From Rachael Benavidez, Zeteo Associate Editor
3 February 2013
February is African American History Month. You may or may not know that it was established by historian and journalist Carter G. Woodson, first as Negro History Week, which coincided with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. He is known as the godfather of Black history. Woodson’s most famous work is, perhaps, The Mis-Education of the Negro, published in 1933, a text in which Woodson argues the importance of the study of African American history, without the prejudice of white supremacy prevalent in history books.
Philosophers have long conceded, however, that every man has two educations: ‘that which is given to him, and the other that which he gives himself. Of the two kinds the latter is by far the more desirable. Indeed all that is most worthy in man he must work out and conquer for himself. It is that which constitutes our real and best nourishment. What we are merely taught seldom nourishes the mind like that which we teach ourselves.’
Woodson’s quote applies specifically to African Americans who were being taught to view themselves as inferior, a practice that he combated with information and activism. It can also apply to anyone who blindly believes anything he or she is taught without investigating for him or herself. What are we teaching ourselves today? And how much has changed in the history books that leave so many out of the big picture?
4 February 2013
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, drafted in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln. The document, effective as of January 1, 1863, stated the famous words:
That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.
Lincoln’s Proclamation was actually a political move that only applied to the ten states in rebellion. It was not until the 13th Amendment was adopted in December 1865 that slavery was actually outlawed. However, the Emancipation Proclamation did allow the slaves in the Confederate states to be freed and was certainly a move toward progress: it allowed slaves to join the Union in fighting the Confederacy and made slavery the political goal of the war, ending any possible alliance between the Confederacy and the United Kingdom, which had abolished slavery.
5 February 2013
Let’s “remember the ladies” who are important figures in Black history:
Abolitionist and feminist Sarah Moore Grimké (1792-1873) was born into a wealthy slaveholding family in Charleston, South Carolina. Her initial concern regarding slavery was for the immortal souls of the slaveowners. Eventually, she left the plantation, moving to the North to live with her sister, Angelina, also an abolitionist. There, she began writing on the rights of human beings. Her first published work was an 1835 letter in William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator regarding the rights of women, and in 1836 published An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South and An Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States, in which she appealed to their souls and conscious. Some of her works are available at the Harvard University Open Library Program. From her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman, letter #15: dated October 20, 1837 (1838):
…I know nothing of man’s rights, or woman’s rights; human rights are all that I recognise.
Following the Civil War, thousands of lynchings took place in the South. Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) addressed the practice in her speeches, writings, perhaps the most famous of which was her pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1893).
The issue of lynching was very close to her heart: three of her friends, successful grocery store owners, were lynched in 1892, because they were too successful for the tastes of competing white businesses in Memphis, Tennessee, and she continued her crusade throughout her life. In 1900, she said of lynching:
Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an ‘unwritten law’ that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal.
In a letter to her, published in Southern Horrors, Frederick Douglass said of Wells-Barnett:
Brave woman! you have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured. If American conscience were only half alive, if the American church and clergy were only half christianized, if American moral sensibility were not hardened by persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a scream of horror, shame and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever your pamphlet shall be read.
How brave are any of us to fight for basic human rights? Would we stand up to our families? To an entire area of our country? How will I stand up today? How will you?
6 February 2013
Writer James Baldwin had more than the cause of race for which to stand—in addition to being a Black novelist and essayist, he was also homosexual, which often set him apart from the mainstream Civil Rights Movement. But what a writer he was, and it was through writing that he believed that he could change the world—at least a little.
You write to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world . . . . The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way . . . people look at reality, then you can change it.
Each of us has our own contribution to make, our own way of changing our little piece of the world. What is yours?
7 February 2013
We cannot visit African American history without a quote from Malcolm X. Here is one from his autobiography, a book that he co-wrote with Alex Haley, and one that changed my life.
Children have a lesson adults should learn, to not be ashamed of failing, but to get up and try again. Most of us adults are so afraid, so cautious, so ‘safe,’ and therefore so shrinking and rigid and afraid that it is why so many humans fail. Most middle-aged adults have resigned themselves to failure.
Get up and try again.
8 February 2013
Frederick Douglass, one of the most important figures in African American history, was born a slave. He died a free man and stood for the rights of African Americans and for the poor. His secret education made him one of our country’s great orators and writers.
Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.
Reading this quote, I again wonder how much has changed and how much has stayed the same. Who among us fights for such injustice today?
9 February 2013
African American History is not something that is static, something that happened in the past, but is something that continues to be written. While it honors those of African American descent, it is all of our history, because it is essentially American. It is a conversation that we need to keep going. We are often reluctant to discuss race, though it is an integral part of our existence in the United States. Click here to continue the conversation and to see creative ways of doing so with the Blind Spot Project.
Illustration credit: Jacob Lawrence, “In the North the Negro has Better Educational Facilities”, 1940-41 (part of the “Migration Series,” at MoMA)