by Wanda Sabir, Arts and Culture Editor
Each February we get to think about Black people. Yep. At this time, the term reverse racism or self-indulgence disappear overnight. BLM, shorthand for Black Lives Matter, is topical for this brief and short month. Thankful for a national nod in our direction, the children of the formerly enslaved cram as much of their lives into these 28-29 days because on March 1, the dominant narrative gets taken off pause.
While Black History Month is not passé, the need to have such a month should be. Why are Americans unfamiliar with any history that does not support superiority of the ruling class? Even if its population is shrinking, the dominant culture which traces its lineage to European ancestry controls publishing, media and government – that is, information and its dispersal. Crumbs from the master’s table form the line to the guillotine, yet most birds are still pecking away.
We even had a mulatto president – what did that change for Black people in America? Zero. Our self-esteem went up; however, self-esteem doesn’t spend or accrue interest.
Blackness is not monetized unless it is repackaged and marketed via a camouflaged lens. Whiteness sells; Blackness does not, unless the product is a negative idea. How many reformed Black men does it take to make guilty liberals feel better? How many posters of “returned citizens” does it take for the judicial system to get a pass for massive indiscretion?
Crumbs from the master’s table form the line to the guillotine, yet most birds are still pecking away.
Jim Crow exists. Michelle Alexander calls it “new” because of the 21st century repackaging, but nothing is new. In fact, the current systemic incarceration of women specifically looks more like chattel slavery when women’s bodies belonged to the state which could rape, mutilate and breed without consequence.
It still happens. The state of California was sued for its involuntary sterilization policies on women prisoners – as if losing one’s reproductive function was somehow connected to safety. As if a woman who could no longer bear a child was less likely to bring another “criminal” into the world.
OK, so back to Black history. Since the narrative is controlled by the government, the safe “stories” are sanitized versions of Dr. King, Harriet Tubman-Ross, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Mary McLeod Bethune, James Weldon Johnson, Maya Angelou – maybe. But the radical Africans, like Malcolm X, the honorable Marcus Garvey, Sojourner Truth and Delilah Beasley and other regional agitators are less known.
How is it possible that someone could not know Ms. Ella Baker if they know Mrs. Rosa Parks? If someone knows Thurgood Marshall, how could a person not know Dred Scott?
Why aren’t Black Americans studying the slave revolts – all of them, not just Nat Turner’s? Why don’t more Americans know the story of the first Africans to be traded for provision in 1619 at what is now Ft. Monroe National Monument?
For that matter, why don’t Bay Area residents know that over 400 Buffalo Soldiers are interred at the Presidio? There are no monuments to their bravery and heroism; however, there is a small gallery at one of the lighthouses.
One would think such study is unnecessary, yet in a conversation with the honorable Rep. Barbara Lee early January, a KQED radio host of a new podcast expressed surprise at the extent municipalities would go to disenfranchise African American voters. When she heard the questions registrants were told to answer, like “How many jelly beans are in this jar?” or what’s so and so president’s middle name or recite the Declaration of Independence backward, she wondered, like most of us do, how in the heck these now ancestors persevered.
It’s not that California made the subsequent gene pool softer, it’s just that those of us from the South – Congresswoman Lee, from Texas, and I, from New Orleans, La. – we had grandparents or parents who lived this humiliating experience.
Yet, they were not humiliated. Ms. Fannie Lou Hamer lost her housing when she signed up to vote. She couch-surfed for weeks and months until she found shelter. Her husband lost his housing too and he left her. He wanted no part of the voting. He was an ideological twin to Gen. Harriett Tubman-Ross’s husband, who wouldn’t leave the plantation when she went to show him the way to freedom.
Yes, this our country, with hidden contingency clauses.
Adam David Miller (A.D.) learned this when he innocently typed a note to a girl he was interested in. The note was intercepted by a woman at the store where the girl worked, and he was arrested and put in the city jail. His mother and other older adults couldn’t understand what he was thinking. The sheriff asked if he intended to rape the girl and if he’d been involved with the girl.
He stopped eating, and the sheriff, who’d known him all his life, thought the kid might die on his watch. A.D. had been saving money to buy his mother a lot to build a house. Systemic poverty haunted this man-child, and hunger – not unlike Richard Wright’s incessant appetite for truth as well as viands – marked his early life.
A.D. was given a “ticket to exile” – which is also the title of his 2007 memoir – and as he read the note with instructions on how to find his sister in New York, kind Christian couples and single older women on the bus then train helped him navigate the newness of city life. He realized that his home was gone forever. This ticket into exile was a ticket into erasure. It was a rite of passage, yet not a righteous passage.
A.D. thought he was free; however, as he watched Black passengers move from the back of the bus to the front once they crossed the Mason Dixon line and then reverse, he began to understand his “place,” something no one had explained to him while in Orangeburg, S.C. The A.D. we meet constantly pushed the line – the “colored only” expectations line.
“My relief at being released quickly vanished. I was not being taken out to go home. I could not go home. ‘Too dangerous.’”
He successfully stretched rubber bands, binding tenuous relationships, whether this was in friendship or employment – except this last time when he crossed an impasse. He could not retreat, he was banished; however, he was lucky, because others who dared question this reality were killed.
