What will you do to illuminate the past and light the future?

This will take just a few minutes—25 multiple-choice questions to be answered on your computer. No friends throwing out the answers. No public shaming or public celebration. Just a quiet few minutes to see how much you know about the African American experience and history. Please take the quiz before you read any further.

https://worldhistoryproject.org/quizzes/black_history

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Many are likely to know the answer to the first question, but what if it was re-worded: “Who was the first African American allowed to play major league baseball?” You’d still know the answer, but you might think about it a bit differently. Not that there weren’t African Americans with the talent, as the stated question might imply. And if you click on the “Learn more” button, you see that the argument from the team’s manager isn’t focused on racial justice or morality, it is focused on economics. The white owner of the team, the white manager, and the white players were all going to be financial beneficiaries of this change. Then, if you have time, go deeper into his story to learn about the life of this “first” and the mental anguish he, and his family, suffered.

Then look at the second question. “Learn more” will remind you that the black community isn’t monolithic. While being black in America offers a distinct vantage point from being white or Asian, Native or LatinX, and while there may be unanimity in the desire for justice and equity among black people, there is no shared sense of strategy. In that divergence, however, a center point may become clearer. Some suggest if there hadn’t been a Malcolm X, a perceived radical, Martin Luther King’s views might not have been deemed reasonable and viable. He would have been the radical. That point alone could generate a vibrant discussion if you move just a little beyond the presented fact.

Now to the third item in the quiz. “Learn more” reveals that in 1960, just two generations ago, black people were fighting for the right to sit down and have lunch in an integrated environment. Perhaps that would have been your parents’ or maybe your grandparents’ generation. Where did they stand/fall on the question of civil rights? Have you ever asked them, or if you are the parent or the grandparent, have you ever shared with the younger members of your family what you were doing or thinking in 1960 when people were actively advocating for the civil rights of African Americans?

These are conversations that we should all have. Maybe Black History Month offers an entrée to this topic for your family.

lamp-4436364_1920Understanding a people’s history isn’t just about knowing the dates or being able to rattle off trivia at a cocktail party. It’s about revealing and understanding the layers, the actions and reactions, that contribute not just to those people, but to the fabric of the bigger, “US” as a people, as a culture. Often those revelations and the discussions happen in school. I know that is where I learned, explored and discussed much about the history of the country. My parents and my community often talked about current events, but rarely do I recall family discussions about historical events. And once I left the segregated school system, never did black history enter my formal education.

Over the last 50 years, black history has increasingly been recognized as the essential part of American history… and world history, that it is. Some states now require its incorporation into the educational curriculum. Textbooks are being written. Students are asking for it. But the subject still doesn’t seem mainstreamed into the curriculum. Some suggest that history and social studies teachers aren’t trained to teach it. Even when they try to cover the topic, they aren’t comfortable enough to delve deeply. The conversation typically stops with the facts. Others suggest many of the textbooks introduce black history with slavery, reinforcing African Americans in a lower position in society. I’m not so sure I agree with that even though I can appreciate the viewpoint. Black Americans’ history did, in no small measure, start with being enslaved. There is just so much about that reality that can be explored. Teachers can take the lesson back to Africa.* In school, we often talked about what was happening in Europe that pre-dated white settlers coming to America. I still remember the weight of my European history textbook. Whole semesters focused on the subject, but never in the 16 years of my liberal arts education did I have one course on African history. What was happening in the countries and kingdoms there?

I don’t have the answers, but I know that when Carter G. Woodson helped found the Association for the Study of Negro Life (1915), later became the chief advocate for Negro History Week (1926) and promoted the study of African American culture and history throughout his life, he was not suggesting it as an add on. He was filling a void until the topic could be fully fused into any study of the history of America.

Taking a quiz or focusing on interesting factoids can start a conversation. It can begin the learning, but we must remember the facts are just where real discovery and understanding begins.

What will you do special during this Black History Month? What will you do throughout the year to better understand, appreciate, and value the contributions of African Americans?

