Archive for February, 2013


Looking Back at a Look Back

   Posted by: Robert    in Uncategorized

Black history is, has been, and will always be an important part of American history.  Since long before the founding, Blacks have been living and working in America, building lives for themselves, and growing and raising families.  Blacks have served in every American war, and today occupy every level of social, political, and economic life.  The story of Black America is truly the embodiment of the American story.  In every day an in every time of our history, Blacks have been involved, overcoming obstacles, and contributing to making our nation the greatest on earth.  It is to our great misfortune that we seldom find stories of Black exceptionalism in our classrooms or cultural heritage.

While we dutifully trot out George Washington Carver as proof that Blacks really can invent things, we never talk about people like Edwin Henderson.  And why shouldn’t we talk about Edwin Henderson?  He, more or less single handedly, took a sport developed for White America and turned it into a sport that, today, is a predominantly Black sport enjoyed by millions of Americans of all races and backgrounds.  Indeed, most people never give the profound Blackness of basketball a single thought.  And yet, not only is the game played mostly by Black players, but even the style of the play itself owes much of its lineage to Mr. Henderson and the other Black players with whom he played.  White basketball could likely have never become the phenomenon that Black basketball — or, shall we say, simply, basketball — has become.  But nobody knows that story.

The American student could be forgiven for believing that Blacks have only ever served two roles in American history: Victims of White oppression, or civil rights activists.  Those that don’t fit neatly into the narrative tend to be ignored by our cultural academy, although their stories are likely the ones most worth telling.  How, after all, does a man like Louis Armstrong — a man who was unmistakably Black — wind up being treated like a White man back in the days of Jim Crow racism?  How did he make his skin color become nearly irrelevant in an environment that saw everything through the pigment of flesh?  To be sure, part of it was his unique skill; but as he was hardly the only talented Black man of his era, it is well worth asking why he was different, and what that might tell us about how to eliminate the barriers of systemic racism and privilege.  But nobody asks those questions.

As we teach our students about law and order, gangs and gang violence inevitably come up as important topics of discussion.  But seldom do we discuss the origins of gangs, or the important (if misguided) role they play in the greater urban landscape.  While we instruct our kids to not join gangs, we pay very little attention to the forces which make gang membership attractive in the first place.  Because gang membership is extremely racial in nature, our weak attempts at anti-gang indoctrination by rote fail to engage anyone in a conversation about race which could lead to solving actual problems and making gangs, as we know them, obsolete.  But nobody wants to talk about that.

Black history education in America is a commodity that is extremely hard to come by.  In our curriculum, it is “separate but equal” as, every year, we spend but a month out of the year drinking from the font of history which has been dutifully labeled “Colored”.  Were these histories to be integrated, as they ought to be, into the curriculum in the correct context, we would be far more likely to spark in our students an interest in learning about what people of other races had accomplished.  It shouldn’t be hard to eliminate the myth that there were only five important Black people in all of history prior to 1962.  But the people who set the curriculum seem to prefer the current segregation of history into February vs. the rest of the year.

I end this month with a parting thought aimed squarely at conservatives and Republicans:  We shouldn’t be afraid of Black history.  Indeed, we should embrace Black history.  Their story is a story of conservatism.  The struggle for equality is a struggle against oppression by overbearing and uncaring authorities that often were (and often still are) faceless government bureaucracies.  Black heroes were all exceptional men and women who did not sit idly by and wait for someone else to solve their problems; they stood up, sat down, took risks, and earned their successes with their own blood, sweat, and tears.  For too long we’ve allowed Blacks — we’ve allowed America — to believe that liberalism is the only way to achieve the goal of true racial equality.  We need to tell the other side of that story.  But don’t look for it in today’s history textbooks.

Happy Black History Month.


