When the subconscious is in control

Q: Who was the president of the Confederacy? A: Jefferson Davis.

I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. I’ve known the answer to that question all of my life; so, on page 131 of my book, Daughters of the Dream, why did I reference Robert E. Lee as the president of the Confederacy and why wasn’t this error caught by the multiple readers who reviewed the book before publishing?

I think there is only one answer: Robert E. Lee looms larger than life in most conversations about the Confederacy. It wasn’t until writing Daughters of the Dream that I knew there was a statue to Jefferson Davis on the venerable boulevard in my hometown that features effigies of Confederate notables (along with one statue to Richmond native son, tennis champion Arthur Ashe). I did, however, know about the 60-foot equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue. For whatever reason, Jefferson Davis seems to have taken a back seat, at least in Richmond, to Robert E. Lee. Even one of the local high schools is named Lee-Davis High, not Davis-Lee.

conscious.subconsciousWhy am I bringing this up? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to erase/correct the negative images about black people that have proliferated in our country for so long. I incorrectly wrote that Robert E. Lee was the president of the Confederacy because that false reality rang truer in my subconscious than the truth. And his role—Lee’s—as the dominant figure in the Confederacy mythos and pantheon, seems to have also permeated the psyche of many readers who did not catch the mistake.

I think the same thing has happened to many white people in America. The traits they associate the most with black people are negative. This rings in their subconscious. They hear about the number of black people committing crimes and who are incarcerated. They hear about the inability of black children to learn or for black boys to attend to their school work. They hear about, or see, the distressed nature of some black neighborhoods. They hear about the high black unemployment rate. The list goes on and on. Criminal, ignorant, unstable families are the media messages, the tropes that populate minds—often crowding out reason—with words and images. They give people the shorthand ability to make quick decisions. As Malcolm Gladwell reminded us in his book Blink, quick decisions are not uninformed decisions. They may occur in the blink of an eye, but information is being processed and acted upon that has been accumulated over a lifetime and fed by the experiences and perceptions of parents and grandparents, neighbors and teachers.

Against the negative imagery defining black people, there is often little real-life experience to provide balance and truth. In predominantly white communities, there may be few black teachers, lawyers, doctors, store managers to offer a counterweight against the negative images, no interaction in the homes and communities of the ‘other.’ And when you are the majority population, there is little reason to question your reality. It just is. There is little delving into the structural racism and implicit bias that shape reality. No one is being prompted to read Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law to learn of the federal government’s overt role in ensuring residential segregation and then questioning how residential segregation has led to differential policing in certain neighborhoods, differential public services like street cleaning, differential educational opportunities. No one is reviewing studies, like the one that shows when teachers are asked to watch a group of children in a classroom and then note which children are acting out, the answer is the black boy even when an impartial observer notes no distinction in the behaviors of the gender and racially diverse group.

Robert E. Lee rose higher in my consciousness when I thought about the Confederacy than did Jefferson Davis because images and messages had accumulated in my mind over a lifetime that positioned Lee in closer proximity to my sense of the Confederacy than Davis. I think many people experience this same effect. And perception, not facts, rule. I had been taught that Davis was president, not Lee. In the recesses of my mind, I knew this, and the error has been corrected in Daughters of the Dream, but what happens when there is no one teaching about black people as contributors to society on all levels and no one is pushing you to think a lot of what you ‘know’ about black people may be stereotypes. How do we address these culpabilities and overcome the ‘blink’ syndrome of implicit biases? We have to bombard the media with cell phone videos that show common prejudicial behaviors. We have to elevate the stories of the black doctors, scientists and those of ordinary people doing the right thing. Just as a reader told me of the mistake in Daughters of the Dream, we must all point out the faults in people’s thinking and work toward that dream of a racially just America.

P.S. — During this holiday season, I hope you will — consciously — consider purchasing my book Daughters of the Dream for the friends and family on your gift list.

