(Excerpts from the Black History presentation at St. Philip’s Episcopal Anglican Church.)
Reverend Israel, I went to the church website and saw that St. Philips, founded in 1899 in a Weeksville storefront, played a role in the history I’ll be speaking about today.
And I saw in your Lenten Message there “Our Lord reminds us that … “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few” – Matthew 9:37.
And I thought what we must do with the harvest laid before us in this time,
is educate the workers in how to reap and give them the scythes to reap it with.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I have about 15 minutes to compress thousands of years, because to speak about Black History, is to go to a far more distant past than our relatively brief time here in America. We have to go back to the cradle of mankind in the Upper Nile and the groupings of people that came together into communities
And while mankind was migrating throughout the planet from mother Africa, great civilizations and empires were formed on the continent and pyramids in
Egypt were built.
And there is evidence that seafaring Africans did not stay on the continent.
Historian Ivan Van Sertima points to the north and south equatorial currents spanning the Atlantic Ocean between the African and American continents as natural conveyor belts between West Africa and the Americas used by the first explorers from Africa.
The most striking physical evidence of early Africans in the Americas, are the distinctively Negroid stone heads of the Olmec civilization.
Dr. Van Sertima reports that the archaeological context in which they were found has been radio-carbon dated to 800 B.C.
To judge the impact of that African presence, Van Sertima tells us this: “At the Sacred center of the Olmec culture—La Venta-about eighteen miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico which flows into the Atlantic, there stood four colossal Negroid heads, six to nine feet high, weighing up to forty tons each.
They stood in large plazas. They stood twelve to twenty times larger than the faces of living men.
One of these (known as the third altar) was made out of one of the Negroid heads, flattened on top for that purpose. A speaking tube was found to go in at the ear and out at the mouth so that the figure could function as a talking oracle…”
What kind of respect for a human spirit does that suggest?
Science Fiction writer Issac Asimov has said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
The Africans of 800 B.C. would have seemed as magicians to a culture that was not familiar with knowledge coming from Nubian-Egyptian civilizations that were ancient, even at that time.
By the 14th century, Emperor Mansa Abubakari II, the ‘Voyager King’ ruled Mali in the richest and largest empire on earth – covering nearly all of West Africa.
According to the griots, the African storytellers and holder of history, in 1311, Abubakari handed the throne over to his brother Mansa Musa and set off on an expedition with 2000 boats to cross the Atlantic.
And it was Mansa Musa who oversaw the creation of the legendary libraries of Timbuktu.
What kind of people were these we can only guess at using artifacts and ancient ruins.
Perhaps historian Count Volney, writing in the 18th century about ancient Ethiopia said it best. “There a people, now forgotten, discovered, while others were yet barbarians, the elements of the arts and sciences.
A race of men, now rejected from society for their sable skin and frizzled hair, founded on the study of the laws of nature, those civil and religious systems which still govern the universe.”
That is who we came from.
But empires rise and fall and then came the Maafa, the Great Disaster, bringing chattel slavery, unlike anything any group of people had to endure. And I am here to say that all suffering is not equal. What Africans-in-America endured, we endured for 400 years.
400 years ago, in 1619, the Dutch slave ship, “The White Lion” carrying the first of the human cargo, arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. These Black people had language and history stripped away, and while others built wealth and a nation on their labor, the Africans lived through 1,992 generations of slavery, torture and terror, erasing all that had come before.
We were black as the night when we left the ships, but the generations of rape have produced the many shades we are now.
And yet, despite those 1,992 generations, still we rose.
The generation after the Civil War, during the Reconstruction period in the South, despite rioting whites and constant terror, and with the help of Whites from the North, that generation continued to rise.
Judge Albion Winegard Tourgee, speaking on behalf of the Negro at the 1890 Lake Mohonk Conference on “The Negro Question” spoke of what he personally observed as the Civil War ended.
“At the close of the war there were set free 5,000,000 of men, women, and children, without a husband, a wife, a lawful father, a legitimate child, or a legal family name among them all!
They were without homes, without money, without lands, tools, seeds, or stock, without education, without experience, without inheritance, without the impulse of generations of thrift and intelligence.
Yet, without a family name, except one of his own selection, with wages hardly one-third those of the agricultural laborer of the North, the Negro accomplished industrial results which must make any observer of facts who can lay aside prejudice and forget theories, utter, with profound amazement, those words first of all flashed through the electric wire, ‘What hath God wrought!’”
That is who we are.
Building businesses, going into politics, becoming literate. That’s who we were coming out of slavery, and that’s what inspired the next three generations of racial terror from 1865 to the 1920’s when there were over 4,000 lynchings and the KKK rode wild.