The Long and Winding Road of Equality

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

As Black History Month enters its final week, it seems appropriate to take a long glance back at the path of Black history in America.  The sound bite version is accurate enough for what it is: Blacks have been subjected to long term discrimination and racism, but things, though still not perfect, have gotten better.  We know about the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, the two events in our nation’s history which have had the most profound impact on the status of Blacks in America.  In terms of race relations, both events could be rightly regarded as revolutions, casting aside regimes of oppression to liberate a people which had been subject to tyrannical rule.

Indeed, the Civil War was all at once a revolution and a counter-revolution for which social upheaval was guaranteed, regardless of which side won.  The Confederacy was, of course, fighting for the right to direct their own future, outside of the dictates of the US Government which many at the time believed was becoming too oppressive against the Southern way of life.  The Union, although largely not fighting for the express purpose of freeing the slaves, was nevertheless fighting toward that purpose anyway.  Had the Confederacy won, their history books would likely venerate Robert E. Lee as today we do George Washington, who won a great victory against the overbearing regime of Abraham Lincoln (playing the part of King George) and securing the liberty of the Confederate States of America.  In the real world, it was the overbearing regime of plantation owners that was obliterated, adding Blacks, for the first time, to the list of “all men [who] are created equal.”  Of course, as revolutions go, this one was a bit strange: It was white people fighting white people, with the benefits to Blacks, although profound, mostly incidental to the reason for the war.

Although largely not violent, and never fought with the goal of establishing a new nation, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was a revolution more in line with that fought by the founders during the American Revolution.  America’s founders fought as Englishmen for the rights due to them as Englishmen, which the King had seen fit to deny.  It was in much the same way that powerful Black leaders — Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and others — fought as Americans for the rights due to them as Americans, which were denied to them at every turn by governments and private actors alike.  Much like the American Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement did not come during the height of oppression, but happened at a time when small but consequential improvements were starting to be made.

Of course, between the revolutions lie a lot of in-between moments in history that seldom get discussed in history textbooks.  One of those moments came shortly after the Great Depression, as the Supreme Court began to consider cases which would shape the landscape of the coming cultural and legal changes that would overtake the country during the 1950s and 60s.  The Court during the 30s and 40s addressed racial issues only occasionally, but the decisions it made were important to the future development of the law.  Many of the Court’s rulings on criminal procedure had a disproportionate effect on Blacks, because improper and unconstitutional police tactics were often employed against Blacks to prevent them from fully exercising their rights as citizens.  By insisting on due process for Black defendants, the Court not only fought against wrongful convictions, but also helped to foster an atmosphere in which Blacks would not need to worry so greatly about being arrested merely for being Black.

Though not glamorous, such incremental changes reflect important truths about the nature of change in America.  Although we are often willing to accept radical new ideas, it also takes time to weave those ideas into our cultural fabric.  The 40s saw repeated endorsements of “separate but equal” from the federal and local governments alike, but pressure at the national level placed ever greater emphasis on ensuring that “but equal” had teeth.  While history books pan this as endorsement of segregation, it was also a necessary step in the evolution of thought which would culminate in Brown v. Board of Education‘s evisceration of the “separate but equal” doctrine.  We cannot, after all, have a revolution every day.

Morgan Freeman, complaining about Black History Month, once declared in an interview that “Black history is American history.”  Although he did not intend his words in this way, the reality is that the progress of freedom for Blacks is a story of progress and change in America.  Progress toward equality has taken a long time, in part because we started so far from the goal that getting there takes a great deal of time.  Persistence and patience are, themselves, great lessons from the struggles of Black history.


Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

When looking back through musical history, one name that’s almost impossible to miss is that of Louis Armstrong.  Most famous for his influence on jazz music, many of Mr. Armstrong’s recordings remain alive and appreciated today.  His voice and his trumpet produced for him a level of fame that today we would consider him a superstar.  His fame crossed racial boundaries in a way that was unprecedented in his day, and indeed has seldom been duplicated since.

Louis Armstrong was born in 1901 to an impoverished family in New Orleans.  He took an interest in music from an early age, joining a quartet at age 11 to earn some additional money for his family.  His childhood led him to make several important connections which would be influential to him for the remainder of his life.  Among them was a close relationship with a Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant family.  Through them, he learned that discrimination was not a Blacks-only problem (antisemitism was common)  and that determination was a key to success.