Credentials

It may have been that Christmas when the chemistry set was more of a hit than the doll and dollhouse that Mr. and Mrs. Swann got the first inkling. Or the glowing reports coming home from the junior high chemistry teacher about their daughter Madeline. But they knew definitely when she asked to have pet mice for some experiments. Science was Madeline’s calling, and she pursued it with a purpose. In 1980, Madeline graduated from Howard University having earned a Ph.D. in chemistry.

She thought she would work on the eradication of diseases, but was drawn to research on the properties of fuels. Working for thirty years as a civilian employee of the U.S. Department of the Army, they lauded her work on keeping fuels liquid in harsh, cold madeline swannclimates. Those testimonies to her intelligence and skill in her technical field were diminished by the number of times—in meetings and conferences—she was taken to be ‘the help,’ clerical support, and asked to fetch coffee and sandwiches for the generals in the meetings who were doing the ‘real’ work. Once she made the offenders recognize their error, apologies were made, and the meeting continued with Madeline playing her true role. But Madeline’s lingering feeling was that no one in those rooms—full of white men—even considered the possibility she could be the chemist on whose research their military plans were being developed. Madeline died a little over a year ago.  If she were alive today, she would be the last person in our group to be surprised by the recent event on a Delta Airlines plane.

Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an African-American physician, offered her help to a passenger having a medical emergency. Three Delta employees questioned Dr. Stanford’s credentials even after she produced her medical license. A practice that was not to be followed after a 2016 incident when another Delta employee questioned the credentials of another black physician, Dr. Tamika Cross, when she tried to help a Delta passenger.

While Dr. Madeline Swann’s experiences and Dr. Stanford’s just a few days ago are decades apart, the realities are the same. Some things change, others remain. It is hard for some white people to believe black people have professional credentials. Some suggest that America is more racially fair now than ever before. I suspect that is true. There is a far greater likelihood you will encounter an African-American Ph.D. or M.D. today than at any other time in our country’s history, but even so only about 6% of all physicians are African-American today, and similarly, only about 6.5% of all doctoral candidates are African-American. Some might suggest that these low numbers—the low probability — underscore why Madeline wasn’t thought to be the chemist and why Dr. Stanford was questioned about being a medical doctor. I don’t believe that.

Even when presented with tangible evidence—a medical license—Dr. Stanford was not believed. Whether in the 1980s or thirty years later, the default presumption is a black woman couldn’t possibly be a physician… or a scientist. The narratives about black people’s ambition, intelligence and capabilities are still rampant as are other biases—of which some might even be unaware—against African-Americans.

In the 1990s, when my friend, Dr. Renee Fleming Mills styled her hair in braids and put them in what she thought was an elegant and professional chignon, she was told that hairstyle jeopardized her career path in corporate America. Her hair, not her Ph.D., evidence of her knowledge and expertise, became an issue. She wasn’t conforming to an American, white community-based, physical standard.

Just a few years ago, I heard a colleague, a black woman, say she had earned a Ph.D. not because she wanted to be an academic, but so the white community would not question her knowledge. I wonder if that has afforded her the social and community elevation and respect she expected.

We—my friends and I—were raised to be daughters of the dream; a dream in which success would be possible due to the content of our character (and the credentials we earned), not limited or prohibited by the color of our skin. Today, 55 years after Martin Luther King’s memorable address, skin color still invokes certain beliefs, assumptions, and prejudices. It is the ‘credential’ some see long before you can pull out your medical license or run home to get that diploma.

The Civil Rights Story: Another Layer Revealed

 “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” — Maya Angelou

When Roscoe Jones was 17 years old, he attended the Freedom School in Meridien, Mississippi, a school established by the Council of Coordinated Organizations to provide black students with an actual education, not the inferior one that black children then received in the Mississippi public schools.

Roscoe was recruited by, and then ultimately led, the youth chapter of the NAACP. During the summer of 1964, Freedom Summer, he worked on voter registration. It was only through a quirk of fate he was not in the car with James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner on the night the Ku Klux Klan killed them in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Schwerner  had  overheard a call Roscoe received inviting him to talk with a youth group. He urged Roscoe to stay and do that talk instead of joining them. Fate.

