Saturday, 16 June 2012

Week 2: All in this Together

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the critically acclaimed Chicago Blues Festival, with a new friend, for the sake of anonymity, let us call her Roxanne. The festival was pretty amazing, it brought back memories of my mother and her sisters staying up late, drinking and dancing to Peggy Scott Adams, Johnnie Taylor and Clarence Carter records. To watch the musicians, with the Chicago skyline as a backdrop, and all of the delicious smells from the food vendors, made for a rather splendid Saturday afternoon. 

Roxanne, and I spent a lot of time talking about our observations of black folks in the city and sharing our ideas about how to make it a better place. The topics ranged from improving media images of black women to validating the experiences of people from black neighborhoods. Roxanne was explaining her view that all of the answers lie in Africa and if African Americans acknowledge their connection to this culture, and hold white Americans responsible, we can begin to heal from the trauma was chattel slavery. Roxanne had plenty of examples and tangential ideas to illustrate her point, and while I could not subscribe to her ideology, I could not stop thinking about it or talking to my friends and family about it. 

When I listened to Dr. Reed’s lecture this week about “African Americans in the New Nation” and he posed the question, at what point does an African become an African American. Last week, our lecture was about the incredible civilizations that thrived in Africa for thousands of years and then moved on to how the increased exposure to other nations led to the exploitation and eventual enslavement of the African people. Even after the Middle Passage, the slaves were still African; they spoke different languages, had their own cultural rituals and probably did not understand the full gravity of what was happening to them. By the time these slaves had children, and their children had children, African traditions are passed down but are not as prevalent as the assimilating behaviors that were necessary for survival throughout the 17th through 20th century. 

 This spoke directly to Roxanne’s hypothesis and my burgeoning, yet contradictory framework that African Americans are something else, not quite American and not quite African. While the circumstances that brought black people to this country were atrocious, it created a situation where the white American is inextricably tied biologically, psychologically and socially to the black American.

As of today, I have listened, in depth, to the interviews of five amazing HistoryMakers, six if you count watching “An Evening with Diahann Carroll” on DVD. Every single one of them, regardless of where they grew up experienced racism in some form. Keeping in mind that there is great wisdom to be gained by people who have been on this Earth for so long, none of them harbored hatred or bitterness towards all white people. Sometimes history and our own short sightedness can make us believe in stereotypes and perpetuate an “us” vs. “them” mentality, the richness of these interviews proves that simply was not the case, it was more complex. 

For example, Lillie Mae Wesley, a CivicMaker from Texarkana (TX), reveals that her paternal grandfather was a white man that she used to call Papa George. Papa George looked out for her and her siblings and was good to her father, as far she knew. In her interview, she said that there were white folks that were hateful but others were kind and would help you out if they could. Walter Gordon, a LawMaker from Los Angeles (CA) said that he was told to have an eye for kindness and an eye for prejudice when he was dealing with white people, and he should behave according to what he “saw”, he claims it made him a better person, more able to thrive in diverse environments. Diahann Carroll had two public relationships with white men, David Frost and Monte Kay, and her career exemplifies the need to communicate and express ourselves outside of ill-conceived racial labels.

 My conclusion is that getting at the truth of American history takes an open mind and a lot of hard work, not unlike the HistoryMakers fellowship. I’m still working on my understanding of how or why we are all connected but talking and reading about it is definitely making me think about ideas that I have not considered before. I suppose anything worthwhile begins with a thought…..

This week at TheHistoryMakers we spent most of the time working on finding aids. My interviews were John Hope Bryant, an entrepreneur from Los Angeles, Lillie Mae Wesley, a community activist from Texarkana, TX, and Walter L. Gordon, a lawyer from Los Angeles. We also traveled to the Carter G. Woodson Library to visit with the archivist at the Vivian G. Harsh Collection, Beverly Cook. Dr. Reed’s history lecture was about the American Revolution and the emergence of the Cotton Kingdom. We were introduced to Dr. Cecelia Salvatore from Dominican University and she discussed Library of Congress Subject Headings with us.      

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