Despite having directly felt the impact of racism and despite having seen the effect of discrimination on others outside of his race, Mr. Armstrong spent very little of his life on matters of race or politics.  A musician above all else, he moved around with the guidance and support of his wife to establish himself as a prominent musician.  His distinctive voice and instrumental skill distinguished him his contemporaries and formed the basis of his personal brand of music.  His preference was to avoid calling attention to his race and to allow his music to speak for itself.

And speak it did.  By any measure then or now, Mr. Armstrong was unmistakably famous; not only among Blacks, but among whites as well.  His fame across the racial divide was unusual, to say the least, and may have actually been unprecedented.  Although he was hardly the only famous Black entertainer of his day, very few of his contemporaries achieved anything like his level of success outside of Black audiences.  He was accepted by white society in a way that few other Blacks to that point had managed.  Without really trying, he became the first Black man to stay at a number of high class hotels, eat at a number of high class restaurants, and do many other things that had long been recognized as part of the providence of white privileged society.

His aversion of discussing matters of race did come at some personal cost.  Those interested in promoting equality for Blacks were disappointed that Mr. Armstrong did not use his fame and influence to promote the cause of civil rights.  His failure to publicly champion Black equality, particularly when combined with the “white” privilege he personally enjoyed, caused a number of commentators to label him an “Uncle Tom.”  Despite the epithet, he continued to spend most of his life and career away from race or politics.

One notable exception, however, came in 1957 when he cancelled a trip to the Soviet Union which had been planned on behalf of the United States Department of State.  The abrupt cancellation came out of his anger over President Eisenhower’s handling of a conflict in Little Rock, Arkansas over racial integration at one of the city’s schools.  Mr. Armstrong’s sharp words about the President and the Federal Government became part of a national firestorm which culminated in the President ordering the 101st airborne to escort nine Black students past the Arkansas National Guard.

Mr. Armstrong died from a heart attack a month before his 70th birthday.  In his life, he broke many barriers on the strength of his character and fame.  He is rightly regarded as one of the most influential musicians in American history and is personally credited for a number of innovations in jazz.  The determination he learned as a child carried him well through his career.  Despite criticism that he did not do enough in his life to promote civil rights, he is nevertheless a stunning example of how strong individuals can overcome their circumstances to become American legends.


Black Ganghood

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

When one thinks of the way we caricature Blacks in society, images of violence are not hard to draw to mind.  So-called “crimes” of the “doing some normal thing while Black” variety can often be traced back to a cultural assumption that Black people are up to no good.  At the epitome of that cultural role is the image (and reality) of Blacks as members of gangs.  Socially and culturally, we deplore gang membership and gang violence, and have had an ongoing but largely ineffective War on Gangs.  This war, particularly as it relates to Blacks, largely ignores the history of Black gangs and the role that gang membership plays today in society.

One pillar of Black gang membership can be traced back through history to the late 1700s, the quill of Thomas Jefferson, and the Declaration of Independence.  A second pillar, erected on December 15, 1791, is commonly known as the Second Amendment to the US Constitution.  The Declaration stated with some clarity that when a regime of government has become too oppressive to be considered just, that it is necessary for the victims of that oppression to chart a different course.  The Second Amendment reserved an important tool for defending such a divergent charter, expressly providing that violence may, at times, be the answer.  Black gangs are a little bit like that.

Many of America’s most well known Black gangs arose out of the pervasive racism throughout American society prior to the Civil Rights Movement.  Blacks, it’s well known, were often denied justice under the law.  The classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird illustrates the “justice” that was so often available to Blacks in America, in which legendary attorney Atticus Finch was unable to win an acquittal of a Black man who was falsely accused of rape despite presenting the court with proof of his client’s innocence.  And in the real life case of White v. Texas, a Black man convicted on the basis of a torture-coerced confession won a new trial from an institution no less than the Supreme Court of the United States, but was shot in the courtroom during his trial by the alleged victim’s father; the father was later acquitted on the urging of the prosecution.