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Roscoe Jones beside the grave of James Chaney

I met Roscoe earlier this year. Last month, I joined him and a group of racial equity activists and knowledge seekers from the Washington, DC area on a civil rights learning journey. I thought I knew a lot about that movement. Now I know my knowledge has been superficial. I know the basic facts; the dates, the names and the more prominent incidents. But it wasn’t until this trip to Memphis, Tennessee and several parts of Mississippi and Alabama that I learned the nuances, the shadows, and just how different the life of a black, 17-year-old in Richmond, Virginia—my life—in the late 1960s was from that of one in Meridien, Mississippi or Birmingham, Alabama. The Deep South.

While I was attending a public high school at which I was receiving a solid, college prep education and hanging out with friends at state parks or at pool parties, Roscoe was organizing with his peers and risking his life to register voters. Only about 800 miles separates Mississippi from Virginia geographically, but we were separated by centuries of racial realities. Our worlds were incredibly different.

One of our guides shared the story of her mother, a social studies teacher, trying to register to vote. She was prepared when the registrar asked her to recite the preamble to the Constitution; she had had her students memorize it as they learned American history. Then came the follow-up question. Do you remember Oprah Winfrey in the movie Selma, the scene in which she was trying to register to vote? She was asked the number of counties in the state and then to name all the judges in those counties. You may have thought it was an exaggeration to make the point. But sitting before me was a woman in her 60s, recounting her mother’s sadness at being denied the vote because she could not recite the entire Constitution.

In Richmond, a poll tax was a requirement to register to vote until the mid-1960s, but the registrar did not ask the number of bubbles in a bar of soap or the number of feathers on a chicken.

Nowhere in my recollection of Richmond’s history were black people jeered and assaulted as they registered their children for school as were Fred and Ruby Shuttlesworth when they tried to enroll their children in an all-white school in Alabama. The crowd beat Fred Shuttlesworth with brass knuckles and stabbed Ruby.

I heard stories and learned things I never knew.

The differences I felt in Roscoe’s and my experience strengthened—chillingly so—when visiting the Kelly Ingram Park across from the 16th Street Baptist Church, the site of a bombing that killed four young girls.  Memorials are throughout the park. One depicts young people huddled against a wall with water hoses aimed at them, but the most powerful had snarling dogs leaping at you on both sides of the walkway. Only a soundtrack of growling, enraged dogs would have made it more realistic. No caring, compassionate person could visit such representations of fundamental moral wrongness, and not come away with a visceral—heartsick—feeling, but one, nonetheless, mixed with pride and awe for those who stood up and protested.

When I think of the civil rights movement, my frame is the non-violent protests in my home city. Nothing like this happened as young people in Richmond advocated peacefully for integrating downtown movie theaters and department store restaurants. I was aware at the time of the violence in Birmingham and on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Those were newsreel images. My mind hadn’t wrapped around the pervasiveness of the daily terror, the consequences of not stepping off the sidewalk as a white family walked by or of being dragged from your home in the night, beaten and possibly lynched to provide an example to others.

We hear a lot about the greatest generation, typically about World War II veterans. This trip reminded me that there are others in that greatest generation, the civil rights workers. The Roscoe Joneses of the Deep South risked their lives for many of the rights we take for granted today. They, too, were soldiers fighting for justice, for the freedom portrayed in our Constitution. Today as Roscoe, and others, share their stories with people like me, he deepens our understanding of what those experiences that we read about really were like and he strengthens our commitment today to racial equity. I am  grateful.

A More Perfect Union

I live in Washington, DC and for a long time thought my physical location was a big part of what made me a political junkie. The local news is, after all, the national news. But it isn’t just location, it is also immediacy. Sometimes I know, have met, or have seen on the street, politicians in the news. This minor familiarity makes them more than just names. And, it isn’t just proximity; it is also a recognition and an appreciation of how much was sacrificed to have the ability to vote, a right that shapes so much of what is reflected in the news.

