Category: Race

One Size Fits All

 

It doesn't happen very often that I think the New York Daily News provides an important contribution to the national dialogue but this cover does exactly that. (Please take a moment to look.) Creating an explicit connection between Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till, Michael Donald, Yusef Hawkins and others puts race in the forefront of this situation. Right where it should be. 

 

As hard as it is for some of us to acknowledge, race is the defining element of the Trayvon Martin story. It was race that created the initial decision of George Zimmerman to find Trayvon suspicious and it's race that deeply animated the actions of the police, the broader community, the attorneys on both sides and probably even the jury.

 

In one sense, this is perfectly clear. Tall, skinny White teenagers like my son just don't frighten grown men. Tall, skinny Black teenagers like Trayvon do. Enough so, that millions of Americans seem to have decided that George Zimmerman undertook reasonable actions throughout his confrontation with Trayvon. 

 

This reality is heartbreaking but not shocking. Not when we take a moment to recognize just how deeply feared and mistrusted Blacks (particularly men) are in our country. That fear and mistrust is why Trayvon is dead and Zimmerman is a free man. It's also why Emmett Till, Michael Griffith, Sean Bell and so many others fit into that hoodie on the cover of the Daily News. For millions of Americans, it fits us all. 

 

 

FDO 

 

 

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February 22 Booker T. Washington

 

This Black History Month I’m Grateful for Booker T.
Washington

 

 

“No race can prosper until it learns that there is as much
dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.”

 

-Booker T. Washington

 

 

Booker T. Washington is a complicated and towering figure in
the history of Black America. Although Washington was born a slave, he died as
the most prominent Black person in America. In the interim, he created a
previously unmatched legacy of accomplishment.

 

 

Washington is most closely associated with Tuskegee
Institute, the school he led from its inception until his death. Tuskegee is
located in the deep southern state of Alabama and continues to exist as an Historically
Black College (HBCU). Founded in the Jim Crow era, Tuskegee specialized in
skilled labor training (a fact that eventually drew the ire of people like WEB
DuBois
who wanted Blacks to explore the liberal arts) in an attempt to make
Blacks more economically valuable. The school eventually became one of America’s
pre-eminent Black colleges. Washington himself was a graduate of Hampton
Institute, another HBCU, where he was trained as a teacher. Washington’s career
served as a model for many Blacks as he transitioned from poverty to Tuskegee.

 

 

The most significant public moment of Washington’s career
was 1895’s Atlanta Address. In this speech, Washington seemed to accept Jim Crow
segregation policies and restrictions on voting as long as Blacks were granted
a measure of economic and educational opportunity. Washington was challenged by
DuBois and others who wanted to press for increased social justice but
Washington seemed convinced that Black safety was in constant jeopardy as seen
by the dramatic rise of the Ku Klux Klan and increase in lynchings after
Reconstruction.

 

 

Although Washington is frequently viewed as too accommodating
to White supremacists there is a strong line of argument that suggests his
public statements were an attempt to minimize the White fear of social change.  It is now known that Washington spent years secretly
raising and funneling money toward legal challenges of the Jim Crow regime.  

 

 

Washington became generally perceived as the leader of Black
America after his Atlanta speech and became connected with important leaders in
business and politics. Many of these relationships helped lead to the
foundation and perpetuation of schools for Black children throughout the
country. Eventually, there were more than 5 000 schools funded through Washington’s
network of donors. Tuskegee also received incredible financial gifts and
attention. Tuskegee’s successes led to a visit from President William McKinley.

 

 

After his 1901 autobiography Up From Slavery, Washington
became even more widely known. One of the fruits of this success was an
invitation to dinner from the new President, Theodore Roosevelt. Washington was
the first Black to be so honored. Roosevelt invoked the wrath of White America
by hosting Washington in the White House and both men received intense
criticism for this interaction.

 

 

The legacy of Booker T. Washington continues to be a
challenging one, filled with interpretive possibilities. If nothing else, it is
clear that Washington created an important institution and attempted to create
the best possible future conditions for his race and for his country.