“The past should not oppress, it should illuminate.”

—Kasi Lemmons, Director of “Harriet” during a panel discussion following the movie’s showing at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, 10/21/19

*If you are interested in learning about Africa’s civilizations, check out the PBS six-hour series called “Africa’s Great Civilizations,” narrated by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Thank You is Enough

The sidewalks in the neighborhood were narrow and uneven. sidewalk. bricksPeople walking in opposite directions often had to shift or even stop, to pass without bumping into each other. In this century-plus old section of the city, there were many tree roots twisting beneath the sidewalks creating tilts and ridges that threatened each step. So, the need to pay attention to where you were walking was necessary and the norm.

The first time we passed each other, I wasn’t sure he was who I thought he was.

For about a month, I would pass him every day around 7:45 a.m., after dropping my son—AJ—off at preschool. As I walked to the metro, mentally moving from mom to nonprofit exec, I would think about what I had to do at work that day. I was still adjusting to taking AJ to preschool. Until that September, he had been at home with a care provider. Now it was time to get him into a group with other children. So, I had to get him up, dressed, and fed… and me, too. As the saying goes, “it” — parenthood, in this case — “was more than a notion.” In my early 40s, I was an older mother, and the adjustments to motherhood had been many as I also worked to succeed in my career.

Some mornings were a bit unfocused as life’s demands jostled through my mind. Not paying careful attention, I had almost tripped on the sidewalk the previous week. On that first morning, when I saw him, I was head down, focused on carefully negotiating the uneven bricks. I glanced up just as I passed him. The glimpse was quick, perfunctory. I wasn’t sure it was him, but I thought it was.

On the next day and the subsequent days when we passed, I was sure. I knew who he was. At first, I would nod and smile. Then after a few days, I started to say, “Good morning, sir.” To which, he would nod and smile, sometimes replying with a pleasant “Good morning.”

At no time during those few weeks in 1997, when our paths crossed every morning, did I ever try to have a conversation with Congressman John Lewis. I wish I had.

I was reminded of those small encounters when I heard the announcement last month he has stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

When Congressman Elijah Cummings, a long-time civil rights champion, passed last October, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi referred to him as Congress’ North Star. I understood why. He was a strong and outspoken advocate for what was morally right. But John Lewis has always been my North Star. In 1997, I wouldn’t have thought of him with that term, but I have always admired his courage. I knew of his civil rights work, particularly the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. For me, he was then, and still is, the personification of fierce leadership and dedication to purpose.

After reading his memoir, Walking with The Wind, in 1998, the year after our brief encounters, I remember wishing I had engaged him as we passed each other. His leadership was even deeper and more critical to the civil rights movement than I had initially known. But what would I possibly have said to him or asked? How would I have broached meaningful topics in those brief moments? He was hurrying to important committee meetings, I suspect, with no time to carry on a conversation. I do, however, remember wishing I had said, “Thank you” as we passed kennedy quote. thank youon that sidewalk.

I was fortunate. I had a chance to say just that almost twenty years later.

In 2016, he, along with then-Congressman Sam Johnson of Texas, was presented with the Congressional Patriot Award by the Bipartisan Policy Center. I was lucky enough to be invited to the event, held at the Library of Congress. I brought my copy of Walking with The Wind, knowing I would ask him to sign it if the circumstance presented itself. As the guests mingled in an ornately beautiful room before the ceremony, I saw him enter without fanfare. I gathered my courage, walked up to him, and thanked him for all he had done for me, for people who looked like me, and for our country. Graciously, he thanked me for the kind words and signed my book.

At this time of the year when we are focused on resolutions and retrospection, I hope all of us take the time to reflect on those who have made a difference in our lives or in our world. If you have the chance to say something to that person, do so. Don’t wait until the perfect statement forms in your mind. Don’t be shy or intimidated thinking you may be intruding on a moral giant. The opportunity may never come again, and, realistically, your words will never be as perfect as you want. The eloquence will come from the purity of your feelings and the sheer power of uttering the heartfelt words, “Thank you.”

