Tag Archives: history

Thanks, Booker T., for Red Tails

Booker T. Washington flexing with his distinguished friends, including the President of Harvard University at far right.

I purchased my ticket to see Red Tails yesterday! It’s the story of the first Black pilots to fly under the banner of the U.S. armed forces. They were the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477 Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps, and they served in a segregated U.S. Army during World War II. They trained at my and my father’s alma mater, Tuskegee Institute, right on Moton Field. They were known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Or like that proud, awestruck Black man working on the chain gang says in the HBO original movie, The Tuskegee Airmen, “they’s colored flyers…”

The tiny act of typing that last paragraph gave me goosebumps, as I’m a very proud Tuskegee University alumna. The mainstream release of the Tuskegee Airmen story recalls the roles Tuskegee University (then Tuskegee Institute), and its founder, Booker T. Washington, played in America at the turn of the 20th century.

And it recalls the debate about Booker T. Washington in which I find myself engaged at least every couple of years. Was Washington’s accommodationism, given the social, political, and cultural environment in which he thrived – the deeply segregated Deep South – really detrimental to Black social progress? I mean, did he even have any other choice?

Booker T. Washington has been excoriated for his philosophy on Black mobility, and his remarks given at The Cotton States and International Exposition held in Atlanta, Georgia in 1895, before a predominantly white audience. It’s a complicated address – a delicate balance between uplifting southern Blacks, but it is also careful not to be so aspirational as to inconvenience and discomfort southern whites. The following passage, for example, works hard to convey that Black folks shol’ ‘preciated whatever olive branches had been extended their way by good white folks. Washington coos:

I but convey to you, Mr. President and Directors, the sentiment of the masses of my race when I say that in no way have the value and manhood of the American Negro been more fittingly and generously recognized than by the managers of this magnificent Exposition at every stage of its progress. It is a recognition that will do more to cement the friendship of the two races than any occurrence since the dawn of our freedom.

Ol’ Booker laid it on thick; Washington either had the optimism of a man who had seen hide nor hair of racism before, or he was an astute politician greasing the necessary wheels and stroking the necessary egos to build the “Tuskegee Machine.” Washington goes on to say, “Ignorant and inexperienced, it is not strange that in the first years of our new life we began at the top instead of at the bottom…” Jay-Z echoes a similar sentiment in contemporary terms on 99 Problems:

…if you grew up with holes in your zapatos/you’ll celebrate the minute you was having dough. Or the freedom to taste a little bit of power, in BTW’s view.

To be sure, aint nothing wrong with being at the bottom and wanting to rush to the top when opportunity presents itself. The culture of the south in the late 1800s, however, was one hardly supportive of the lofty ambitions of a group so historically maligned, whose potential for greatness was so casually dismissed. To that end, Washington offered the following proscription against looking beyond one’s own hand for help: Cast down your buckets where you are.

Furthermore, he advises,

To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition … I would say: “Cast down your bucket where you are”— cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded…To those of the white race … were I permitted I would repeat what I say to my own race, Cast down your bucket among these people who have, without strikes and labour wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests, builded your railroads and cities, and brought forth treasures from the bowels of the earth, and helped make possible this magnificent representation of the progress of the South.

I admit it’s a complicated idea to grasp. He asks that we put aside our differences, thus ensuring our mutual economic benefit, to wit “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” White people weren’t trying to kick it with us in shared space; integration wasn’t some shit they were trying to hear. Washington’s approach is this: Dear Mr. Charlie, you don’t have to like us, but you’ll respect our ability to cooperatively make money. And also: Dear brothers and sisters, there is infinite honor and infinite power in earning the money you spend – on your own terms. He notes that:

It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.

Washington spoke of economic self-determination for Black Americans. And he spoke to white Americans in terms they could understand and process — economic power. Supporting the prosperity of Black Americans didn’t only benefit Black Americans. Our fates were intertwined.