US CapitolI can’t envision a day without CNN, the Washington Post or the various news alerts on my cell phone. I’m hooked. I have to know what is going on in my world, even when the events of the day are troubling. So, as you might expect, I can’t imagine not playing an active role in our country’s political reality. I simply can’t imagine not voting. As the time for the mid-term elections gets closer, I am wondering if people will vote… and I’m completely baffled and angered by the possibility that people will stay home.

How can you not vote? Particularly African-Americans who didn’t have the right to vote until 1870, almost a century after this country was founded on the basis that ‘all men are created equal.’ It was only then that the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified giving black men the ability to vote. When blacks used that power of the vote and gained a few state offices in the late 1800s, they were struck down. In my home state of Virginia, and in many others, the power brokers of the time then put in place literacy tests and poll taxes, barriers that many could not overcome. In just four years, the number of black voters in Virginia went from 147,000 in 1901 to only 5,000 by 1905. Even 50 years later, in 1956, when an organization in Richmond started actively registering blacks to vote, they discovered that only 19% of eligible black voters were registered. Voter suppression strategies had worked.

Today, hard-fought political gains—post-1965 Voting Rights Act gains—are again being threatened. Just as the election of some blacks to political offices in post-Civil War America led to efforts to squelch power, so too did the election of an African-American president. Coordinated efforts, perhaps not as overt as the 1902 Virginia Constitution change that reduced the number of black voters, but coordinated efforts are being used to lessen the political power of black Americans.

In recent years, robocalls to voters have announced, inaccurately, that the polls have closed or named a winner even when voting is still open. States are also moving to structural changes, such as requiring government-issued IDs to vote, a measure that has a disproportionate, and potentially, long-term effect on communities of color.

But one of the more repugnant strategies was seen recently when the white, Republican gubernatorial candidate in Florida urged his supporters to not “monkey this up” an age-old reference to the presumed animalistic qualities and low intelligence of black people. His opponent is African-American. “Don’t screw this up” or “don’t mess this up” are everyday expressions that roll off the tongue. His comment to not “monkey this up,” is not an everyday expression. It was a clear, pointed, and racialized message to those who consciously and those who subconsciously continue to see African-Americans as less than human. His statement was in no way benign. It was calculated and racist.

I grew up in a time when every new black elected official was celebrated. My parents and neighbors celebrated Carl Stokes, first mayor of a major American city, Cleveland, and Richard Hatcher, the mayor of Gary, Indiana. They even celebrated Edward Brooke, the first African-American in the United States Senate since Reconstruction even though soon after his victory, he announced: “I do not intend to be a national leader of the Negro people.”

As the number of black elected officials has grown at the local, state, and national levels, we may have been lulled, a bit, into thinking that we are well represented. We are not. Currently, there are 47 black members of the House of Representatives (including two non-voting delegates), 47 out of 435 and three black U.S. Senators out of 100. There are no black governors. [Did you know: those of us who live in the Nation’s capital do not have a voting member of Congress. We have a delegate.]

All of this will change with the November mid-term elections. The question is, in which direction. While on the one hand, I see a heightened sensitivity among many in America to racial injustice, I also see ongoing inequities, many of which can be changed only by those who wield the power of the people—elected officials.

November 6, 2018, is election day. Vote. Elect those who can make this a land in which we truly are working for that ‘more perfect union’ promised in the Constitution.

What’s in a Name? A Lot!

Next month, Barack Obama Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia will open its doors for the first time.

Well, not really. The school, originally named J.E.B. Stuart Elementary, opened in 1922.

It was to J.E.B. Stuart that I walked on the first day of the sixth grade. I had attended the segregated Albert V. Norrell Elementary School for the 1st through the 5th grade (the highest grade at that school). Even though Stuart had grades 1-6, and my sixth-grade year was well after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, for me, the 6th grade was the first year that the city fathers of Richmond, Virginia allowed me into a white school.

Both Norrell and Stuart were within easy walking distance of my home, but Stuart was a little closer. I lived two blocks south of Brookland Park Boulevard. Stuart was two blocks north. Brookland Park Boulevard was the dividing line, separating black Richmond from white Richmond. The neighborhoods on both sides looked the same—the same beautiful mature trees, the same mixture of architectural styles of houses—but we knew when we crossed the boulevard, it was not the same. While the street itself was rather ordinary, it represented a significant cultural divide. We were foreigners entering the all-white community where our school was located.