Happy New Year to all and wishing healing mercies for Congressman John Lewis.

 

 

A Christmas Tale of Naughty and Nice (with a stock tip thrown in)

Even though I’m not qualified to give advice on what stocks to purchase, when to buy or when to sell, I am making a firm recommendation for what to put in that special Christmas stocking.

nike. stockingNIKE stock.

That’s right.

NIKE stock.

While my knowledge of economics and the stock market is minimal, I know a little about football and a little more about racial equity. So, here’s how NIKE, football, and racial equity all come together, tied with a beautiful Christmas bow.

I know the rules of football and can watch a game and understand what is happening. I even used to follow the Washington DC team (offensive—no pun intended—name not to be acknowledged) but stopped a few years ago. My connection to football, however, did not mean that I knew the names of many of the players. I had never heard of Colin Kaepernick, then quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, until he decided, in 2016, to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem.

At about that same time, I started my journey to better understand the depth, breadth, and impact of structural racism, racial inequity, and implicit bias. Because I was hyper-attuned to conversations about race and racism—actions and reactions—I focused on what he was doing. Since I was just finding my voice on these topics, I appreciated his use of his platform—that of an NFL quarterback—to recognize police brutality and oppression against communities of color. From everything I heard him say, he never intended what he was accused of: demeaning the flag and the country. There is no question, however, that his very public action was polarizing. He severed his relationship with his team right before, it was rumored, he would have been let go. Though a proven talent, no other team approached him. By their inaction, not their words (they have never publicly stated their ban on hiring him), Kaepernick had been blackballed (note the term) by the NFL. In my view, that’s where naughty… and just plain wrong … came in.

Now, back to NIKE.

In September 2018, two years after Kaepernick’s first protest, NIKE did something extraordinary. This multi-national company, focused on sportswear and sports equipment, chose Kaepernick as the face of its “Just Do It” campaign. It was the 30th anniversary of the iconic slogan. Kaepernick had done what the NIKE slogan challenged. He probably didn’t consider the many negative consequences of his action, but he wanted to recognize the atrocities happening in America to people who looked like him. He took a stand and suffered the consequences.

In my mind, it was a bold step for NIKE, a major sports company, to go against the general sentiment of the organized sports industry. Football—the NFL—had turned its back on Kaepernick. NIKE, however, had elevated his courage and strength of purpose. The anchor advertising image of the new campaign was a black-and-white photo of Kaepernick emblazoned with the quote, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Wow.

Nice… yes, very, very nice.

While I cheered this move by NIKE, its stock price fell immediately, a bad sign in the business world. BoycottNIKE became a Twitter hashtag, and sports teams and athletes around the country announced that they were destroying their NIKE wear. I wanted NIKE to be celebrated. In my mind, they had taken a considerable risk and done the right thing.

All of my adult life, I have thought one person can make a difference. I didn’t know what I could do to show my appreciation to NIKE. Then, it occurred to me. I would buy NIKE stock. My purchase certainly would not make a difference like that of a major investor, but that wasn’t the point. The point was for me to show my appreciation. And I did. On September 10, 2018, I researched how to purchase NIKE shares, what the minimum purchase was, and then I showed my support for NIKE by buying shares of stock. As I entered the order, sitting at home, alone at my desk, I started to smile. It felt good. Now, over a year later, NIKE’s decision did not have a deleterious impact on the company. In fact, at the time of this posting, the share price has increased by 19% since my initial purchase.

Nike. SamSo, if the NIKE logo is emblazoned on the shoes, shirt, or gym shorts of your favorite niece or nephew, they might be ripe for learning how the stock market works (economics 101). And since they are already demonstrating their support for the company by wearing the products, now would be a great time to discuss how this company used its social consciousness (social justice 101) as you explain why shares of NIKE stock are peeking out of their Christmas stocking.

Merry Christmas. You can thank me later for the stock tip 😊.

 

Can New Friendships Grow 50 Years Later?