Washington wasn’t opposed to social and political progress on its face. Rather, he saw economic prosperity as the first step in the march toward equality. And that’s really not all that inflammatory an approach. Would it work for all time? Absolutely not. However, Washington’s efforts, his accommodation at that time and in that place, created a powerful network of educators, entrepreneurs, and political and community leaders whose contributions to American history would last well beyond him ingratiating Jim Crow. What’s that adage about teaching a man to fish?

But what do I know? I’m just a girl who loves her Crimson and Old Gold.

Support the legacy.

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History Lessons

I’ve been off the grid a bit lately, as a sista needs to be Dr. Moniquealicia sooner rather than later.  To that end, I’ve been diligently studying for my comprehensive exams — reading and re-reading the philosphies that were critical to the creation of the United States, and its government.

There are a couple of things that stand out:

1.  In my adult life, I’ve been ambivalent about the place America holds in the annals of world history.  At worst, I’ve been completely resistant to the idea that the United States of America is “the greatest idea in the last 500 years” — I saw an author discussing this concept a couple of years ago, and I immediately balked at the audacity of such an assertion.  The United States?  With all its issues?  Nah.

And then I gave heed to my favorite anecdote:  I shan’t throw the baby out with the bath water.  In time, I began to see the United States for what it was on paper, and how it has endeavored to bring idealism into fruition.  And ol’ Mo got all soffe on the U.S. of A.

On that freezing Inauguration Day, January 20, 2009, I definitely grabbed one of those little American flags and walked around with it shamelessly.  I bought hook, line, and sinker Barack Obama’s common refrain, “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”  It’s all the more impressive, however, given United States history, that Barack Hussein Obama’s story did happen.  You may fault or credit (depending on your politics) white guilt, the on again/off again romance shared between young people and politics,  or the sheer absurdity of Black people during the ’08 campaign (My President is Black/My Lambo’s blue, and I’ll be gotdamn if my rims aint too… #sigh).  Invariably, no matter your opinions about why Obama happened, the fact remains that the free and fair election of Barack Hussein Obama did happen.  And in the grand scheme of things, it was pretty cool and I was pretty proud to be American on Election and Inauguration Day.

However, what’s happened in the wake of Obama’s election is made clearer to me by way of a little Constitutional and Founding Fathers context.  Which brings me to…

2.  I believe the debates, disagreements, and compromises which preceded the creation of the Constitution are the scabs we continue to pick at.  Central government vs. state’s rights, Republican vs. Democratic representation, to address or ignore the slavery problem, and indeed the Black problem.  What are the authorities and limitations of the separation of powers?  What about the strength and influence of factions, and the rationales behind political ideologies that are led either by cooperation or individualism — public vs. private?

For example, during the Federal Convention of 1787, the Framers debated who should elect the national Executive (the President).  Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts proposed that the national executive should be a single person chosen by the national legislature.  New York’s Gouverneur Morris disagreed, stating that the “public at large” should have the last say.  It was Roger Sherman (of the Sherman/Connecticut Compromise, responsible for the bicameral U.S. legislature) who charged that the sense of the nation would be better expressed by the legislature because the people at large would never be sufficiently informed enough to make a wise decision.

The people would never be sufficiently informed.  One could get all up in arms over Sherman’s lack of faith in our political aptitude.  But would one really be just in doing so?  I bet if you took a poll of average cats on the street, 3 in 5 couldn’t tell you who is Secretary of State, or the name of one of their state’s Senators, or the names of the candidates running for President in 2012.  I’m not judging the average cat, as life requires us to multitask, and knowing who Rick Santorum is simply doesn’t put food on your table or coins in your pocket.  Thus, being politically astute isn’t at the top of our task lists.  To be sure, there’s no shame in not knowing.  But not knowing and waltzing your ignorant ass into a voting booth and picking the guy with the most interesting name is a problem.  And Americans are audacious like that.  We don’t have to know, yet we feel entitled still to our say.

And finally,

3.  The state’s rights/slavery issue remains a hot one in American political life.  However, it’s a little different now.  The Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson debates hinged on how the governed should be governed, and on Jefferson’s insistence that the common man (agrarians — farmers, the middle- and lower-middle class) refused to be ruled by aristocratic, oligarchic  government in America too.  The colonists wouldn’t win the American Revolution only to be subjected to the American version of British authority.

