Forever friends, from Brown v. Board of Education to Barack Obama
Author: Tamara Lucas Copeland
I am African-American, a child of the South, born, educated and still living there. This distinction provides a unique personal vantage point for issues of racial equity. I am also an only child, a circumstance that sometimes leads to friends being more like family. These factors contribute to my love for my forever friends, my perspective on the role race plays in America, and my authorship of both the Daughters of the Dream blog and now a book by the same name. or decades, I watched my mother research the genealogical history of her family, talking to relatives, reviewing microfiche on hundreds of library visits long before the internet existed, as she labored to produce two published works. Motivated by my mother’s determination to document her family and by my and my friends’ realization of the importance of our five-plus decades-long friendship, I took on the challenge of telling our story. Not a historian, but an avid observer of the overlay of history on the racial reality of America, Daughters of the Dream is the result.
Currently, I am president of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers (WRAG). Founded in 1992, WRAG is a nonprofit association with over 100 of the most well-respected foundations and corporate giving programs in the Greater Washington, D.C. region as its members. WRAG’s groundbreaking work, Putting Racism on the Table, has received widespread recognition for enabling the philanthropic community to understand so they might work for racial equity. I came to WRAG with extensive experience in nonprofit management and on children’s policy having led Voices for America’s Children, the National Health & Education Consortium, and the Infant Mortality Initiative of Southern Governors’ Association and Southern Legislative Conference and having been Congressman Bobby Scott’s (D-VA) Legislative Director.
When I looked at TV coverage of election celebrations from Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia, and my city of Washington, DC, I saw liberals and Democrats waving the American flag. BIPOC, LGBTQ, people whose T-shirts and buttons proudly proclaimed who they were and what they valued, people who had been demeaned and insulted, bullied, and dismissed. People who looked like me, people who shared my views and my hopes.
For me, the American flag had been co-opted by right-wing America, the far-right-wing. The flag-wavers who I usually saw weren’t simply those who called themselves conservative, but people whose views of what America should be involved taking away their fellow Americans’ rights. They insulted, maligned, minimized, and marginalized anyone whose opinions, skin color, religious beliefs, or families differed from their own. They waved that flag with aggression and superiority. The symbols that represented them—especially the American flag—couldn’t represent me.
So, I noticed them… people I can identify with… as they raised and waved that flag, a symbol I had become doubtful would ever represent what I—and they—believed in.
The announcement that Joe Biden was president-elect and Kamala Harris was vice president-elect was met with shouts, cheers, horn honking, and … flag waving as people celebrated the end of four long years of hatred, lies, and national disgrace. They celebrated the election of a man of integrity who pronounced he would reclaim the soul of America, a man with vision, a leader for all Americans. They celebrated the first Black vice president and the first woman, and even the first second gentleman. They were joyful, smiling, dancing, high-fiving, and proudly waving our flag. I noticed. I felt the same way — a new lightness and relief at reclaiming America and the American flag as my symbol, a symbol of my country, a country that isn’t perfect, but one whose days ahead now seem hopeful.
We can make America great… it can live up to its ideals. The president-elect encapsulated America in one word: Possibilities.
Note to blog followers: On 10/29/20, you inadvertently received a version of this blog. It was a work in progress, close, but not quite done. Apologies. This is the final version.
What does it mean to be an African American ‘first’ in 2020?
“Pope Francis names first African-American Cardinal” was the headline across many newspapers in late October. That followed another announcement: Princeton University will name a residential college—the first—for a Black woman, businesswoman Mellody Hobson.
I was drawn to both stories, not only because as a Black person my eyes simply go to such announcements, but also because of a comment made by a white friend a few weeks earlier. He had pointed out another African American first: The Metropolitan Opera had announced that Grammy winner and Oscar nominee Terence Blanchard would open their 2021-2022 season with Fire Shut Up in My Bones, the first work by a Black composer ever presented by the Met. My friend commented that for some white people, particularly older white people, he thought, seeing Black people in these ‘firsts’ and seeing their competence moves the ‘firsts’ from being seen as ‘excellence and inclusion’ to simply, and yet more profoundly just ‘excellence.’ As it should be. Not an act of racial equity, but an earned place where no Black person had been before.
His comment reminded me of something that happened a few years ago. I was listening to a racial justice advocate. She suggested Jackie Robinson wasn’t the first Black man “capable” of playing Major League Baseball, but the first ‘allowed’ to play (in modern times). Of course. I knew that, but the wording and mental recognition, that “aha’ moment, are important reminders and serve to illuminate and clarify. Many others had the talent but weren’t allowed in white ball clubs. Reflect on that.