As an 11-year-old, I didn’t think anything about who J.E.B. Stuart (a Civil War general for the Confederate states) was just as I hadn’t thought a lot about the eponym of my former school, Albert V. Norrell (an African-American educator whose granddaughter, Faithe, was one of my first-grade classmates).  The names of the schools were just, well, the names of the schools.

In recent years, as the racial consciousness of Americans has grown, how the Civil War is reflected in our day-to-day lives has become an important, and somewhat contentious, topic.

There is no question that for over a century, through many mechanisms, heroic status was given to the leaders of the Confederacy. Literally, looking at the plethora of enormous statues memorializing them across America, and especially in my hometown, gives these men a mythic place in our country’s cultural narrative. And when that fact is coupled with the reality of few monuments or memorials that acknowledge the suffering of enslaved Africans or that celebrate the many contributions of black Americans, you can see why the existence of the statues and the relevance of names is coming into question.

Last month, based on input from the community and from students, J.E.B. Stuart’s name was changed to Barack Obama Elementary. Good, right? Hmmm….. I certainly don’t want to celebrate J.E.B. Stuart and I never did. I do wish to honor President Obama, but it does feel a little strange that now I will tell folks that I attended Obama Elementary. Why is it strange? Because he would have been a one-year-old when I attended that school. Weird, right?

As I thought about it, my first thought was that long-established schools, wanting to change their names, should select non-current historical figures or just something else that is meaningful to the community. J.E.B. Stuart Elementary could have become Azalea Elementary maybe, recognizing the beautiful, spring shrubbery in the Richmond area. Or even Northside Elementary after the section of town in which the school is located, or perhaps be named for another historical figure like Albert V. Norrell, the name of the now-closed, black elementary school. Following that practice would mean that you wouldn’t end up with this peculiar time warp feeling that challenges me just a little right now.

What something is named does matter, having an unconscious effect on some, but great impact for others. This year, 96.4% of the children attending this school will be children of color with 91.8% being African-American. I know that the parents who hold their hands as they walk into Barack Obama Elementary on September 4th will feel a sense of pride. That pride will flow into the children as they learn about the leader for whom their school is named. And on those rare occasions when called on to mention my elementary school experience, the new name will catch on my tongue, at least at first, but I, too, am proud to have attended the only school in Richmond, Virginia named for the first African-American president. Time warp be damned.

I just ordered my Barack Obama Elementary School T-shirt —  🙂 ! You can too.  https://www.bonfire.com/barack-obama-elementary-school-1/.

Swimming in Inequity: Waters Divide

What do you think when someone says “Let’s go to the pool.” A fun place to meet friends, a peaceful spot to read a good book, take a refreshing swim, or do rigorous laps?

Whatever you think, this iconic image of summer rarely brings forth thoughts of race, but that’s exactly what happened to me recently. The racial overtone of swimming pools came to mind when I learned of a play coming to my area called #poolparty. Based on an incident that happened years ago in Mt. Rainier, Maryland, a community just outside of Washington, DC, this play focuses on the unique, and perhaps unexpected, role that swimming pools have played in the history of race in America.

Public pools were off limits for many African-Americans during the years when I grew up. In the late 1950s and 60s, there were none available for black people in Richmond, Virginia, my hometown. City leaders claimed that tight budgets and the fear of the transmittal of diseases, particularly polio at that time, was the basis for this decision. But no one believed that. The real reason, some suggest, was a desire not to mix races in what many felt was the intimacy of a swimming pool. Body-revealing bathing suits and the possibility of touching, even accidentally, brought forth the white community’s historical need to protect white women from black men. Since integration in civic areas was now legally mandated, public pools, at least those in Richmond, and in many other communities, would be closed.

Now, this reality didn’t have too much impact on many whites. There were private community pools and private country clubs. White teenagers still had pool parties, and young white parents took their young ones to pools to learn to swim.