 

 

Today I am grateful for Booker T. Washington. You should be
too.

 

 

FDO

 

 

February 21 Malcolm X

 

This Black History Month I’m Grateful for Malcolm X

 

 

"I don't favor violence. If we could bring about recognition and respect of our people by peaceful means, well and good. Everybody would like to reach his objectives peacefully. But I'm also a realist. The only people in this country who are asked to be nonviolent are black people."

 

– Malcolm X 

 

 

Malcolm X is a critically underappreciated and tragically
misunderstood figure in American history. Often, he’s still tarred with the
kind of labels J. Edgar Hoover used to describe him. What many people fail to
recognize is that Malcolm X worked relentlessly to improve life for Black
people in America. That was his focus.

 

 

Malcolm used his role as a minister in the Nation of Islam
to preach a message of Black love and self-reliance that was truly radical in
the early 1960s. While many Blacks viewed their relationships to Whites as being
permanently imbalanced, Malcolm began convincing us that no one else held the
key to our destiny as a people. Publicly decrying America as inherently,
institutionally racist was a revolutionary step. The Black Power movement,
Black Liberation Theology and Afrocentric theory owe Malcolm the deepest of
debts.

 

 

Many are now convinced that Malcolm X was an advocate of
violence because of the dichotomous relationship presumed between he and Martin
Luther King Jr. The two men had many important differences but their
similarities were much deeper and more profound.* While he rejected King’s
stance on passive resistance, Malcolm never suggested that violence was a
solution to turmoil, only that every person has the right to self-defense. The
image of a Black man encouraging his followers to stand against violence was
terrifying to a population accustomed to seeing Blacks as willing victims of
violence.

 

 

Sadly, none of us were able to see the ultimate evolution of
Malcolm X. He was assassinated soon after his hajj to Mecca during which he
discovered that Whites of good will existed in large numbers and could be
important allies in his fight against American racism. The shift from Malcolm X
to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was on the verge of changing the world once again.

 

 

Malcolm rejected much of the delusional race theory of the
Nation of Islam and preached about the possibilities of Black people. He
refused to focus on being a victim and demanded his adherents decide to live
their lives fully and well.

 

Today, on the anniversary of his assassination, I am particularly grateful for Malcolm X. You should be too.

 

 

FDO

 

 

*- Hopefully I’ll be encouraged to write more on the
subject. 

 

February 20 Harriet Tubman

 

This Black History Month I’m Grateful for Harriet Tubman


 

"Every great dream begins
with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the
patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world."

— Harriet Tubman 

 

 

Harriet Tubman spent several years of her life as one of the most
wanted people in America. Her exploits as a conductor on the Underground
Railroad were legendary even during her lifetime. She is reported to have made
more than a dozen successful return trips to the South after her own escape
from slavery. Ultimately, Tubman was reported to have led more than 300 slaves
to freedom in the North. Her reputation
was so substantial that at one point there was a $40 000 reward for her capture.

 

 

The reputation that Tubman garnered helped convince slaves
throughout the country that there were more possibilities for escape than had
been previously foreseen. Many escaped slaves reported that they were inspired
to escape since they only needed to leave the South once while Tubman did it
time after time. Clearly, Harriet Tubman was not just the most famous conductor
of the Underground Railroad. She was also a symbol for possibility.

 

 

Tubman’s contributions extend beyond those for which she is
most noted.  She was an important speaker
and public figure in the national abolition movement and had important
relationships with Frederick Douglass and John Brown, both of whom expressed
their highest admiration for Tubman. Tubman even helped Brown recruit men to
help in his ill-fated attack on Harpers Ferry.

 

 

During the Civil War, Tubman
held many roles including as a spy and military adjutant, thoroughly
disregarding the notion of gendered boundaries in the process.  This Moses for her people worked tirelessly
to free enslaved individuals and an enslaved people.