1970: The first Black contestant was allowed to enter the Miss America contest. Until then, according to rule #7, ‘contestants must be of good health and of the white race.’ It was in 1983 that the first African American, Vanessa Williams, was crowned Miss America.
1975: Lee Elder became the first Black person to play golf in the PGA Masters Tournament. Until 1961, the PGA had a ‘Caucasians-only’ membership clause.
1988: Doug Williams of the Washington DC football team was the first African American quarterback to start (and win) the Super Bowl. For decades, Blacks were not deemed smart enough to quarterback teams.
In some areas, law has prohibited African Americans’ enfranchisement through restrictions, covenants, and discriminatory practices, for example, in housing until 1968 — within your parents’ or grandparents’ lifetime, or perhaps even yours.
In other areas, educational limitations prevented African Americans from obtaining the necessary academic credentials, to become, for example, an astronaut (Guion Bluford was the first in 1983). And sometimes schooling combined with racially-limited personal and professional networks (the ‘good-ole-boy’ network is a real thing) inhibited the likelihood of African Americans rising to certain positions, such as CEO of a Fortune 500 company (Franklin Raines was the first in 1999, Fannie Mae).
And even when African Americans could get into a profession where they were a significant contributor, so much was masked or concealed, or just not celebrated. Consider mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan. Their work at NASA and role in early space exploration were unknown to many of us until the movie Hidden Figures.
Today, there are no African American governors. There have only been two elected in this country’s almost 250-year history: Doug Wilder (VA; 1990) and Deval Patrick (MA; 2006). Why is that? Remember the year of the hashtag, Oscars so white? Brandice Daniel, an African American fashion designer, established Harlem Fashion Row in 2006 when she realized the dearth of Black designers who received exposure. So many other examples could be offered, but you get the point.
When you look around, think about why African Americans aren’t a member —literally and figuratively—of your club. Why aren’t they more fully incorporated into American life’s cultural, business, and political fabric?
A few years ago, my neighborhood was trying to define a communal look. Some neighbors already flew the American flag and suggested the flag as our shared identifier, the hallmark to creating visual cohesion. Several other neighbors almost screamed their objection to the American flag, noting that it did not reflect their values.
I was reminded recently of the angst of that neighborhood conversation. First, on the anniversary of September 11, I remembered our country’s collective patriotism back then against a shared enemy who we couldn’t even identify. Flags flew from car antennae and from front porch flag posts, and many were teary-eyed that evening in 2001 as members of Congress sang God Bless America on the steps of the Capitol. We were brought together as proud, united Americans.
The second event that brought back that neighborhood memory was hearing our country didn’t need a history curriculum based on the 1619 Project, but instead one that was “pro-American, celebrating the truth about our nation’s great history.” That sentiment, while purporting to be pro-American was a clear message: a curriculum grounded in an African American reality was anti-American. That message justified the feelings of those neighbors who said the flag didn’t represent their values.
For those unfamiliar with the 1619 Project, in August 2019, the New York Times Magazine published a groundbreaking edition. Every article centered our country’s history on the arrival, 400 years earlier, of 20-30 enslaved Africans. Noted journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones used that seminal event to tell our country’s history, focused on the contributions of African Americans throughout America’s history. Then, partnering with the Pulitzer Center, the 1619 essay was turned into a free curriculum for classroom teachers.
If you read my Daughters of the Dreampost last month, you’ll know I have concerns about how our country’s history is taught. Using the 1619 Project as the starting place sounded exactly right to me. I thought it would finally tell the actual truth of our nation’s history. Hannah-Jones starts her opening essay by saying her father always flew the American flag proudly in front of their home. But she didn’t understand how he could love a country she felt had never loved him. But, after a full examination of the country’s history and deep reflection (remember ‘reveal, reflect, recalibrate’), she ends the essay noting: “We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.” With pride, not only does Hannah-Jones understand her father’s belief in and love for the country, she has proudly staked her own claim as an American. Only to have the essay and project attacked as not ‘pro-American’ by the highest levels of government and prohibited in the duplicitous and Machiavellian wording and language of a presidential executive order.
I know what image comes to mind, for many, when picturing the all-American boy. I think I know what comes to mind, for many, when they think of the American dream.
Try that right now.
