5 Lessons from History Every African American Needs to Know Today
In the spirit of black history month, the approaching anniversaries of the tragedies of of Amadou Diallo (1999) and Trayvon Martin (2012), the foul water in Flint, and the overall boiling social climate, this past week I felt it necessary to look to the past to help me mentally and actively respond to current issues. My brief history review has led to the development of five concepts every black person should know.
Kobe Bryant, Nas, Martin Luther King, all have something in common.Their parents influenced the course of their life, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. Did you know that MLK’s father was a civil rights leader, pastor, missionary, faithful husband, and inspiring father? Did you know that his mother was very involved with the church and also worked as a teacher? Dr. King Jr’s later involvement in both the church and civil rights is directly related to the influence and support of his parents.When I think about the influence of parents I’m reminded of the statistic from the Department of Health and Human Services , which says that children with incarcerated parents are 5-7 times more likely than other children to be incarcerated.
This brings me to number one:
- FAM is Foundation
While I was blessed with two parents that stayed together, exemplified love and positivity, and were involved in my life, I know that may not be your story. I am surrounded by all kinds of people, friends and family, from varying backgrounds, many who were unfortunately not raised in ideal homes. I’ve seen secondhand the consequences my brothers and sisters have had to experience, breathing in psychological toxins that eat away at their lungs like cancer (not to mention the struggle I don’t see, that they experience). I’ve also seen brothers and sisters who refuse to remain in such an unstable environment, instead taking an axe to the foundation that their lives have been built on. I’ve realized more and more how difficult it is to chop away at my foundation—those things, big and small, that my parents taught me which I later discovered to be false. Whether you are like me with a few things you are chopping away at, or whether your foundation is extremely chaotic, the cool thing is that I get to use the things I learned from my family, the good and the bad, to help prepare me for when it is time to create a family of my own.
- Church and Social Justice
I can’t talk about family without discussing the church. Historically, the church served one purpose: saving its people. Not just saving them from their sins, but also creating a community that is connected to each other. The church was the harmony of a Negro spiritual—strengthening the hearts of exhausted slaves and laying the foundation upon which the organized peace riots and marches of the civil rights movement were developed. It is, always has been, and must continue to be the escape route of modern injustice.
Nelson Mandela, in the stir of the Apartheid, said, “The Church was as concerned with this world as the next: I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about through the missionary work of the Church.” The Church’s mission is based on making the community a better place. Getting involved in your church is a big step toward finding and living out your purpose.
- Time Management is Life Management
This is a quote from the Library of Congress on the Statute Laws of Georgia in 1845:
If any slave, negro, or person of color, or any white person, shall teach any other slave, negro, or free person of color to read or write either written or printed characters, the said free person of color or slave shall be punished by fine and whipping, or fine or whipping, at the discretion of the court.
If reading was illegal today, how many of us would be getting in trouble with the law? Why are we always the consumer? We must create, produce, inspire, and develop ideas! We can’t be satisfied with simply existing, instead we must use our spare time to improve ourselves. The successful few have mastered the art of optimizing their spare time. We can maximize the use of our time by waking up early (Oprah said it) and praying/meditating (Kobe does it). We must fight the desire to stay in bed for “a few more minutes” when we know good and well it will be another hour. We have to exercise—research says it improves brain function, gives you more energy, and will help you get attract attention with a SOLID body. Don’t argue with the research.
- Persecution is a Part of the Package
I like to think Popeye didn’t actually enjoy spinach. I bet he just ate it because he knew he needed it. The healthiest and most beneficial foods sometimes taste gross. A beat down, for the right reason, is much like spinach. It is SO important that we act beyond how we feel, or what we “have a taste for.” Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested thirty times! Herbert Lee, who worked with civil rights leaders to register black voters in 1961, was killed by a state official under “self-defense.” Later, Louis Allen, the man that witnessed Lee’s death, was also killed.
This was so striking to me. I have to accept the cold reality that if I am not prepared for extreme discomfort then I am not prepared for legitimate change. Voltaire once said, “Our wretched species is so made that those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road.” Long before the sit-ins of the Civil Rights movement, groups like that of James Lawson were doing mock sit-ins. Prior to freeing thousands of slaves, Harriet Tubman had to ask herself if she was willing to face the consequences of getting caught. The reward of righteous freedom always overshadows the risk of punishment.
- Use my Stuff
Concerning social responsibility, Jay-Z once said, “My presence is charity.” I was annoyed when I first heard this—unless his presence is accompanied by fresh water for Flint or aid for the protestors of another dead black boy then he is not serious! But I then mulled those words, “My presence is charity.” Some would agree with the hip-hop legend, perhaps arguing that celebrity presence is accompanied by media attention, and that media attention leads to activism and change. I can’t disagree. What would the peace movement had been without the cameras there to display the violence? What would we know of the struggle without those images of the firehoses spraying peaceful protesters?
But does a person who is present at a protest look different from a person who is actually protesting? Is there a difference in real and faux activism that we can see, or is it purely ideological? My review led me to ask a simple question: What comes first, the Activist, or the Activism?
Motives. This word kept coming up the more I considered the concept of social responsibility. Motives generally cannot be observed. We often try to be like Penn and Teller, saying “Ha! I know how you did that. You’re not fooling me!” It is easy to attribute motives to someone’s actions in order to make them fit the narrative we have developed that describes the specific person, or situation, in a way we deem suitable. Maybe if an individual has a track record of being an opportunist, we might be tempted to attribute the reason for their “activism” to some kind of personal benefit they might be receiving (i.e. more fans and followers on Twitter via a trending hashtag).
It is easy to be upset at the rich and famous. Kanye what has your fame done to reduce crime in Chicago? Michael Jordan what are you doing while kids are lying in blood on the street fighting over your shoes? Thinking this way makes sense. Yet there is a better question: What am I doing for the people in Flint? No I’m not as popular as a celebrity or as influential as a politician, but so what? What am I doing for Chicago? For Baltimore?
Let me share with you my nightmare turned reality. Young men and women with loads of potential but a minimal sense of obligation. They have short attention spans, they become angry at oppression for a few minutes, but never angry enough to take action for anyone but “themselves.” The vision and purpose of those who have come before them is slowly a distant memory. A memory turned myth. And most damning of all, I was among the “them.”
By: Joshua Nwosu