That wasn’t the case in my community. Even though neither of my parents could swim, they both wanted me to learn. I remember them talking about how much fun I could have. It was right before school ended in the 7th grade that these conversations started in my home. Swimming had never come up before. What I didn’t know was that there hadn’t been a place for me to learn to swim until then. The local black Y—separate and pool with stepsunequal—didn’t have a pool like the white Y. At the time, there was no country club for the black community. But that summer a resource became available. A local black physician opened his nearby home to swim instructors from the black Y. They held classes in his backyard pool. That year, the summer between the 7th and 8th grades, I packed my towel and put on shorts over my swimsuit and walked the few blocks to Dr. Jackson’s house to learn to swim. Just as had always been the case, the black community found a way to take care of its own. But for those not fortunate enough to have a Dr. Jackson with a pool in the neighborhood, your grandparents might not have learned to swim. If they didn’t, your mom and dad might not have been encouraged to learn. And the fun and value of learning to swim may not have been transmitted to you.

The lack of access to pools in the ‘50s and ‘60s continues to have an impact today.

Swimming is often seen only as a recreational activity but learning how to swim can, of course, save your life. Even today, the USA Swimming Foundation estimates that 70% of African-Americans cannot swim. Consider that fact against the high percentage of people who lost their lives in New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Most were poor and black… and they drowned.

While swimming pools are no longer the symbol of privilege they once were, access to swimming is still disproportionately more available to the white community. Certainly swimming and access to a pool is not the symbol of racial equity in America. But the next time you sit by the pool to read, or you invite your friends over for a swim, at least acknowledge that this, too, is representative of the racial divide that continues to exist and is emblematic of a much more profound and significant racial disparity in America.

Daughters of the Dream: The Book!

Last September, I launched my Daughters of the Dream blog to share stories about growing up amid segregation, integration, civil rights and the ongoing push for racial justice. Now, I have captured those stories, and so much more, in a book by the same name. If the blog speaks to your heart, your mind, or your soul, I hope you will order my new book.

If you are a fan of Amazon, go to: https://www.amazon.com/Tamara-Lucas-Copeland/e/B07DLY2L2T/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0.

cover photo

If Barnes and Noble is more your choice, here’s the link: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/daughters-of-the-dream-tamara-lucas-copeland/1128850552?ean=9781937592813.

And, one other option—Books A Million has the book at http://www.booksamillion.com/p/Daughters-Dream/Tamara-Lucas-Copeland/9781937592813?id=7284467936313.

For all the options, the book can be pre-ordered before its release on June 18.

Through vignettes of the life experiences of eight friends from Richmond, Virginia, the book presents one person’s perspective of what it truly is like to be black in America. Let me know if it makes you think differently, opens your eyes to another reality, or if it simply reminds you of meaningful life experiences.

Missing Pieces of American History

NMAAHC. behind TLC

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened on September 24, 2016. When the date was announced six months earlier, in February, Black History Month, I marked it on my calendar. I had already planned two trips for the late summer/early fall, a friends’ outing to Spain and Morocco and another to Memphis to visit the National Civil Rights Museum. Living in Washington, DC, I had been watching the building of the museum and looking for the “opening soon” signage to become a definite date. Now that I had it, both trips would have to be planned around the opening. I wasn’t likely to receive an invitation to the festivities, but nothing would prevent me from being on the museum grounds that day. I had to be a part of this incredible event, a museum on the National Mall dedicated entirely to the history and culture of my people.

“I was sitting at home watching the opening of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture on TV. I could feel the energy and I, too, had been anticipating the opening. I started to wonder why I wasn’t there, then I told myself well it wasn’t my museum. That’s when I had the epiphany. Of course, it was my museum, my museum as an American.”

A white colleague told me that a few weeks after the museum opened. I don’t think he was alone in his viewpoint. Many white people were supportive of a museum dedicated to the African-American experience, but they weren’t sure where/how/if they were a part of it. Even I thought of it as my museum and, interestingly, was, at first, surprised by the numbers of white people during the firsts of my multiple visits.