What did you think of? Tell the truth.
In your mind’s eye, I don’t think that boy has dreadlocks and brown skin and does not live in that suburban house with the well-manicured lawn.
The “American” narrative, that pro-American truth distortion of our history, is still grounded in white skin and white-centered values. The ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps, equality of opportunity, hard work leads to success’ values that may be American, but they—like the history that has been taught—are not valid for all.
It’s hard for me, and many Black people, to embrace fully the American flag, the flag of a country that doesn’t seem to include us. But I am trying. I want to claim my country and to feel the sense of pride felt in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. I want to work for a racially just America reflective of the words in those patriotic songs and in the country’s founding documents.
And I believe more white people today than in our country’s history are trying to understand the America that Black people see. I believe that more and more are joining with the BIPOC community to work toward a racially just, pro-America reality.
I believe we can create an inclusive America stronger than anything envisioned in the 18th century. One without a solo image representing an idealized all-American boy or girl that excludes the diversity of the nation we’ve become. One where the American dream is not solely defined by a white person—a white family—owning a house. We must determine what a truly democratic economy looks like and how can we— we the people—ensure everyone succeeds in this all-embracing, new America.
I hope one day, maybe soon, we can all proudly wave that flag.
NOTE: If you are interested in learning more about the 1619 Project, there is an online study group meeting 10/1, 10/15, 10/29, 11/12 and 12/10. Here’s the link to register.
As Confederate statues have come down, there have been many cries that history is being destroyed. The current U.S. president said: “We have a heritage. We have a history, and we should learn from the history.”
Well, that’s the problem. The history of America, particularly its racial history, never has been taught fully and comprehensively. Many have learned a version of history through the lens of white leaders with a specific, racialized agenda, but typically not from unbiased historians committed to the truth.
When I first entered an integrated school in the 6th grade, my mother told me: “White people don’t always tell the truth.” I knew she was talking about adults. Her message surprised me. I had been taught to always respect adults, and thought that included expecting their truthfulness. This was the first clue my educational experience was changing.
Every day, when I left school, I came home to a community that challenged and corrected what I had been taught in history. They shared a different story of slavery, one that revealed the atrocities of subjugation, and a different story of the Civil War. Not about the battles per se, but about what was at its core. My education was augmented by information about slave uprisings and about black people fighting for their humanity, not docile and lazy, but hard-working, freedom fighters. And the history I learned from my family and neighbors was the truth.
For my white classmates, also learning from those textbooks, was the content ever questioned? I suspect there were few white households in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy, in which the story of slavery was even discussed back then, much less refuted. It—the stated and printed history—just was. In the 1950s, when these textbooks were developed, Virginia was leading the fight against integration. The notion of black people being happy with their current condition was mythology in 1850 and remained so in 1950. A distortion of history was taught in public schools, with textbooks developed and approved by the government-established Virginia History and Government Textbook Commission. Why would the content be questioned? It wasn’t until the late ‘60s that just a small reference to Harriet Tubman was added to appease vocal outrage from civil rights advocates. And it wasn’t until 1972 that the Virginia Department of Education announced that the three textbooks that had then shaped thousands of students’ knowledge of Virginia’s history for over two decades would be “decommissioned”… not denounced as they should have been.
So, what’s the big deal now? The new history textbooks are correct, right? Maybe, but what about those who learned from the old texts? Just consider this. If you were in the 7th grade in 1972, today, you are 60 years old, perhaps still in a leadership position, probably a senior leadership position … a judge, state legislator, college professor maybe. Think about how many people these folks have mentored over their careers. What policies have they shaped or influenced? Are these some of the folks calling for Confederate statues to remain because history is being erased? Having those books as their texts, living in racially homogeneous communities, never learning about black people, this is a part of what shaped them. Philosophically, who are they? What are their values and beliefs?
And this isn’t just a Virginia story.
“I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.” — James Baldwin
In America, we place enormous trust in our education system to prepare our children to succeed. Can you successfully negotiate America—a country developed in large part by black labor—without understanding black history and culture and the fundamentals of a racial hierarchy that goes back 400 years? Until now, the answer has been yes.
We must do better. Learning about black history and culture, along with race and racism, cannot be ad hoc or haphazard. It must be structured, intentional, and incorporated throughout the educational experience. Moving America to racial equity will require the inclusion of an examination of racialized America in mainstream American education. Reveal, reflect, recalibrate. It can be done, and we should do it. Now.