The Anti-Federalists had legitimate concerns about the Constitution and the prospect of national power being concentrated in the financial and industrial centers in the northeast.  However, what undercuts their argument and also undercuts the nobility of the Founding Fathers’ intentions is their disservice to the issue of slavery.  Staughton Lynd said that in time, slavery will be recognized as “one of the two or three distinctive themes of the American experience.”  Indeed, the Framers knew better; they knew it was impossible to juxtapose the institution of slavery with the Lockean concepts of natural rights and revolution.  So they looked the other way, unwilling and incapable of reconciling slavery with their “ingrained capitalistic attitudes.”  In other words, there was money to be made and the inhumanity of slavery hadn’t yet pierced the framers’ consciences enough to choose doing the right thing over stacking paper.  Does this concept sound familiar in any way?  Because it should.

Governing within the ever-present specter of competing interests, and the pursuit of capital and prosperity has been a feature of American politics since the beginning.  It’s been interesting to see how these matters played out over the centuries, and how politicians have re-worked the Framers’ intentions to suit their contemporaneous political needs.  Folks are gleefully inclined to hearkening back to the days of yore, misunderstanding and misinterpreting the Constitution and the contexts within which decisions were made.  For example, modern state’s rights conservatives aren’t echoing the same sentiments the Jeffersonian state’s rights crowd did in the 18th century.  The former feels less noble, more insidious, and more divisive.  They are the SAY NO TO GOVERNMENT crowd…unless, of course, government is handing out checks to stimulate growth in a local economy, or to clean up natural disasters.  In those cases, the state has the “right” pick and choose when they say no to government.

In sum, suffice it to say that American history lives and breathes and creeps up on us more frequently than we realize.  Perhaps our lawmakers would be well-served by revisiting it from time to time, instead of making shit up as they go along.


Canonizing Reagan

30 years later, still on this cowboy shit.

He was John Wayne and Ward Cleaver all rolled into one.  He was a nod to the romanticized American past — that era where you had a milkman, and your wife’s only job was taking care of your shit — your dinner, your house, your children.  It was the era where sharing a milkshake with two straws was almost second base and kissing on the 12th date meant you were probably easy — not the type to take home.  It was where wearing black made you seem edgy.  And, well, being black was neither here nor there.  (They didn’t have no power no way)  The image of Ronald Reagan reminded you that your country had prevailed in the second World War, that it saved millions of people and it did away with an evil never before seen.  Well, since slavery, maybe.  …Maybe.  Because you don’t really do revisiting that part of American history. You were American — leader of the free world, denizen of the greatest, most powerful nation on Earth.

Reagan’s persona reminded you that when everywhere else in the world that “mattered” to a capitalist lay in rubble and shame after World War II, your country emerged with moral and economic wind in its sails.  It was empirical and without question.  You were American — exceptional and entitled.  To whatever you wanted.  To address, and to ignore.  To write and reframe the narrative however you choose.

I get it though.  The passage of time can blur certain details.  I suppose the  absence of those “details” are what make the good old days “good”.  So yeah, sure, put Ronny’s face on my dollar bill.  It is a dollar after-all — and I’m a big picture kind of girl.


Conflicted

So I went to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History yesterday. I was genuinely excited when I visited the East Wing of the 1st floor and saw a timeline of American transportation: an old Chicago El; the Honda Civic that emerged as Japan’s answer to the oil and gas crisis, etc. I saw the lineage of invention in Edison’s light bulb (and found that I wasn’t so interested in that — spent about two minutes in there… I don’t do filaments and various light bulb jargon). Admittedly, I was completely surprised by the unfamiliar feeling of patriotism I felt when upon walking through the Star Spangled Banner section. Something about seeing that big ass flag that was raised at the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812, inspiring Francis Scott Key to pen the lyrics to the song that gives me chills to this day when I hear Whitney Houston belting it out just before the start of Super Bowl XXV.

I got misty-eyed;  I did. I thought about the courage and foresight it took for those men to imagine and embark upon an idea as remarkable as the United States of America — undoubtedly guilty of its sins, but still, an unprecedented idea and unlikely reality.