That’s the problem.

The history of black America has never been a part of the history OF America. It always had a place, and one of significance, in black America, but little visibility in white America. My teachers and principal—all of whom were black—in elementary school made sure I knew it. Biographies of black Americans were prominent in the school library. Pictures and commentary on black people and achievements lined the bulletin boards in the classrooms and throughout the building. Not just for what was then Negro History Week, but throughout the year. And, the successes and milestones of black people were the everyday conversation at my family’s dinner table and readily available as both Life Magazine and Ebony Magazine were delivered to my home.

That wasn’t the experience for my white colleague. No focus was placed on teaching him about black America at any point in his formal education. Without his commitment to broadening his understanding of America, his knowledge would be driven solely by happenstance personal experiences and by the manner of coverage by the ubiquitous electronic, social, and print media.

Black history had been, and still is, compartmentalized, marginalized.

In 1977, many Americans, black and white, were riveted by the television miniseries Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Never had there been as mainstream, and as public, an examination of the history of black people in this country. Every episode became next-day conversations at metaphorical water coolers just about everywhere. But, today, four decades after recognizing how much Roots had revealed that we didn’t know, black history still is not fully incorporated into the American past that our sons and daughters learn in school. Black American history is still niche history, not yet seen—at least by those who control textbooks and our educational system—as a part of a comprehensive examination of our country’s history.

The jigsaw puzzle of America’s history continues to have too many missing pieces. But, for those who understand that gaps exist, and for those who want to understand the fullness, richness, and inequities born in American history, the resources today are many to take that powerful learning journey.

Note: Daughters of the Dream, a book I believe is one, small piece of that puzzle, will be released next month. More info coming soon.

Continue reading “Missing Pieces of American History”

Awakening Racial Pride, Racial Understanding

For each of us there is an awakening. Something that has been tolerated is simply no longer acceptable. Sometimes it is a moment when a reality is suddenly crystal clear. Sometimes it is more of a process, over time. For me, and for many of my high school classmates, it was a process of racial understanding and emerging racial pride that began one fall day.

“I wish I was in the land of cotton,

Old times there are not forgotten,

Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land.”

Played by the school band, that’s what we heard freshman year when we walked into the gym for our first pep rally. Students were singing loudly and enthusiastically as they stomped their feet on the wooden bleachers. The energy in the room was palpable.

Dixie “Dixie” was the fight song for my high school, John Marshall in Richmond, Virginia. Yes, that “Dixie.” The song born in the minstrel shows of the mid-1800s, the song that was the standard for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, and the song that had come to represent the collective of the Southern states, and the Southern sensibility, in the United States. That “Dixie”.

This was the mid-1960s. Brown v. Board of Education had called for the integration of all public schools about a decade or so earlier, but schools in Virginia were slow to recognize the mandate. In fact, they actively worked against it. When I arrived, John Marshall was still a predominately white school with a small number of black students. Many in the all-white, school administration and many of the white students’ parents had fought against integration. Black people were actively trying to prove that they could fit in. Like most at the time, the black students at John Marshall were Negroes, integrationists, assimilationists. No one wanted to do anything to cause trouble. Black people were trying to gain acceptance in a white world. And on that fall day, the students—white and black—were just kids cheering their football team as the players came into the gym.

We were all children of the cultural South. We all knew the words. By rote, almost everyone sang with little regard for the meaning or essence of the song,

“In Dixie Land, I’ll take my stand,

To live and die in Dixie.”

 A traditional fight song for the South, a song of pride, it had probably been the rallying song for John Marshall High from the beginning when the school opened in 1909, just a little over 50 years after the Civil War. No consideration had been given then to any culture other than white and little was offered a little over fifty years later for black students. It is unlikely that anyone—not for a moment—thought this, a school-rallying cry, might be offensive. Did it really matter?

Something about singing the song probably felt wrong from the start, but we went along to get along. Then, one day the words suddenly came into focus. Our consciousness had been raised. The school rallying song did matter. It was symbolic of so much. How could “We Shall Overcome” be the song of the times—more importantly, the anthem of our people—while we continued to sing “Dixie?”