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” Nelson Mandela

I have a lot of friends. Some are closer than others. I think I understand what it takes to build and maintain a friendship: shared experiences over time, mutual respect, similar values.

Earlier this fall, I attended a milestone high school reunion. My fiftieth. John Marshall High School, Richmond, Virginia, Class of 1969. I suspect that for many, a 50th reunion is a long-awaited event to renew acquaintances and recapture friendships. It seemed to me that a lower percentage of black than white graduates attended. I wonder if fond memories of high school were not shared equally by both groups.

The ‘60s were a time of great racial change in Richmond and across the country. My high school started the decade as a primarily white institution and finished as a mostly black one. White flight was real. The John Marshall class of 1969 was probably the last one with a white majority. Our class felt the impact of the changing demographics. The black and the white students were classmates, associates in school clubs, or teammates playing a sport, but, mostly, we were not friends. At least not friends as I consider them. We didn’t go to social events together or hang out at each other’s homes. Our interactions were casual conversations in the halls of the school or at school sporting events.

For my friendship group, the 50th reunion felt more like an inevitable event, not a much-anticipated occasion. We had attended the 40th where everyone, including me, mostly stayed in our old high school cliques, with only nominal mingling. As an inveterate traveler, it is noteworthy I even passed up a trip to Greece with another group of friends so I could attend this 50th reunion. I guess it may have been more important to me than I wanted to admit.

I entered the first event of the reunion weekend with a bit of trepidation. “Cautiously curious” would best describe my emotions at the Friday evening, Meet-and-Greet. There was a much different feeling from the 40th. It was welcoming, inclusive, people seemed genuinely happy to see each other. Racially mixed groups—genuine laughter and what-seemed-to-be real conversations—was what I saw and experienced. That feeling of camaraderie continued at the weekend’s culminating event, the dinner dance on Saturday night.

What had happened between 2009, our 40th reunion, and 2019?

A significant conversation about race had started in the United States. Did that play a role? Did we understand the dynamics of race in a way that we never had before, and did that understanding make basic conversation easier?

Over the decade between the 40th and 50th reunion, cell phone videos had captured startling displays of injustice that could not be ignored. Newspaper articles, magazines, television documentaries were layering messages about racial inequity throughout the popular media. And great attention to the topic surrounded the presidency of our country’s first African American president. Awareness of race and the disparity between races had probably become more prevalent in America during this decade than since the civil rights movement, the time when our connections as classmates were forming. Maybe these discussions and events were a factor in making the encounters across race more genuine. I wonder if the heightened understanding made it easier to walk up to people of a different race and start conversations. We did, after all, have a shared framework—the halls of John Marshall—if not a wholly shared experience. Maybe it was that recognition of only recently revealed, parallel universes that opened some conversations.

When speaking at the dinner, Carolyn Mosby, one of the few African American faculty at John Marshall, said to the group, “tonight we will throw back any regrets, any dislikes, any old grudges.” In those words, she acknowledged that many of the black students had felt prejudice, discrimination, aloofness, racism during our time at John Marshall High School, and acknowledged that some white students, consciously or unconsciously, through words or actions, may have hurt their black fellow students. That was real, but she wanted us to move on. Ever the teacher, she was helping us bridge any racial chasms that had existed and to recognize the passage of time.

Regardless of race, we had all been young with the callousness and insensitivity of teenagers. AND, we were the front guard. The mid-to-late ‘60s were still the early days of integration. When we were in high school, there was not even the semblance of a road map for understanding racial differences and promoting honest dialog across races. There were no experienced guides. We plotted that territory. Mrs. Mosby reminded us to cut each other some slack. We were all very different now than we had been fifty years earlier.

That is an important reminder. We must give each other room to grow, to change beliefs, and to adapt to new understandings of historical “facts” and current reality. Who we were does not reflect who we have become.

I don’t have white friends from high school, at least not yet. In the last few years, I have crossed paths with a growing number and enjoyed those connections. We are friendly, but not yet friends. But who knows, by the next reunion, some budding relationships may evolve into real friendships.