 

 

Today I am grateful for Harriet Tubman. You should be too.

 

 

 

FDO

 

 

February 19 John Lewis

 

This Black History Month I’m Grateful for John Lewis


 

“Registering to vote is an act of commitment to the American
ideal. It is patriotic. The Federal Government must decide whether it wants to
let Southern Negroes register. It must make that choice this summer, or make us
all witnesses to the lynching of democracy.”

 

-John Lewis

 

 

John Lewis was a young college student when he got his start
as an activist in the Nashville Student Movement. Lewis was often viewed as the
prodigy of the movement as he was the youngest of the “Big Six” leaders of the
Civil Rights Movement by a full decade.

 

 

As a co-founder and an early chair of the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis first became a national figure during the
Freedom Rides of 1961. It was during this endeavor to desegregate public
facilities in the South that Lewis was beaten so badly many feared his death
was imminent. While continuing his leadership of SNCC, Lewis was one of the speakers
at the legendary 1963 March on Washington.

 

SNCC worked throughout the South to
develop Freedom Schools that trained nonviolent activists. They also organized 1964’s Freedom
Summer efforts at registering potential Black voters. Lewis was also one of the
leaders of the Selma, Alabama march now referred to as “Bloody Sunday” because
of the brutal beating Lewis and many other nonviolent protestors received at
the hands (and clubs) of the Alabama State Police.

 

 

As the sixties came to an end, Lewis became deeply involved
in electoral politics. Initially, he became a prominent advisor for Robert F.
Kennedy’s Presidential campaign in 1968. For the last quarter century, Lewis
has served his country as a member of Congress from Georgia. He is widely perceived
as the most important living link to the Civil Rights Movement. Lewis continues
to fight for human rights to this day.

 

 

Today I am grateful for John Lewis. You should be too.

 

 

FDO

 

 

February 17 Olaudah Equiano

 

This Black History Month I’m Grateful for Olaudah Equiano

 

 

“But is not the slave trade entirely a war with the heart of man? And
surely that which is begun by breaking down the barriers of virtue involves in
its continuance destruction to every principle, and buries all sentiments in
ruin!”

 

Olaudah Equiano

 

 

Equiano was a native Nigerian who was sold into slavery as a
child. His autobiography, The Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, is
often considered the founding document of the genre of slave narrative. Slaves
like Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass followed in Equiano’s footsteps by
sharing their own stories.

 

 

Equaino’s harrowing tale of being kidnapped as a ten year
old helped introduce White Americans to some of the worst elements of the slave
trade. Reading this young man’s story of terror (he worried that any people who
stole other people were likely cannibals!) caused some to reject Northern
participation in the African slave trade.

 

 

Equiano’s storytelling was also an early indicator of the
intellectual ability of Blacks. When it became clear that Equiano wrote his own
story, some of the rationales for African enslavement were substantially
undercut. Although his fame in England far surpassed his limited recognition in
the United States, Equiano made important impacts that continue to resonate
into modern works like Alex Haley’s Roots.

 

 

Today I am grateful for Olaudah Equiano. You should be too.

 

 

FDO

 

 

February 16 Zora Neale Hurston

 

This Black History Month I’m Grateful for  Zora Neale Hurston

 

 

Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not
make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the
pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”

 

-Zora Neale Hurston

 

 

Hurston was the kind of multitalented thinker who helped
validate the name of the Harlem Renaissance. At various points in her life,
Hurston was best known for being a prominent anthropologist, highly acclaimed author
and a dedicated folklorist.

 

 

With her fictionalized books being rooted in specific
real-life experience, Hurston paved the way for contemporary writers like Alice
Walker, Jodi Picoult and Toni Morrison. Hurston’s ability to translate spoken
diction into written language helped introduce an authentic Southern Black
vernacular into traditional literary forms. The richness of Hurston’s language
seemed to move her beyond the dialect poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and
Langston Hughes who also attempted to represent the spoken voices of the south.

