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“The Ugly Truths America Hides From Itself”: ‘Roots’ Kindles In Us The Courage To Confront The History That Made Us

Everything was different, the day after.

If you are a child of the millennium, if you’ve never known a world without 500 networks, it may be difficult for you to get this. You might find it hard to appreciate how it was when there were only three networks and no DVR nor even VCR, so that one major TV program sometimes became a communal event, a thing experienced by everybody everywhere at the same time.

So it was on a Sunday night, the 23rd of January, in 1977. I was a senior at the University of Southern California, working part time at the campus bookstore. When I went to work the next day, you could feel that something had shifted. Your black friends simmered like a pot left too long on the stove. Your white friends tiptoed past you like an unexploded bomb.

We had all watched the first episode of “Roots,” had all seen the Mandinka boy Kunta Kinte grow to the cusp of manhood, had all borne witness as he was chained like an animal and stolen away from everything he had ever known. Now we no longer knew how to talk to one another.

I had a friend, a white guy named Dave Weitzel. Ordinarily, we spent much of our shift goofing on each other the way you do when you’re 19 or so and nothing is all that serious. But on that day after, the space between us was filled with an awkward silence.

Finally, Dave approached me. “I’m sorry,” he said, simply. “I didn’t know.”

It is highly unlikely the new version of “Roots,” airing this week on the A&E television networks, will be the phenomenon the original was. There are, putting it mildly, more than three networks now and, with the exception of the Super Bowl, we no longer have communal television events.

But the new show will be a success if it simply kindles in us the courage to confront and confess the history that has made us. I didn’t know much about that in 1977. Sixteen years of education, including four at one of the nation’s finest universities, had taught me all about the Smoot-Hawley tariff, but next to nothing about how a boy could be kidnapped, chained in the fetid hold of a ship, and delivered to a far shore as property.

As a result, I had only a vague sense of bad things having happened to black people in the terrible long ago. It stirred a sense of having been cheated somehow, left holding a bad check somehow, but I didn’t really know how or why.

I was as ignorant as Dave.

Small wonder. The history “Roots” represents embarrasses our national mythology. As a result, it has never been taught with any consistency. Even when we ostensibly spotlight black history in February, we concentrate on the achievements of black strivers — never the American hell they strove against. So you hear all about the dozens of uses George Washington Carver found for a peanut, but nothing about Mary Turner’s newborn, stomped to death by a white man in a lynch mob.

We don’t know what to do with those stories, so we ignore them, hoping that time, like a tide, will bear them away. But invariably, they wash up instead in mass incarceration, mass discrimination and the souls of kids who know their lives are shaped by bad things from long ago, even if they can’t always say how.

Almost 40 years later, I’m embarrassed by the righteous vindication I got from Dave’s apology. Dave Weitzel, the individual man, had not done anything to me. But like me, he had never been given the tools to face the ugly truths America hides from itself, had never been taught how to have the conversation.

So we had only his shame and my anger. Had we managed to push through those things, we might have found common humanity on the other side. But we couldn’t do that because we didn’t know how.

Indeed, as best I can recall, we never talked about it again.

 

By:Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, May 29, 2016

May 30, 2016 Posted by | African Americans, American History, Roots | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“More Than A Footnote Of History”: The Noble Origins Of ‘Black History Month’ Are Now Outdated

Eighty-seven years ago — when about half of households owned an automobile, women’s suffrage was new and black Americans were still terrorized by lynching, especially in the South — black historian Carter G. Woodson had a simple but powerful idea: Designate a week to celebrate the contributions that black Americans had made to their country. Woodson chose the second week of February to commemorate the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

Negro History Week, as it was known, was an important development for its time. Back then, official history barely acknowledged the presence of black Americans, while popular culture actively diminished their humanity. In such a hostile landscape, black Americans desperately needed an acknowledgement of their patriotism, enterprise and ingenuity to foster self-confidence. Knowledge is power.

Decades later, the landscape has changed in such profound ways that Woodson would hardly recognize it. Automobiles are ubiquitous; women voters usually outnumber men in national elections; and a coalition that included unmarried women and black, Latino and Asian-American voters powered the nation’s first black president to re-election last year.

Despite those tectonic, ground-shaking developments, Woodson’s commemoration — now Black History Month — lingers. Yet it is an artifact that, ironically, works to minimize the myriad ways in which black Americans’ accomplishments are part of the national mosaic. In the age of Obama, do we need such a separate and unequal celebration?