One example of how Black businesses were targeted was in March of 1892 in Memphis Tennessee. Three Black men, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell and William Stewart came together and opened People’s General Store. “It was near a grocery that was white-owned,” said Thomas Carlson, founder of the Lynching Sites Project Memphis. “They started succeeding and they took business away from the white grocer.”
“These were family men, men of the church and they were dragged out of the jail downtown … and taken up North Second Street all the way up to the rail yard at the far end of Second “They were murdered up there, all three of them.”
The famous journalist Ida B. Wells, said about her good friend Thomas Moss, “A finer, cleaner man than he never walked the streets of Memphis. He was well liked, a favorite with everybody; yet he was murdered with no more consideration than if he had been a dog.”
The attacks continued, most infamously in the white riot of 1921 that destroyed a successful area known as Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma with 36 killed and the thriving Black district destroyed.
That is what we were up against.
And during the two more generations of what we might call today broad spectrum discrimination, there were Black teachers and dedicated white ones, who, working with few supplies and hand-me-down books, taught a generation ready to be inspired and mentored by people such as Dr. Benjamin Mays at Morehouse College and Ella Baker, known as “the mother of SNCC”, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and so many more whose names, mentoring and contributions we will never know.
And it was through the mentoring and resilience of that generation that the Civil Rights, Voting Rights and Black Power movements came.
Black is Beautiful, Buy Black and Unity in the Community were the cries of the time and again, there are many names that could be called and I cannot begin.
And there we were, despite it all, rising again.
And then came the sixties and seventies, when the ever-present racist, white supremacist culture, threw everything they had at the Black Baby Boomers who were coming into their own and who were calling for progress across the nation.
If you want to know where in the world the drugs at the corner were coming from during that time, you need only look to where in the world the CIA was active.
Al McCoy, in his book, “The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia,” goes into minute detail and extensively documents how the CIA’s connection with its covert allies in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam led directly to the heroin epidemic of the 1960’s.
The crack explosion coincided with the CIA’s work on behalf of the Reagan administration in support of the Nicaraguan Contra’s as late as the mid-eighties, when the CIA was complicit with Central American drug traffickers in the import of thousands of tons of cocaine, as was documented by investigative journalist Gary Webb in his book “The Dark Alliance.”
The CIA claims the destruction of Black lives and communities was an unintended consequence of their foreign missions, but it was no different from chemical warfare, and was considered as either acceptable collateral damage, or more darkly, as a case of getting two birds with one stone.
In 1968, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called the Black Panther Party “without question…the greatest threat to internal security of the country.”
And he acted on it as a justification for a counter intelligence program, COINTELPRO, which went way beyond surveillance and included agent provocateurs, imprisonment and even assassinations of organizers of Black movements such as Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago in 1969.
And now here we are in 2019, 2,000 generations after the start of the Middle Passage, and an Anti-Lynching Bill is still stalled in Congress, politicians in Virginia are apologizing for wearing blackface, voter suppression is rampant, and too many of our children can’t move into their old neighborhood or can’t hold on to the brownstone they grew up in given the wealth inequality between Blacks and Whites that has built up over time.
And yet we are a people who rise.
We are in a time of deep data and artificial intelligence, AI it’s called.
And to rise in this time is to use this enabling technology both politically, and to bring into light our innate creativity, producing value that we cannot even conceive of in this moment.
About three decades ago, the first PC I purchased was top-of-the-line, it had a 40-megabyte hard drive that was much heavier and larger than a brick.
This past Christmas, my step-daughter Joanna told me my 9-year-old grandson Cyler needed a 128-gigabyte micro card. It was about a sixteenth of an inch thick and a little larger than my thumbnail.
The power that is being put into our hands and the hands of our young people today is beyond anything that has come before.
The digital age empowers and releases creativity, it may even breathe new life into Marcus Garvey’s dream of connecting the Diaspora with the people and resources of Africa.
This new age is meant for us.
My mother-in-law Janie Green often said, “If you lose the schools you lose the community.” And she was right.
If we’re not giving our youth the absolute best educational experience in schools we control, then we are failing them, failing our ancestors and paving the way for the loss of our community.
If we are to keep our communities together and rise again as a people, we have to be political militants about investing in education for the next generations.
And that education must include their history, of what it took of their forebears to bring them to this time.
We have to make sure they understand the importance of being involved politically. With the past informing their understanding that politics is not a spectator sport. They have to come to play.
My wife Bernice is a big proponent of legacy.
She has awakened me to the importance of passing on not only material things, but knowledge, sensibilities, and an understanding of the need to give young people a belief in themselves and firm foundation to stand on.
Reverend Israel, I truly believe, that as we do the work and awaken the kernel of genius inherent in all of us, we will create the reapers for the harvest and we will leave the economic, mental and social shackles behind, and we will rise again, unstoppable and free.