Still…

In that relatively dark tunnel, illuminated only by the modest light granting due and proper reverence to that flag, I experienced the moment of demarcation that happens, I think, to many folks who look like me. There’s a moment when you buy into it all…you’re no different, all of this America stuff rightfully applies to you too.  Profound nationalism filled my chest and threatened to spill out as tears of pure American pride.

And then I began to really read the various placards which provided the back story. Mary Pickersgill, with the help of her ‘African American indentured servant’, her daughter, niece, and a friend sewed the Star-Spangled Banner. Four words changed the entire experience for me:  African American Indentured Servant. In these halls, in all of this splendor, with all of this talk of freedom and revolution and rights and independence, my people were, in the best case, African American Indentured Servants. Now, just because, I feel it necessary to mention that I don’t mean ‘my people’ in that, ‘say, my bruthaaah, the man had had me and my people incarcerated’ kind of way.  Instead, quite possibly and quite literally, I mean my ancestors — my great great grandparents. I’m from Alabama, man.

What I’m getting at here, I realized in that moment: Black people do not exist in the annals American history apart from their relationship to slavery. But more than that, ‘African Americans’ did not even exist at the time.  To be sure, many Blacks were born on American soil, but this was 1814. Citizenship wouldn’t come for another 54 years; another half a century. Plus four. That’s a long time to be plowing fields and cultivating the Southern economy, waiting for your ‘papers’ to come through. Really, I don’t mean to harp on this stuff. I really don’t, but there should be some acknowledgement of how far my people have come — some acknowledgement that is not in February or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, or retroactively celebrated on Barack Obama’s election and inauguration days. In all the National Museum of American History’s nostalgic celebrations of American pride, Blacks, inextricably bound to the very beginnings, exist merely as slaves. I say merely purposefully because, to see this the way I do, slavery is Black America’s only contribution to America until Barack Obama addressed the DNC in 2004.

Ok.  So, what did slaves contribute to the United States? What did Booker T. Washington contribute? Miles Davis, Madame C.J. Walker, Colonels Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. and Jr., Mary McLeod Bethune, George Washington Carver, Jackie Robinson, Henrietta Lacks, John Hope Franklin, Dorothy Dandridge, W. E. B. Du Bois? Surely, something about any one of the men and women previously mentioned, and the hundreds that I failed to mention, deserves some acknowledgement at the National Museum of American History.  No?

What troubled me further was that, at this point, I believe we take this matter for granted. Blacks were slaves, Lincoln graciously freed them, MLK got them to right to vote, they’re still mad because they were slaves…blah, blah, blah. But think about this. I mean really think about it: I saw a narrative from a slave woman that read something like, “they be married in the mornin. Wife be sold by night.” I could try tugging at your heartstrings by recounting this history you’ve likely heard a hundred times, though I’m not sure how much that would matter because I believe we are so far removed mentally. As I stood in a corridor enshrining the Civil War, I stared at Lincoln’s stern, emotionless face, and at Frederick Douglass’s, and at some hapless slave’s, I absorbed the brevity of this period in American history. The South willingly tore this nation a part to preserve its way of life, its economy. And by economy,  I mean Black people.

As I absorbed all of this, and the nascent beginnings of this blog congealed into cogent thoughts and rising levels of anger and sadness, two women gathered behind me. Me. A Black woman in the Civil War section of the National American History museum. They began loudly discussing purchasing dog tags — where to buy them; how many should they buy; who has what kind already. The conclusion to my swimming thoughts was manifest in the women behind me: The struggle is well-documented, but it is an afterthought. We are an afterthought.

For the record, these musings are not meant to America-bash. Instead, I am recounting to you what I felt yesterday, what I feel everyday when I really allow my mind to play this thing out. Each time, I come away knowing that Black Americans were dealt a very, very, very short hand. Yet, I do not diminish the remarkable progress we have made over the years. It is a testament to the promise of America, to the notion that when America lives out its ideals, we all benefit.

Still…

Black American history is American history too. Slavery was neither the beginning nor the end of our story, and its time we rightfully acknowledge that.