Letter To Black America: There Is More Great History Ahead Of Us
Barack Obama -- reminded us all that, as in the past, now and in the future, "yes, we can...."
[Beneath The Spin]
I just read a snippet from an old article in Essence Magazine indicating that researchers have uncovered new information suggesting that Cleopatra may not have been Black.
The article brought back to mind a piece I read by Earl Ofari Hutchinson many years ago entitled, Whose Black History To Believe? In that very insightful article Hutchinson points out that black history tends to be given either short shrift by traditional historians, or is exaggerated beyond all recognition by historians of a more Afrocentric persuasion. His premise is that both approaches do a disservice to African-American history. His analysis shows that African-Americans would be better served by a more balanced interweaving of African-American history into the fabric of American history as a whole.
While I'm in total agreement with both his premise and analysis, I think it's important to take this issue one step farther. We need to explore why so many of us feel the need to exaggerate our history in the first place. We also need to understand how this game we find ourselves involved in distracts us from the bigger picture.
The importance of cultural history is that it contributes to the collective self-esteem of a people. It brings cohesion by giving the members of a given group something in common to rally around as their own. A culture, much like an individual, is so much in need of a feeling of self-esteem that it invariably manufactures its own history, which often bears little or no resemblance to reality. For those very reasons, therefore, much of history is a lie. In fact, history itself has been defined as "A lie agreed upon."
My personal definition of history is "The often exaggerated, and invariably sanitized account of ordinary men committing unconscionable atrocities in the name of God." So I generally ignore the heroics of history, because that's generally a lie. I use history as a general outline so I can look over my shoulder to avoid obstacles, much like I look over my shoulder when I'm pulling out of my driveway. But I never lose sight of the fact that the point of getting into my car in the first place is to reach my destination, and in order to do that, I must look forward and focus my primary attention on what's before me, not where I've been.
A concrete example of how the myth of history works can be seen by looking back at the Vietnam War. Having never lost a war at that time, upon entering the Vietnam War the United States had already geared up for manufacturing a history to justify its presence in Vietnam, much like we're struggling with today to justify the war in Iraq. The U.S. Finally came up with what was called "The Domino Theory." According to this theory, the North Vietnamese were merely fronting for Communist China, and if the United States allowed South Vietnam to fall to the North Vietnamese, people in that part of the world would be slaughtered, and all the rest of the countries in the area would fall like "dominoes" to Chinese communism.
If the United States had won the Vietnam war that lie would have become an official part of world history. Young children all over the world would have read it as gospel for eons. But since the United States didn't win, this would-be "historical fact" has been left without a home, and now, forty years later, the lie stands as a glaring example of how nations manufacture lies to justify their conduct.
The United States is not unique in fabricating history, however. All nations and all cultures do it. If Germany had won WWII the history of that war would have been written from an entirely different perspective; If Great Britain had won The Revolutionary War, the esteemed forefathers of the United States would have been remembered as a group similar to the way the United States currently view The Black Panther Party, or Cinque and the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Similarly, in just the past thirty years the GOP has all but deified Ronald Reagan, when in reality, he should have been impeached and jailed for trading arms to the enemy of the United States and flooding America's inner cities with drugs to generate revenue to support his illegal war in Nicaragua. So, again, much of history is nothing more than a lot of exaggerated, and/or, sanitized nonsense.
An example of this principle at work on a cultural level can be found in the White culture's touting of Benny Goodman as "The King of Swing", or Elvis Presley as "The King of Rock n Roll." We know that's not true today, but as time passes, and there's no one left to attest to the inaccuracy of such claims, eventually it'll become a "historical fact"-- or factoid (something repeated so often that it is seen as a fact).
So it is clear that the history game is just that--a game. But it's a game that black Americans should only play quite sparingly if at all, since due to the unique position of the African-American in legitimate modern history, we come to this game with a decided disadvantage.