The long and short of the matter is that, throughout much of America’s history, Blacks were unable to find justice under the rule of law.  Black on Black crime was largely ignored, White on Black crime was often condoned, and even the mere allegation of a Black on White crime was often enough to result in the death of the Black individual even if they could affirmatively prove their innocence.  To defend themselves, Blacks needed different social institutions which they could rely on.  Gangs are one of those institutions.

While we often hear talk of “random gang violence,” the reality is that most gang violence is anything but random.  Gang violence is often used as a means to enforce social norms both within a gang and between competing rival gangs.  When one gang infringes on another gang’s territory, the infingers are forcibly removed in a way that is conceptually similar to how a shop owner might evict a trespasser with the assistance of the police.  Gangs, in a sense, are their own police force, providing a useful service to Blacks who historically could not count on the actual police for their safety or security.

Gangs, however, are much more than mere Black constables.  Gangs are a society unto themselves, complete with social roles, taboos, mores, privileges, and responsibilities for their members.  Gangs provide their members with criteria for inclusion and a definition of success which, for many, is powerful and compelling, although it is frequently not the definition of success that is promoted by civil society.  Many Black youth who grow up in and around gangs become socialized according to gang culture, and come to view their successes and failures based on the rules of the gang.  This can, and does, become a generational heritage, in much the same way that children of veterans, who grow up in a military-oriented household, often join the military themselves.

Gang membership among the Black community may be one of the most violent lasting responses to the pervasive racism that gripped America until the late 1960s.  Today, gang membership remains a powerful aspect of identity which will not be eliminated by tougher law enforcement.  It was, after all, aggressive police action which drove many Blacks to join gangs in the first place.


Edwin Henderson and the Freedom to Play

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

Among the names not discussed in any history course I’ve ever heard of is the name of Edwin Henderson.  Born in 1883, Mr. Henderson would stake his claim to fame in 1904 when he laid the groundwork for what would become the modern NBA.

Mr. Henderson, who would come to be known as the “Grandfather of Black Basketball,” first learned of the sport in a training camp for gym teachers at Harvard University.  He learned of the game from Dr. Dudley Sargent who, at the time, was involved in the promotion of athletics as a means to improve the body, mind, and spirit.  Still a relatively new sport, basketball had not yet gained a particularly large following among members of any racial demographic.  Seeing an opportunity to provide a vehicle for Black achievement, Mr. Henderson brought basketball back to his students and organized some of the first teams at his YMCA.

Basketball was not immediately successful among Mr. Henderson’s Black students.  Used to more rough and tumble sports like football, many of his students saw basketball as a “sissy” game, lumped into roughly the same category as tennis.  Indeed, white players at the time played basketball quite conservatively, even discouraging feats of great athleticism as selfish exhibitionism.  Despite an initial lack of enthusiasm, Mr. Henderson persisted in promoting basketball as both an excellent physical activity and as a way in which Black men could prove themselves equal to whites in a field of competition not so heavily smothered by overt and structural racism.

His persistence paid off.  In a mere twenty years, the New York Renaissance would be founded and begin a historic journey as one of the most victorious basketball teams in history.  The Rens, as they were called, came to be most well known for an ongoing rivalry with the Original Celtics, an all white basketball team from New York, which would ensure their eventual induction into the Hall of Fame.  Closer to home, Black youth began picking up the game in greater numbers and finding success in courts everywhere from youth leagues all the way up to professional play.  The Black style of edgier and more athletic play proved quite successful both on the court and as a way to market basketball to audiences interested in watching the game for entertainment.  Today, that style of play dominates basketball at the highest levels.

