Printed 2/5/2015 in issue 2306 of Between The Lines Newspaper
History by definition is the branch of knowledge dealing with past events. Dig a little deeper and many dictionaries expand the definition to include the “continuous, systematic narrative of past events as relating to a particular people, country, period, person, etc. usually written as a chronological account.”
Really, history is just us telling our stories, but like most stories, the narrative and the outcome often depend on the teller. The bigger, the bolder, the more powerful the storyteller, the more likely it is that that person’s narrative will become the history — right or wrong, no matter how distorted. It will be what people remember.
I have always been a lover of history. I’m the one who will have a list of all the historic sites and go on all the historic tours on vacation. I’ve even been told that sometimes I know more about the area than the “natives.” But, I am also the one who slips away from the group to find the residents of the area to spend time hearing their stories, their remembrances of history.
You see, as much as I love history, at an early age I learned that the “official history” is often told from the view of the beholder and is often not accurate or inclusive. Fortunately history is not solely limited to “historical” records. Depictions of life, love, labor are also passed down through art, music and spoken word.
I would scour the pages of my early history lessons looking for faces like mine because too often it seemed all “important” historical roads went through Greece, Rome and then Europe with just a brief mention of other cultures.
Although the words told one story, images — art, maps, museum pieces — showed that the great pyramids were in Africa. Hannibal of Carthage, despite theatrical portrayals, was a person of color. Brown, if not black, in hue.
For years, the African-American story was shaped by distorted narratives. The memories erased and squashed by the brutality of slavery, but stories of our resilience and strength, even when not included in traditional historical accounts, have survived.
During a visit to Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African-American History, the curator drew our attention to different pictures, asking what we saw. In our childish naivete, we said, “Those are pictures of slavery.”
He encouraged us to look deeper, to see beyond slavery and recognize the artisans, craftsmen and builders responsible for building the infrastructure of this country. Enslaved, yes; denied rights and freedoms, yes; but undeniably there in history for all to see if your eyes were open.
Even when African-Americans were forbidden and, often under threat of brutality, denied access to education, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) served the black community. In fact, until the 1960s, HBCUs, were practically the only institutions of higher learning open to blacks in the U.S.
HBCU graduates from the past to today include Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. DuBois, Patricia Harris, Thurgood Marshall, Alice Walker, Samuel L. Jackson, Wanda Sykes, Oprah Winfrey and Common.
While living under segregated conditions, denied access to basic civil rights and, for the most part, being ignored in the historical narrative of the United States, African-Americans like Charles Drew, Elijah McCoy, Garrett Morgan, George Washington Carver and Percy Julian developed and contributed inventions that benefitted not only America but also the entire world.
Denied equality merely because of the color of our skin, African-Americans fought tirelessly for the equality of others. These warriors included Sojourner Truth, Margaretta Forten and Harriet Forten Purvis in the women’s suffrage movement; labor activists A. Philip Randolph and Norman Hill; and human rights activists Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin.
From arts to literature, entertainment to politics, the legacy of African-Americans including Shirley Chisholm, Alvin Ailey, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, James Baldwin, Barbara Jordan, Ralph Bunche, Mae Jemison, Cory Booker and Barack Obama will ensure that not only American history but all history will come closer to a true “continuous, systematic narrative of past events” in the development of the human condition. Progress, yes, but the picture remain incomplete.
Just as in our childish naivete we looked at the pictures and saw only slavery, many want to look at black history and fail (or refuse) to see the members of the African-American LGBTQ community living, working and contributing not only today but also historically.
We were there on the plantation, in the classrooms, graduating from HBCUs. We were leaders during the Harlem Renaissance, breaking barriers on stage and screen, inventing and innovating. And as we marched for voting rights, to end segregation, we demonstrated, organized and participated as protestors in front of and behind the scenes.
We live today as parents, teachers, athletes, clergy and community members facing the same challenges, struggles and opportunities as other African-Americans, but because of whom we love, we are often forced to choose between being gay and black when talking about civil rights.
Being black and gay is nothing new. It is as old as yesterday and will continue tomorrow. It’s a part of history and stands at the intersection of all our struggles of equality.
In an address to the nation, President Ford, following the recognition of Black History Month, urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” That work continues.
One of the most memorable portions of President Obama’s second inaugural address was his “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall” remarks. He said “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.”
As we celebrate this Black History Month, let us remember the contributions of those African-Americans who led in the background, who built the infrastructure without recognition, who marched for freedom and by their courage helped this country come closer to achieving its destiny.
And as we lift up these members of our amazing African-American community, let’s look deeper at the picture and see the faces of our LGBTQ African-American community who were standing on the front lines like “wild fruit hidden in open spaces.”
During this Black History month, as decisions on marriage equality await decisions in courts across the country, as thousands pack the cinema to see “Selma,” we have an opportunity to reflect upon the evils of discrimination and hatred and commit ourselves to doing better.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana)
Michelle E. Brown is a public speaker, activist and author. Her latest book of poetry “Three Layers and A Brassiere” is available at bookstore.authorhouse.com