 

 

Despite having once been out of print, Hurston is now
considered an artistic foremother for feminist and womanist writers, thanks to
Walker’s efforts at reclaiming Hurston’s legacy. In the past forty years,
Hurston has moved from being virtually forgotten to holding a prominent place
in the American literary canon.

 

 

Hurston’s novels are among the earliest
examples of Black women existing in the center of their own stories. Her female
characters may be buffeted by the harsh winds of racism, poverty and sexism by
their dignity remains intact.

 

 

Today, I am grateful for Zora Neale Hurston. You should be
too.

 

 

FDO

 

 

February 15 Muhammad Ali

 

This Black History Month I’m Grateful for Muhammad Ali

 

 

“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will
accomplish nothing in life.”

 

-Muhammad Ali  

 

 

I want to spend today’s blog post reflecting on a man who
transcended virtually all the expectations of his life. While a young boxing
champion, the man born Cassius Clay made the first high profile conversion to
Islam. After being brought into the Nation of Islam by Malcolm X*, the newly
christened Muhammad Ali was immediately condemned as an un-American radical. Most
in the mainstream media refused to use his chosen name for years.

 

 

When drafted
to enter the Vietnam War, Ali became the most celebrated American to refuse
induction. Ali famously declared that he had no quarrel with the Vietcong.
Although Ali was offered the possibility of spending his military service as a
traveling entertainer, he continued to refuse to participate and risked jail
time for his stance. Although he was not imprisoned, he was stripped of his
championship and not allowed to work as a boxer.

 

 

For many years, Ali’s name was associated with Jane Fonda’s
as Vietnam era traitors. It took much longer for Ali’s stance to be recognized
for the act of willing sacrifice that it truly was. Ali eventually was allowed
to return to boxing where he became the first three time heavyweight champion.
More importantly, Ali used his fame and celebrity to support a wide variety of
social causes. As the most famous Muslim in the world, Ali had an extraordinary
following and level of credibility globally. Ali has been honored with the
Presidential Medal of Freedom and in the 1996 Summer Olympics, his lighting of
the Olympic Torch became one of the iconic images of the decade.

 

 

Ali’s work as an advocate for peace was generally
understated but recently, ESPN produced a documentary
detailing Ali’s role in freeing American hostages held in Iraq before the
Persian Gulf War. At this stage in his life, Ali’s physical impairments had
already manifested and he risked his health in a profound way on this trip. As
one of the most famous people in the world, Muhammad Ali could have chosen to
bask in luxury and adulation. Instead, he’s continually worked to promote peace
and justice.  He’s become an icon worthy
of the label.

 

 

Today I am grateful for Muhammad Ali. You should be too.

 

FDO

 

*- check back Thursday

 

Here's a poem I wrote for Ali:

 

 

The Greatest

 

King of all the world

From sinner to savior to saint

And shrill to sagacious to silent

Always beautifully, willfully,
painfully

Real.

 

 

© Gayle Force
Press 2003

 

 

February 14 Coretta Scott King

 

This Black History Month I’m Grateful for Coretta Scott King


 

“The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by
the compassionate actions of its members… a heart of grace and a soul generated
by love.”

 

-Coretta Scott King

 

 

Somehow, many of us have managed to forget the critical role
Coretta Scott King played in the Civil Rights Movement.  As the wife of Martin Luther King, Coretta
would automatically hold some level of importance but her accomplishments
during and after his lifetime have been incredible and valuable. Most accounts
of Mrs. King focus on her status as a loving wife and homemaker but she was
much more a partner to Rev. King than was typical (or publicly acceptable)
during the 1950s. It is clear that she made remarkable efforts at maintaining
domestic tranquility in the midst of incredibly trying circumstances.

 

 

While her status as a symbol of love was incredibly valuable
to the Movement, Coretta Scott King went far beyond the prescribed models of
femininity. She was such a competent leader that she presided over the first
meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Council. Mrs. King was also a
talented enough singer that she performed ‘freedom concerts’ to raise money for
civil rights initiatives.

