This week, Our Time Press is proud to bring attention to the Brooklyn Branch of the National Association of University Women (NAUW-Brooklyn), a group whose good work in the community and commitment to telling — and preserving — stories of greatness and achievement receives little publicity. This Sunday, March 10, 3:00-5:00pm, NAUW-Brooklyn will host a free genealogy workshop at Medgar Evers College by local historian/researcher/author Wilhelmena Rhodes Kelly, a daughter of Bedford- Stuyvesant. We invited NAUW-Brooklyn President,The Rev. Deborah Finley-Jackson, an educator, philanthropist and historian, to share her thoughts on the importance of researching personal histories.
Some say that we live in a post-racial society. I say that although we have made great strides in legislation since the 1950s and 1960s, part of the backlash from the election of President Barack Obama has been the quiet attempt to move backwards in this area. One current example is the attack on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which mandates that states with discriminatory voting practices receive advance permission before changing voting policies. If we’re not careful, African-Americans will lose the ground we fought so hard to get.
At the same time, I do think there have been changes in many people’s hearts. It was not just African-Americans who elected our president, and it’s important for us to move forward, willing to accept that change is possible and has happened for some.
While our country has been referred to as a melting pot, I prefer Mayor David Dinkins’ description of our city as a mosaic of many ethnicities, cultures, religions, etc. And for a mosaic to be truly beautiful, each color must be unique. Each color must be able to be identified different from the other. And so it is for African- Americans. As we continue to make strides in education, industry, the arts, sports, technology, we must hold on to our heritage, our culture. When we know who we are, when we know where we came from, then we are in position to share, to network and to lead authentically. We’ll understand that what we bring to the table is just as important, just as worthy, just as necessary, as anyone else.
And that’s one of the things that I love about the Brooklyn Branch of the NAUW. Our members bring long and rich history of struggle, study and understanding of who we are as a people. These women are brilliant, active and positive role models for me and for all who they come in contact with. Our branch is over 55 years old, and we still have some early members who are active. Our decision to invite Wilhelmena Rhodes Kelly to speak comes from our desire to encourage folks to take the time to find out who their people are. Where did they come from? And our stories are not just about our blood relatives. Even and especially on the plantation, our people have embraced the children of those who could not parent. The village idea came across the ocean with our ancestors, and we continue to claim each other as brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, whether on biological family trees or not.
Inspiration can be found in the story of Harriet Tubman for her work on the Underground Railroad, as well as her little-known adventure as the pilot of a Union ship, in journlist Ida B. Wells Barnett, Frederick Douglass, Richard Allen. And because I am a child of the 60’s, of course, there’s Malcolm and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The fierce way that all of these people worked to better our people’s lives provides a model for all of us, offers us examples of the kind of stories we can live and we can learn.
Other inspirations are nameless: the enslaved people who ran away, and the ones who stayed on the plantations – each of them (in their own way) just trying to survive. My favorite quote is from Les Brown, “We are the children of the people who refused to die.” So my greatest ancestors are those who lived, however they had to, survived, so that we could be here today. But that history continues into the future. And when we encourage our children to know their history, they learn from the past and hold the future in their hands.
Of course, the One who has impacted my work with community the most is Jesus Christ, not only as a Savior to me, but as a Revolutionary who spoke truth to power, went to the places no one else wanted to go, touched people who were untouchable. I model my ministry and mission work after Him.
So while we are not yet in the mainstream history books, while our children hear very little about our people in school, if we will learn our stories and then tell them, we can teach our children just how wonderful and brilliant they can be. Just like their ancestors, who made a way for them.
For information on this Sunday’s (March 10) NAUW-Brooklyn Branch workshop at Medgar Evers College on genealogy presented by scholar Wilhelmena Rhodes Kelly, see advertisement on next page.