Consider: Twenty years from now, will classroom discussions of President Obama be restricted to February? Or does the first black president belong to the broader pantheon of presidents, his legacy discussed alongside those of others? Will a future Barack Obama Presidential Library be a site of commemorations only during the shortest month of the year?

If it is absurd to imagine confining Obama to Black History Month, then it ought to be apparent that it is equally nonsensical to promote the study of Crispus Attucks, Elijah McCoy, Sojourner Truth, Charles Drew, Dorie Miller and the Tuskegee Airmen for only 28 days. The inventions, the patriotism, the industry and the adventurousness of black Americans — soldiers, cowboys, pioneers, engineers — are part and parcel of American history, not some footnote.

Proponents of Black History Month argue that, while that’s true, mainstream (read “white”) America still has not accepted that argument, and the contributions of black Americans are not readily acknowledged. Neither the classroom nor popular culture, they note, has moved much beyond Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.

Yet continuing to marginalize black Americans with the February set-aside hardly advances the cause. It makes the contributions of a few well-known black men and women seem a historical exception. In thoughtful criticism of Quentin Tarantino’s slave revenge epic Django Unchained, historian William Jelani Cobb argues that the movie’s biggest flaw lies in the message that its title character is the rare enslaved black man who rose up against his oppressors. In fact, white plantation owners lived in fear of slave rebellions, large and small. (Ever heard of Nat Turner?)

Similarly, Black History Month places our history outside its context, separating it from the larger American story. The truth is that blacks participated in every major development in U.S. history. From the bloody Boston Massacre, to the settling of the West, to the World Wars and the labor movement, to the exploration of space, black Americans have been present as footsoldiers and leaders. In other words, black history is American history.

We Americans, regardless of color, are not particularly well versed in our nation’s story; if “black history” isn’t well understood, neither is “white history.” There have long been roiling battles between the realists and the mythmakers who would whitewash the carnage that followed Columbus’ “discovery,” tidy up the Founders and ignore the systemic oppression visited upon blacks for generations.

As for popular culture, it may be an even harder re-write since moviegoers want romance, not the hard truth. That’s why I give Tarantino some credit for Django Unchained, ahistorical though it may be. It gets the cruelty of slavery right. And it wasn’t released during Black History Month.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, February 16, 2013

February 17, 2013 Posted by | American History | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Rewriting Inconvenient History”: Calling Out Conservative Bugnut Idiocy

Rush Limbaugh thinks John Lewis should have been armed.

“If a lot of African-Americans back in the ’60s had guns and the legal right to use them for self-defense, you think they would have needed Selma?” he said recently on his radio show, referencing the 1965 voting rights campaign in which Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia, had his skull fractured by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “If John Lewis had had a gun, would he have been beat upside the head on the bridge?”

Right. Because a shootout between protesters and state troopers would have done so much more to secure the right to vote.

Incredibly, that’s not the stupidest thing anyone has said recently about the civil rights movement.

No, that distinction goes to one Larry Ward, who claimed in an appearance on CNN that Martin Luther King Jr. would have supported Ward’s call for a Gun Appreciation Day “if he were alive today.” In other words, the premier American pacifist of the 20th century would be singing the praises of guns, except that he was shot in the face with one 45 years ago.

Thus do social conservatives continue to rewrite the inconvenient truths of African-American history, repurposing that tale of incandescent triumph and inconsolable woe to make it useful within the crabbed corners of their failed and discredited dogma. This seems an especially appropriate moment to call them on it. Not simply because Friday was the first day of Black History Month, but because Monday is the centenary of a signal event within that history.

Rosa Louise McCauley was born a hundred years ago. You know her better by her married name — Rosa Parks, the quiet, unassuming 42-year-old seamstress from Montgomery, AL, who ignited the civil rights movement in December, 1955, when bus driver J.F. Blake ordered her to give up her seat for a white man and she refused.

Doubtless, Limbaugh thinks she should have shot Blake instead, but she did not. She only waited quietly for police to come arrest her. Thus began the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott.

Though legend would have it that Parks, who died in 2005, refused because her feet were tired, the truth, she always said, was that it was not her body that was fatigued. “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in” to a system that judged her, as a black woman, unworthy of a seat on a public bus.

Years later, Martin Luther King Jr., the young preacher who led the boycott, would phrase that philosophy of refusal in terms of rhetorical elegance: “Noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”

Mrs. Parks put it more simply that day in 1955: “No,” she said.

The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI, which counts Rosa Parks’ bus among its holdings, has persuaded the Senate to designate Monday a “National Day of Courage” in her honor. Full disclosure: I gave a compensated speech for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights at the museum last month. While there, I had the distinct privilege of climbing onto that bus.