Just as Blacks have made lasting changes to the game of basketball, so too has basketball had a significant impact on Black culture.  As Mr. Henderson had hoped, basketball (and athletics more generally) has become an avenue of success for Black youth who find relatively few barriers so long as they have the requisite level of skill for the league in which they desire to play.  Many Black boys, perhaps even most, dream at some point in their lives of playing professional basketball, regardless of where they live or their socioeconomic status.

While few Blacks will realize those dreams, basketball is, nevertheless, a vehicle of empowerment for Black children and adolescents.  Basketball teaches important life skills in sportsmanship and teamwork.  More importantly, it teaches a direct link from individual effort and dedication to success.  Many Black students each year earn scholarships for their skill on the court — collegiate basketball is roughly 60% Black — and access to educational opportunities they may never have otherwise had.

Basketball was never invented to be a Black sport; it was invented by whites, for whites, just like most of the other sports Americans play.  Basketball was never a sport given to Blacks; racism was pervasive both on the court and off.  Basketball was taken by Edwin Henderson and given to Black men, who learned to play and found themselves to be quite good.  Basketball today is a testament to the influence of Blacks, of their skill and prowess, and of their ability to succeed in an important way.

Basketball needs to be one of the stories in our history books.  Everyone should know about Edwin Henderson, the Rens, and the triumph of Black Basketball.



Filling the Gaps of History

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

When I was in elementary school, I think it might have been third grade, my social studies lessons about the past that year came under a curious heading: “His Story”  Although I can remember nothing else that I specifically learned that year (including, with certainty, the year in which I learned it), that reverse-portmanteau of the word “History” has stayed with me throughout the years.  It neatly encapsulates the way that we, as humans, learn about and associate with the world of days gone bye.  While the focus may be on learning names, dates, and places, what we are ultimately doing is learning a story about our past.  Because history is so vast and our ability to learn about it so limited, the stories we learn are necessarily abridged by the storyteller and packaged in a way that we can understand.  What gets said and what doesn’t shapes the story, making each accounting of history both unique and incomplete — it is his story, which differs from her story, which differs from their story over there.

The differences between histories can be large or subtle, depending on the biases of the storyteller and the purpose of the tale.  In schools, we hope for objective biases that are based on a broad agreement about what is and isn’t important for students to learn as Americans.  In reality, history in schools is like history most anywhere else; it tends to be written by the “winners.”  Of particular relevance to Black history, most of our history curriculum was developed by the dominant white culture, with little attention paid to the presence or role of minority cultures outside of specific fragments of American history.

A historical narrative is a powerful tool for defining and explaining a culture.  As I have written previously, the conservative versus the liberal narrative is an important, though often overlooked, conflict between those political ideologies.  The liberal narrative of greater equality guaranteed by greater government currently holds a distinct advantage over the conservative narrative of unlimited opportunities for anyone who works hard enough.  Blacks seem to not believe in the conservative narrative, and it needs to be asked if they have a reason to see themselves within that narrative at all.

Based on the history that I learned in school, Blacks have always been at the mercy of some oppressor or other.  First, it was the slave traders who brought them from Africa (where, as we learn, many of them were already slaves).  From there it was the American slave owners who subjugated them and forced them to labor in poor conditions for no pay.  After the Civil War, it was the landowners (former plantation owners) who would continue to dominate Blacks by allowing them only enough income to survive.  As industrialization replaced agriculture, Jim Crow laws and Klan violence continued the trend of oppression.  Even today, after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Blacks continue to suffer under a system which rewards privilege that they do not have.

It’s hard to see opportunity from hard work within the confines of that story.

However, as well known and factual as that narrative is, it tends to omit or gloss over the remarkable things that Black people have done in spite of having spent so much time with the deck stacked against them.  All of the most well known champions of Black civil rights — Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and pretty much everyone in the 1960s — were Black.  After the Civil War, some Blacks were successful in developing farming cooperatives to achieve a level of independence which laws and practices, particularly in the South, conspired to prevent.  Blacks have fought, voluntarily and with honor, in every American war including the Revolution.  Blacks have been successful as inventors, business leaders, scientists, lawyers, and politicians at every level of government.

