beginning of documented African Diaspora history in Europe and the Americas.

There is a theory that DNA transports memory of generational experiences. In a closing address at the conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of SNCC’s founding, scholar and song writer Bernice Reagon said there is a difference between knowledge and memory, but they both play a role in personal and group experience. DNA, we are told, carries both dormant and dominant traits of all persons with whom we are biologically related through 33 generations.

If the theory of memory is accurate then what a remarkable occurrence. It also would demonstrate genetic response and adaption that have no obviously plausible explanation. Base on this theory, those of us descended from captive and enslaved Africans may carry a latent memory of the Middle Passage, slavery, resistance, and survival within us. What does that mean for those of us living now? This is not some predetermined destination, but certainly may affect current behaviors and interpretations. Is this why there exits such fear, outrage, and anger among so many of us in this nation? Is that why we seek self-respect and affirmation so intensely? Is that why many of us pacify pain through drugs, food, material accumulation, even violence?

Those who accept this theory of memory state that a mother who experienced famine during pregnancy is more likely to give birth to a child who is obsessed with food. Those whose parents lived during the Great Depression buy in bulk, staving off “hard times.” The children of Holocaust survivors exhibit tendencies that reflect their parent’s history. This is an anecdotal tale, but true: during the 1960s a teenage boy in North Viet Nam wore his hat cocked at an angle distinct from all the other village children. It was revealed later that his father, who wore his military hat in this manner, had been a since departed French African soldier brought to Indo-China to quell resistance. It is a genetic “deja vu.” And why not? We consciously factor the good, bad, and ugly into our daily lives when making decisions and choices; perhaps these same factors from our past are in play as well.

Based upon this theory of memory, we need to actively learn and acknowledge our history. It is important and valuable. It is not necessary to dwell upon past negative experiences, but we can benefit from knowing a past in which ancestors had the ability to overcome and survive. It is a method of healing and being aware. If we are going to move forward in this nation the following steps must be taken:

  • Honor the past and ancestors
  • Identify the strengths that make survival and community possible
  • Know who you are
  • Acknowledge all the symbolic doors of African American history – departure, arrival, freedom
  • Examine your life
  •  Assume a level of responsibility for yourself and the environment

In doing these things deliberately and often we can cover a lot of ground and make life better. You carry much of the information and ability to do this within you, in your DNA. After all, we have walked through many doors.

Posted in African American History, African Diaspora, ancestors, descendants of slaves, Middle Passage, slavery, transatlantic slave trade | Comments Off on Symbolic Images

The Whole Truth: A Missed Opportunity

History is as much about what is omitted as what is included. This was seen recently, when Professor Henry Louis Gates and Ben Affleck faced a quandary and by all apparent measures failed to present a complete story. On Sunday, April 19, 2015, news broke that actor Ben Affleck requested a portion of his family’s story not be revealed in the PBS series, Finding Your Roots, aired in 2014. He asked that a slave-owning ancestor not be mentioned. After seeking advice and grappling with whether to censor the information, Professor Gates decided to focus on what he said were “the most interesting aspects” of Affleck’s ancestry, highlighting an occultist relative instead of the slave-owning one.

Unfortunately, it also demonstrates how public information is selected. Megastars, celebrities, the rich and powerful, and those who identify with them often have a vested interest in presenting a certain perspective. Many of us would have found it interesting to know who this slave-owning ancestor was. This perhaps would have been a means of illustrating how pervasive and commonplace slavery was throughout the United States. The information also could reinforce the need for reconciliation in addressing this nation’s history of racism and oppression. If it had been disclosed, it would have illustrated that skeletons exist in everyone’s family closet. That opportunity for the humanitarian Affleck, founder of the Eastern Congo Initiative that raises awareness of the abuse of women and children resulting from on-going conflict in that region of Africa, has been diminished because he was embarrassed. His knee jerk reaction was to omit and continue to cover up the truth.

The issue is even more serious for Professor Gates, an academic. He is well aware of his “dilemma.” His integrity is on the line now because of a bad decision. It would have been better to simply leave Affleck’s family out of the series, but possibly an instinct for showmanship overran all Gates’ other considerations. Using Ken Burns, Anderson Cooper, and Reba McEntire as examples of other guests who had no problems disclosing their onerous family histories regarding slavery will not negate this poor choice. As a student of American history and a Black man, Gates forgot that not only do you have to be twice as good, but also you never give people the ammunition with which to question your actions. How can an esteemed academic justify this? We realize that in the past some Harvard scholars have determined what will be included or omitted in the historical narrative (e.g., Thomas Jefferson’s treatment of enslaved children) but hoped that practice was in disrepute. It is not the task of scholars to uphold anyone’s character at the expense of not telling the whole truth.

In the end, gentlemen, was it worth it?

Posted in African American History, ancestors, slavery | Comments Off on The Whole Truth: A Missed Opportunity