A.D. writes of this time: “My relief at being released quickly vanished. I was not being taken out to go home. I could not go home. ‘Too dangerous.’ What was dangerous about it? I saw myself walking down the streets, riding my bicycle, working in the shop, doing pretty much as I had always done … All the way to Grandma’s farm, my mind fought against accepting the extremity of my predicament. My situation was dire but there was no place in my mind to receive it. It simply would not register. I could not go home and I had no idea when I could” (Ticket to Exile, p. 224).
He was ferried to his grandmother’s in his attorney’s car. She – androgynous, so light-skinned she could be white if she chose to, her companion also lighter hued – hid A.D. under a blanket. While happy to be home, his homeland where there was no hunger, stomach and soul nourished by blood memories, the ticket finally arrived. His indiscretion – no sin – had far reaching consequences.
“[I] had thrown at them the ultimate rejection. Or so [his Aunt Maude and mother] reasoned. ‘You don’t understand the fitness of things,’ There was no way to make it up, there was no way to take it back. My act was irretrievable. Its effects cursed as unfit. I could never be right again” (p. 223).
We honor A.D. (1922-2020), whom we met in exile, at the crossroads where he built a house. Baba A.D. (Esu) was a master teacher, a phenomenal writer and a man I wish I’d had an opportunity to get to know better, but thanks to his collected works on pages and carved into cement, we have an opportunity to learn more. He attended the poetry celebration on the centennial of Langston Hughes’s birthday, Feb. 1, 2002.
We salute A.D. at the 31st Annual Celebration of African American Poets and their Poetry, Saturday, Feb. 6, 1-4:30 p.m. It will be a virtual event guests can screen live through https://www.facebook.com/wandaspicks. We will also honor QR Hand (1937-2020), another revolutionary poet, whose passage Dec. 31 was met with sadness and surprise. Friends and relatives will join us this year to honor both men as we also celebrate the ASAHL theme: The Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity.
The Association for the Study of African American Life and History is the organization Dr. Carter G. Woodson founded in 1915. He is also the founder of Negro History Week, which included Frederick Douglass’s birthday on Feb. 14 and President Lincoln’s on Feb. 12. NHW is now African American History Month. In 1976, President Gerald Ford made Black History Month, on its 50th anniversary, a nationally recognized observance.
“But one thing is certain: / If we merge mercy with might, / and might with right, / then love becomes our legacy.”
Although we have a mixed-race vice president now, I see the outcome differently than the previous scenario. One could say there has been a rehearsal and Biden with Harris has an opportunity to get it right this time. It is not often that one gets to run the playbook twice.
VP Kamala Harris didn’t dream about who she was and stumble into consciousness via a book – OK, Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright tried. President Obama writes that he read, as a teenager growing up in Hawaii, African-American writers James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes; however, it was El Hajj Malik El Shabazz who helped the half-caste black boy, Barry, raised by white grandparents to construct a personality or personhood that fit what others saw when they looked at him (85-86). Within El Hajj Malik’s story, the youngster saw himself for the first time.
Obama says in “Dreams of My Father” that Malcolm X’s “repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will” (p. 86).
The former president learned with each gray strand how vehement and racially stratified the attitudes girding this nation are; however, as Amanda Gorman, 22 years old, says in her inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb”:
“(B)eing American is more than a pride we inherit / it’s the past we step into / and how we repair it / We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation / rather than share it / Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy / And this effort very nearly succeeded / But while democracy can be periodically delayed / it can never be permanently defeated / In this truth / in this faith we trust / For while we have our eyes on the future / history has its eyes on us / This is the era of just redemption / We feared at its inception / We did not feel prepared to be the heirs / of such a terrifying hour / but within it we found the power / to author a new chapter / To offer hope and laughter to ourselves / So while once we asked,/ how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe? / Now we assert / How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us? / We will not march back to what was / but move to what shall be / A country that is bruised but whole / benevolent but bold / fierce and free / We will not be turned around / or interrupted by intimidation / because we know our inaction and inertia / will be the inheritance of the next generation / Our blunders become their burdens / But one thing is certain: / If we merge mercy with might, / and might with right, / then love becomes our legacy.”
Vice President Harris, a woman and a later generation, was intentionally groomed and then polished, her initiation carefully crafted as she stepped from Berkeley to DC, back to San Francisco Bay and then as senator. She enrolled in a citadel of Black History: Howard University. Her predecessors include Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), E. Franklin Frazier, Melba Roy Mouton, Mamie Clark, Frances Cress Welsing, Vernon Jordan, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Thurgood Marshall, L. Douglas Wilder and Andrew Young.
I am confident she and the new president have between them the experience and wherewithal to live up to our expectations and more. Let’s hold this new administration to it. Now is not the time to sit down. Follow Rev. Dr. William Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis’s Poor People’s Movement and their “14 Policy Priorities to the US Congress and Biden for the First 100 Days” to promote healing for the nation.
Feb. 28 – March 14, 2021
Pan African Film & Arts Festival in Los Angeles will be virtual! “Experience America’s largest and most prestigious Black film festival safely from the comfort of your home.”
Bay View Arts and Culture Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.