Students asked the administration to stop playing “Dixie.” They were disregarded. Then one day, in our junior year, the black band members—in one catalytic moment—decided to take action. They didn’t refuse to play the song, it could have been played without them. Their action was far more effective, demonstrating the effect that the song was having on us— it was hurtful. When the band director called for “Dixie,” the black band members played other songs, not just one song, many. Cacophony resulted, then silence. That moment of dissonance accomplished what polite requests had failed to do. In that silence was there any racial understanding or compassion? I don’t know, but “Dixie” was no longer the fight song for John Marshall High School.

To learn more about “Dixie,” listen to this episode of the podcast, “Uncivil.” I guarantee you’ll learn something new.

 

Elders, not Elderly

My friend, Veronica Dungee Abrams’ mom passed away a few weeks ago, and then I  learned of the passing of her mother-in-law. In their 80s and 90s, both had long lives. Their deaths heralded what we knew was coming. And now it’s here. We are the elders.

My dad used to say, “I don’t feel any different than when I was in my 20s.” When he said this, he was in his 60s and had just climbed off a ladder after painting our 2400 square foot frame house. No one thought anything of it. This was not a feat. It was just a completed task. My dad jogged five miles a day, was healthy and vibrant. But really, I couldn’t believe it when he said that 65 years old felt no different for him than 25. Now I get it. Aging really is numerical, not psychological. There are, however, some realities that can’t be overlooked and we seem to talk about them … a lot.

“What medications are you taking? I thought you exercised enough not to need that.”

“Medicaid, no Medicare – whatever. What choices am I supposed to make?”

“I look in the mirror, and I don’t know the person looking back.”

It’s true. My friends and I are talking about and experiencing aging. Inwardly, like my dad, we feel the same: interested in life, ready to take on new challenges, planning for a future.

Yet, as the deaths of our parents, aunts, and uncles affirm our new responsibility, we recognize that we’re a bit … frightened.

It may sound silly and obvious, but we’ve never been elders before. Like most, we want to live a long life, but we aren’t so sure we’re ready for what befalls us as we assume this new role. Not only are we supposed to possess a life’s wisdom that many of us feel we don’t have, we are expected to share knowledge through the transmittal of family history and use our wisdom to be a part of the change we want to see in the world.

We have noticed that we are better able to manage time. The frenetic pace of doing, doing, doing, is slowly moving into our past. We take time more often to reflect on the arc—the trajectory—of life. We think we’ve acquired an understanding of many things: why something continues to happen, how to change patterns of behavior, who to welcome and sustain in our circle of friendship. Interestingly though, we aren’t quite ready to call those insights “wisdom”.  That’s not a term we connect to ourselves.

wisdom quoteWe spend time now talking with kids and grandchildren about family, our race, and our history. We fully recognize that just as the school systems didn’t teach us about the contributions of African-Americans to the greatness, beauty and economic viability of our country, today’s academic curriculum still doesn’t include us. We know it is up to us to share what’s truly important about our heritage. Not just the DNA analyses so popular today, but the real stories of what family members — parents,  great-grandparents, cousins — and even neighbors, suffered through, how they rose, how they achieved, and how they gave back.

Daughters of the Dream is my effort to capture that history, to prompt you, regardless of your race, to reflect on the role that black people have played in our collective past and to encourage you to share your experiences, insights, and wisdom with friends and family. While I believe that my self-reflection and understanding have grown as I’ve aged, I know that age is not the sole marker of wisdom. Recently, I’ve watched the actions of high schoolers from across the country organizing and demanding prudent and reasonable gun laws. I recognize and applaud the wisdom of their efforts. I reflect on the leadership of millennial mayors in Jackson, Mississippi, and Compton, California, and my hometown of Richmond, Virginia and I appreciate and celebrate their wisdom.

I think I am beginning to come into my own as an elder, but I refuse to be elderly, at least not quite yet. And I know, for sure, that wisdom rests across generations.