The African-American culture is a relatively new culture, thus, our history is verifiable. Therefore, African-Americans don't have the machinery in place to effectively promote the hype necessary to fully participate in the history game. But since, in any event, the game only serves to divert our attention from what is really important--getting on with the business of building true viability as a people--black participation in the game is nothing more than an exercise in me-too-ism.
But it seems that whenever I hear a discussion on Black pride, someone always brings up the issue of Egypt, and whether or not Cleopatra was Black. Black people have got to understand that the issue is not important–in fact, it's academic. While it is always good to stay in touch with one's roots, the fact is, the African-American culture has long since ceased being purely African--even though the continent of Africa will always define the core of our being--and any connection that we may, or may not have had with Egypt and/or Cleopatra is remote at best, at least, in a strictly cultural sense. It's as though we're going around, hat in hand, desperately searching for a piece of history to call our own. We shouldn't place ourselves in that position–it's undignified, pathetic, and wholly unnecessary.
We must begin to understand that we are a new culture. We ceased being Africans when it became necessary to adapt to the fields and ghettos of America. Neither are we simply Americans--we became something more than simply Americans when it became necessary to become more than simple Americans for our very survival. We are a brand new culture--a culture conceived in pain, delivered into turmoil, baptized in deprivation, and weaned on injustice. And since adversity is experience, and experience translates into knowledge, we don't have a thing to be ashamed of. The uniquely pointed adversity that we have experienced makes us more, rather than less. Thus, we are a culture that is only now in the infancy of its development. For that reason, we cannot hope to compete, lie-for-lie, with ancient cultures relative to history, since our history is only now being written. But for that very same reason, we don't have to try to compete.
The fact that we are a new culture doesn't mean that we are anything less than the older cultures, it simply means that our greatest contribution to man lies before us. We don't have to look back to antiquity to find a source of pride, all we have to do is study the life and times of our parents, our grandparents, and that generation of black people born between the turn of the century and WWII.
In less than 50 years, the Black people of that generation went from housekeepers and flunkies to the boardrooms of multinational corporations. In less than 50 years, they went from playing washboards and tin cans on the side of the road, to becoming some of the greatest musicians the world has ever known. In less than 50 years these people have gone from the defenseless and nameless victims of public lynchings, to laying a foundation, along with their White supporters (who must not be forgotten), that led directly to Barack Obama becoming the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth--and that is a chapter in history that is verifiable.
The most cursory glance demonstrates that there is something unusually unique about this new culture. While social scientists have postulated that all minority cultures must assimilate, dilute, and subordinate themselves to the dominant cultural soup, there is clear evidence that the African-American culture has had a much greater impact on the dominant culture than is the reverse.
Members of the dominant cultural group under fifty years of age have more in common with the African-American culture in terms of attitudes, style, and personal taste, than they have with their own grandparents. Black music--Jazz, Blues, Rap, and, yes, Rock n Roll--is the predominate music, not only in the United States, but in the entire world. Every time a Rock group goes on stage, they sing a tribute to nameless slaves moanin' in the fields--and just to turn on a radio or television set anywhere in the Western world, is to pay a tribute to Duke, Bird, Miles, and Diz.
In addition, the United States of America has honored only four men in history by declaring the day of their birth a national day of celebration--Jesus Christ of Nazareth, widely accepted by many as the father of all mankind; President George Washington, the father of this nation; Christopher Columbus, the man credited with discovering the Americas (along with the native Americans who were already a part thereof); and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man whose forebears were brought to these shores in chains.
That says a lot about that humble black man—and it says just as much about his people. In spite of the fact that Dr. King began his life burdened by the inherent disadvantages of being blessed with black skin in a Jim Crow environment, his words, his intellect, and his deeds so inspired the heart and soul of humanity that America saw fit to set aside a day for this nation--this world--to thank God that he was allowed to walk among us. His was a soul with such strength that it served to lift the rest of mankind to a higher level of humanity. That's not only a testament to one black man's ability to pull himself from the dust of his humble beginnings, it's also a testament to the capacity of his people to meet the test of greatness--and that's a history that is verifiable.