 

 

For more than a decade, the Kings were constantly under the threat
of death and indeed had their home bombed multiple times. As the mother of four
children, Mrs. King could have easily asked her husband to take a less public
profile yet she publicly (and privately!) insisted that her resolve was only
strengthened by the violence perpetrated against her family. After her husband’s
assassination in 1968, Mrs. King failed to be cowed and raised her own public
profile by founding the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social
Change.

 

 

Eventually, Coretta Scott King became an outspoken opponent
of South Africa’s apartheid regime, a dedicated peace activist and one of the
first prominent Blacks to advocate for same sex marriage rights. Mrs. King also
led the way for the creation of the King federal holiday.* Mrs. King continued
to grow and change as she aged, eventually embracing veganism and her role as
the First Lady of the Civil Rights Movement.

 

 

For nearly forty years after Martin Luther King’s murder,
Coretta Scott King served as a living symbol of the highest ideals of the Movement.
She focused continuing attention on the issues of racism, poverty, violence and
inequality that so deeply informed her work and life. It is particularly
appropriate that she be celebrated on Valentine’s Day as she continues to serve
as a tremendous symbol of love.

 

 

Today I am grateful for Coretta Scott King. You should be
too.

 

 

FDO

 

 

*- Alongside Stevie
Wonder

 

 

February 13 Nat Turner

 

This Black History Month I’m Grateful for   Nat Turner

 

 

"I heard a loud noise in
the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was
loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men,
and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was
fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first…
And by signs in the heavens that it would make known to me when I should
commence the great work, and until the first sign appeared I should conceal it
from the knowledge of men; and on the appearance of the sign… I should arise
and prepare myself and slay my enemies with their own weapons."

 

-Nat Turner

 

 

Nat Turner was one of the scariest men in American history. He
was perceived in his time as an unparalleled threat to American slavery and
White supremacy. Turner’s attempt at creating a slave rebellion forced the
South into an unprecedented series of responses and helped pave the way for the
Civil War.

 

 

Nat Turner was a slave preacher who was convinced that he
was chosen to be a Moses for his people. His desire to free Blacks from slavery
erupted into the most violent American slave rebellion of the 19th
century.  Turner’s followers killed
around sixty Whites and it took military action to subdue then execute Turner.
This short burst of violence had dramatic long term consequences for this
country.

 

 

For decades, slave holders had manufactured the image of the
“happy darky”, proclaiming that Blacks were happy as slaves because servitude
suited their temperament. The increase of Black Christianity during the Second
Great Awakening reinforced the notion that slave owners were involved in a
process of civilizing their slaves, to the good of all. Turner’s use of the
Biblical story of Exodus to proclaim liberty for his people was a rude
awakening for the country and, for many, began disabusing the happy darky image
for good. Of course, the value of Christianizing slaves was also questioned.

 

 

In the backlash to Turner’s insurrection, southern Whites
imposed incredibly harsh restrictions on both slaves and free Blacks. In this
climate, many Blacks lost their rights to have independent church services, own
guns and work for hire. For Blacks, reading, learning to read and teaching
others to read became criminal offenses. This wasn’t the only possible outcome
though. In Virginia, the governor talked about abolishing slavery in the state.
The state legislature even voted on a bill that would have set that process in
motion. It is clear that only the fear of additional rebellions prompted such
public consideration of abolition.

 

 

When Virginia failed to end slavery, the abolitionist
movement across the country became increasingly convinced that the South would
never end slavery voluntarily. It is this fact that began radicalizing
anti-slavery forces some twenty years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin put a
sympathetic face on slaves. The prospect of violence as the necessary solution
to slavery began with David Walker’s Appeal but became a thought provoking
reality because of Nat Turner. His insurrection helped prompt Bloody Kansas,
John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and ultimately, the Civil War itself.

 

 

Today I am grateful for Nat Turner. You should be too.

 

 

FDO