February is Black History Month, and we’re kicking it off with eight inspiring quotes from eight equally inspiring figures.
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To say that Black History Month was a challenge this year is an understatement.
From racist yearbook photos in Virginia to criminal charges for “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett and singer R. Kelly, it was enough to make cultural commentator Keith Boykin tweet that he needed a do-over, and many agreed.
“From what people are doing to us to what we are doing to ourselves, it hasn’t been a good Black History Month,” said Michelle Thomas, president of the NAACP in Loudoun County, Virginia. Her perspective is understandable – three white teachers in an elementary school in her county decided to have students, including at least two black children, play a runaway slave role-playing game to learn about the Underground Railroad. Livid black parents are demanding changes from the school board, which has pledged to address inequities, bias and teacher training.
Who could focus on the achievements of African Americans when distracted by:
Virginia’s politicians. The month began with the revelation that Gov. Ralph Northam may or may not have been in a 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical College yearbook photo featuring a man in blackface and a man in Ku Klux Klan robes, although he and the state’s attorney general, Mark Herrin, both admit to blackening their faces to portray their favorite entertainers. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was accused by two women of sexual assault and, to close out the month, the governor’s wife, Pam Northam, is under fire for handing cotton to black students during a tour of the executive mansion, so they could imagine being enslaved.
Celebrity drama. Following the Lifetime documentary “Surviving R. Kelly,” a damning new sex video alleged to feature a 14 year old, and a host of women coming forward as #MeToo and #MuteRKelly raised awareness, Kelly was charged last month with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse.
Smollett was charged with felony disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report. If it’s true that he staged his own racist, homophobic beating in Chicago, it’s counterproductive to the goals of black people, Thomas said.
“We have so many real incidents of racism and bias, we don’t have to make any up.”
Gloria Browne-Marshall, professor of constitutional law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, says the danger with both incidents is collective guilt by association.
“We’ve been given the added burden that when something happens with one (black) person, it is inured to the whole race,” she said, while white misdeeds, such as the Northams’, are considered individual sins.
Random acts of racism. In an editorial, Goodloe Sutton, editor and publisher of the Democrat-Reporter in Linden, Alabama, called for the return of Ku Klux Klan rides and lynchings to clean out Washington, seemingly oblivious to the effect his statement had on black people.
And those were just a few of the incidents that troubled African Americans.
Walter Huff, 58, a suburban Denver real estate broker, said black people have to take the bad with the good. “It’s a sign of the times and days we are living in. I don’t want the community to lose focus,” he said while preparing a seminar encouraging black homeownership, his positive contribution to Black History Month.
So what was the good we should have been focusing on? What are some of the things we missed?
Colin Kaepernick’s settlement. Lost in the noise of black male celebrities being arrested was Kaepernick’s settlement of the grievance he filed against the NFL in 2017. Kaepernick was the first NFL player to kneel during the national anthem as a means of protesting police brutality and racial inequality. He and a San Francisco 49ers teammate, Eric Reid, had alleged that NFL owners had colluded to keep them out of the league because of their protests. Terms of the settlement were undisclosed, but Browne-Marshall marks it as a victory both for Kaepernick and others who joined him in protest. Many artists reportedly passed on a chance to perform in this year’s Super Bowl in support of Kaepernick. Last month, eight basketball players at the University of Mississippi in Oxford took a knee during the anthem to protest pro-Confederate marches there.
Browne Marshall laments that black people took their eyes off Kaepernick to focus on the entertainers.
“This is huge because this is a movement,” she said, noting that the Ole Miss players weren’t the first and won’t be the last to look to Kaepernick as a role model. She notes that Kaepernick sacrificed some of his best playing years “for us.”
“I don’t think we understand our own power, that we can start a movement and it can change things,” she said.
Seven Oscar wins better than “Green Book.” Though some derided best picture Oscar winner “Green Book” as a white-savior version of black history, at least we learned who pianist Don Shirley was – a child prodigy who debuted with the Boston Pops in 1945 and held three doctorates, yet played mostly nightclubs as he was not allowed to play at finer venues catering to whites. Mahershala Ali won a best supporting actor award for his portrayal of Shirley.
Regina King won best supporting actress for her role in “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
The Academy Awards have worked to improve representation of women and minorities since the #OscarsSoWhite movement in 2015. How have they done?
Among “Black Panther” awards, Ruth Carter took home an Oscar for costume design and Hannah Beachler won for production design – each was the first African American to win in her category. Peter Ramsey, who co-directed Sony’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” took home a best animated feature Oscar. And Spike Lee got his first-ever competitive Oscar for adapted screenplay as a co-writer of “BlacKkKlansman,” a win shared with Kevin Wilmott and others.
Lee used the Oscar podium as a pulpit, exhorting the audience to remember the arrival of 20 Africans in 1619 and to vote in the 2020 election because it was the moral thing to do.
Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the new Poor People’s Campaign and the architect of the Moral Monday social justice campaign, was struck by Lee’s call to action.
The Rev. Martin Luther King didn’t live to see his Poor People’s Campaign become reality in 1968. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Appalachian activist Alan McSurely picked up King’s baton, and they’re part of the new campaign 50 years later. (Aug. 27)
“He was channeling James Baldwin, Paul Robeson, and (civil rights activist) Ella Baker,” Barber said. “He gave a great performance, but it wasn’t an act. He was calling on us to act and that in itself was powerful.”
More black political power, especially for black women.
There are now more blacks in Congress (51) than at any other time since Reconstruction, Barber said, and the Congressional Research Service counts 46 representatives, 2 delegates, and 3 senators who are black. At Michael Cohen’s hearing Wednesday, Congress’ black women were not only vocal about their opinions – Rep. Ayanna Pressley gave her own analysis to her Twitter followers – they were visual as well, as Rep. Stacey Plaskett’s “eye roll” at Rep. Jim Jordan’s comments showed.
But it was Stacey Abrams’ response for the Democrats to President Trump’s State of the Union address that most sets up the challenge for African Americans in the 2020 election, Barber said.
“Let’s be clear. Voter suppression is real. From making it harder to register and stay on the rolls, to moving and closing polling places to rejecting lawful ballots, we can no longer ignore these threats to democracy,” she said in her response.
“The foundation of our moral leadership around the globe is free and fair elections, where voters pick their leaders, not where politicians pick their voters.”
Getting politicians like Northam to address racialized voter suppression and systemic racism are far more important that their apologies for racist photos taken long ago, Barber said.
“The most profoundly impactful racism is policy racism” that results in unfair economic, political and social outcomes for people of color, Barber said.
Huff believes that none of February’s low moments took the teeth out of what Black History Month represents. “Can we do a better job of reflecting on black history every day? he asked.
There are signs that we can.
Social media celebrations, like the mid-February kickoff of #ShareBlackStories on Instagram, encourage sharing of black achievement all year.
Chicago held a historic mayoral election on Feb. 26. After the April 2 runoff, either Lori Lightfoot or Toni Preckwinkle will become the city’s first black female mayor.
And that Klan-nostalgic newspaper editor? Sutton resigned, leaving Elecia Dexter, a black woman, to edit and publish the paper, a weekly act defying racism for years to come.
That wasn’t a bad way to finish the month at all.
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