So while it's extremely important to never forget our journey, it’s much more important to focus on who we currently are, and to create a vision of who we wish to become in the future. Because, whether intentionally or not, when we fixate singularly on the past we send a subliminal message to Black youth that we’re less than viable today and that our greatest days are behind us, and that’s a hugely erroneous message.
Let us consider President Obama’s accomplishment alone. Barack Obama has accomplished a feat more gloriously impressive than any man in HUMAN history. What he’s accomplished is directly analogous to a conquered African peasant rising to become the emperor of Rome - and he’s done that in OUR TIME! So why do we feel that we must look all the way back to antiquity to find evidence of greatness in our people? What we should be focused on is building on his accomplishment - and a big part of that process, by the way, involves stamping out the voices of those among us who, due to greed, self-service and envy, are trying to marginalize that accomplishment.
So, we must take pride in who we are now, and in our own personal journeys. We must begin to realize that in our own journey through life history is also being made. You don't have to be a world conqueror to have an impact on the history of mankind, you simply have to make decisions in your personal life that helps to enhance and move your people forward towards their appointment with destiny. And every time you face life's obstacles with courage and perseverance you meet that challenge. After all, you don't make decisions in a vacuum-- every decision that you make in life becomes a public decision. People are watching, your children are watching, and if you nurture your children properly, they will make the character of your decisions an indelible part of the public record.
Thus, the character that you reflect in your daily conduct carries the seed that your children will carry with them for generations. For that reason, I don't regret one moment of my youth that I spent stumblin' through Watts on whatever drug happened to be convenient. Those years were part of a personal journey that stands as a monument to who I am today. Of course, I related those struggles to my children as stumbling blocks to be avoided at all costs, but they were also related as examples of perseverance, and the determination to overcome the obstacles in my life. They were related as examples of turning the adversity in life into the kind of knowledge and strength of character that makes one MORE formidable, rather than less . By overcoming the adversity in my life, it allowed me to relate those experiences with just as much pride as the White culture relates the experiences of General Patton to their children. George fought his battles, and I fought mine, and as far as my children are concerned--as far as I'm concern--one is no less heroic than the other.
Thus:I NOW STAND FIRM
I now stand firm. My conviction of the power of knowledge is the platform upon which my podium rests. I stand firm, strong, and now free. Free of anger. Free of self-delusion. Free of the folly of empty vanity, and free of the pernicious bane of meaningless pride without substance.
I stand free to look upon the eyes of other men, reflecting dignity over sorrow, and accomplishment over pain; I stand with a burning passion, fueled by the very flame that forged ancestral shackles,with a deep sense of pride and a pride that flows deep.
I now stand erect. The steel that once degraded my father, that chained him in bondage to this bitter Earth, now reinforce my character, making me more, rather than less; and the blood and sweat that once drenched his brow, now rage with resolve and a sense of purpose within my burning breast.
I now stand as a new being - neither simply African, nor simply American, but a hybrid forced to transcend the sum of my parts; no longer simply African, since being torn away from the African motherland to suffer and toil in the fields of America, and more than simply American, after being forced to be more than simply American just to survive within the bowels of this prosperous land.
Thus, I stand now armed - armed with the wisdom of deprivation, the courage of my conviction, and a deep conviction of my courage; and fortified - with the confidence of a survivor, the empowerment of knowledge, and a ravishing hunger for greatness.
I now stand the product of love, struggle, and sacrifice; a witness to man's inhumanity to man, and a monument to the hopes and dreams of a million slaves.
I now stand embraced by my creator, as God now smiles upon my people.
Yes, I Now Stand Firm.
Firm, Black, and Free.
And that, is verifiable.
For more columns by Eric L. Wattree www.wattree.blogspot.com