Sitting in that sacred space, it is easy to imagine yourself transported back to that fateful moment of decision. Fifty-eight years later, those of us who are guardians — and beneficiaries — of African-American history, who live in a world transformed by the decisions of Rosa, Martin, Fannie Lou, Malcolm, Frederick, W.E.B., Booker T. and a million others whose names history did not record, now have decisions of our own to make. One of them is this:

What shall we say to conservatives who seem hellbent on rewriting, disrespecting and arrogating that history? Many sharp rebukes come to mind, but none of them improves on the brave thing said by a tired woman born a hundred years ago this week.

No.

 

By: Leonard Pitts Jr., The National Memo, February 4, 2013

February 4, 2013 Posted by | Civil Rights | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Defending Traditions And Storied Principles”: The Demonizing Of Barack Obama:

February is African American History Month. Yet these are days of sadness.

The brilliance of hope, so blinding a few short years ago, has dimmed. The dreams of a 21st-century America, where achievement is based on skills, determination and merit, free from an arbitrary color standard, have been replaced with injuries inflicted by present-day haters as malevolent as some of our worst enemies of the past.

Who could have imagined a U.S. publication suggesting that Israel “give the go-ahead for U.S.-based Mossad agents to take out a president deemed unfriendly to Israel in order for the current vice president to take his place.” In case you were unsure of what you’d just read, the writer clarified, “Yes . . . order a hit on a president in order to preserve Israel’s existence.”

Those words were written only a few weeks ago, in a column by the owner and publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times, a weekly newspaper that dates back to 1925. Andrew Adler’s call for President Obama’s assassination was immediately condemned by major Jewish organizations. He apologized, resigned from his post and has reportedly put the paper up for sale.

But it can’t be unsaid. To read in a mainstream publication that Barack Obama should be killed takes the breath away.

How many other Americans think the same way? Such thoughts didn’t start with Adler. They don’t stop with him.

Now, before some of you strike back with, “Hey, what about those scurrilous attacks on George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan?,” allow me to stipulate that crazed partisans and venomous pundits populate the left as well as the right.

What sets anti-Obama foes apart from the persecutors of Bush, Reagan et al., however, is that the purveyors of this brand of inflammatory rhetoric include the GOP presidential candidates themselves.

Their charges are rude, disrespectful and designed to question Obama’s loyalty to country and commitment to his faith.

John Avlon, CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, recently chronicled the kind of “radioactive rhetoric” that the presidential hopefuls are spewing to rev up their conservative base. I’ve chosen a few examples of my own.

Newt Gingrich: Obama has a “Kenyan anti-colonial mindset” and is the “most radical president in American history.” Gingrich has also said: “This is an administration which, as long as you are America’s enemy, you’re safe. You know, the only people you’ve got to worry about is if you are an American ally.”

Rick Santorum: Obama has “some phony theology. Not a theology based on the Bible,” and he is “systematically trying to crush the traditional Judeo-Christian values of America.”

Mitt Romney: Obama associates with people who have “fought against religion.” “Sometimes,” Romney said recently, “I think we have a president who doesn’t understand America.”

As Avlon observed: “This line was straight out of the ‘Alien in the White House’ playbook, a riff that reinforced the worst impulses of some in the audience.”

In this political environment, there is no invective too repugnant, too vicious to throw at this president of the United States.

It is in this climate that we celebrate African American History Month and the achievement of generations against all odds. The demonizing and denigration of the nation’s first black president cast a pall over what should be a time of tribute to indomitable Americans.

But we soldier on.

African American History Month concludes next week, and George Washington University will host an event Tuesday “celebrating the African American legacy in Foggy Bottom.”

Since the discussion will be devoted to my old turf, I expect to be on hand. “Half the fun of remembering is the rearranging,” as an Internet posting put it, and this trip down the avenues of yesterday should be worth taking, even if it returns us to things that were hard to bear at the time.

It is the present, and what lies ahead, that is unsettling.

How will observers of African American History Month many years down the road regard the time in which we now live?

Ah, but these things are being said about Obama, we are told, because of his policies, not  because of the color of his skin.

It’s never about race; it’s all about the defense of great traditions and storied principles . . . as in cases of the Civil War, Plessy, Brown, lunch counters, bus travel, the poll tax, Jackie Robinson.

It’s sad, and infuriating.

 

By: Colbert I. King, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, February 24, 2012

February 26, 2012 Posted by | GOP Presidential Candidates, Racism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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