The Black leaders who kicked open the doors of access to positions of greater honor and distinction all did so not on the basis of government handouts, but on the strength of their character and individual achievements.  Indeed, many fought the government — and won — in order to accomplish everything that they did.

It’s impossible to tell a coherent story about Black empowerment when nobody bothers to tell, in context, the stories of Black success.  I have no doubt that many of those stories touch at the heart of conservative principles and would, if told, encourage Blacks to continue as individuals to strive for success despite the significant challenges which remain in their way.  Building a consciousness about the story of Black empowerment could help conservatives in the Black community by showing Blacks their own history within the framework of the conservative narrative.


Black History Month

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

Across the country, as many schoolchildren and their parents are likely aware, February is Black History Month.  Started during the 1970s as an expansion of the former Black History Week, Black History Month is an opportunity used by schools to emphasize the contributions made by Blacks to the progress of American history.  As an opportunity to point out that Blacks have been involved throughout American history, Black History Month has proven itself to be at least marginally sufficient.  However, Black History Month misses the mark when it comes to showcasing the presence and importance of Black Americans in a way which is salient, long lasting, and fundamentally enriching to the lives of American students.

The evolution of Black History Month came out of a realization that Black history was consistently and systematically ignored by American historians.  Creation of the original Negro History Week, which would later become Black History Month, is credited to Carter Woodson, a professor of history and eventual dean of what today is Virginia State University. Dr. Woodson felt that a particular emphasis needed to be placed on teaching Black history, which at the time was seldom, if ever, part of the curriculum anywhere in America.  Indeed, Dr. Woodson noted that history would, at times, even be rewritten to exclude Blacks from the story of America’s past.  His hope was to overcome “the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.”

Now 90 years later, it’s hard to measure Dr. Woodson’s success to any level of certainty.  By and large, Black history is still not taught as an integrated part of the American story during the remaining eleven months of the year.  Outside Black History Month, the only inclusion of Blacks that I can remember being part of my history curriculum were Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, and a few random mentions that Blacks occasionally did things other than be slaves up until the start of the Civil Rights movement.  Blacks were, of course, discussed as part of the Civil Rights movement — it would be impossible not to — including the mention of a number of Black  leaders.  Blacks disappeared again after the Civil Rights movement, although I imagine Barack Obama earns at least a mention in most classrooms today.

Black History Month itself seems to be something of a farce as far as actual history education is concerned.  Structured more along the lines of what one would expect of something called Black Trivia Month, my memories of Black History Month include mentions of a number of Black inventors, explorers, and scientists whose work remains valuable in today’s world.  Unlike the rest of my history education, which proceeded in roughly chronological order, my Black history education was set outside the curriculum timeline as a sort of encapsulated module which I would enter and from which I would emerge a month later in exactly the same place as where I began.  Nothing I learned was particularly inspiring, none of it made me want to learn more about Blacks, and most of it lacked any amount of context which would make it meaningful or memorable as part of a broader education.  Indeed, the only thing I remember from Black History Month is the fact that George Washington Carver invented peanut butter.

While the spreadable substance that goes great with jelly has had a significant impact on lunch boxes across America, I can’t help but feel that the importance of that memory rather misses a broader point.  Despite what Dr. Woodson may have hoped, Black history remains segregated from American history, and the separation is no more equal than the drinking fountains of yore.  Worse still, it seems that there are very few people who are even interested in having that conversation and there are no major proposals that I can remember for fully integrating Black history into the rest of the curriculum.  This is an area with an absence of leadership, but where a leader could likely make swift and decisive strides.

Black History Month needs to be about more than just history.  Blacks have been part of the story of America from the very first day and they will continue to be an important part of the American story long into the future.  This month should be a time to reflect on the place of Blacks in our history and in our society today.  It should be a time to talk about why we never learn the whole story of the founding and growth of our nation.

It’s time to fix the lingering inequities of our textbooks and rediscover the lost history of a third of our fellow Americans.  That is, after all, what Black History Month is all about.

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