Encountering new (to me) voices

In my last post, I wrote about literacy and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, one of the Black authors I teach in my literature class. Her works inspire my students and give us a glimpse into a time period and a way of life we can’t even imagine. Like so many of the long-gone authors one reads in a Lit class, Harper’s words make real for us a past we haven’t fully learned about.

Another Black voice my students get to hear is that of James Baldwin, a writer whose discussions of race, sexuality and justice in the 50s and 60s played a key role in raising awareness on these topics in both the US and Europe.

I’ve been reading a new book about Baldwin this week, and through it I am learning not just about Baldwin but a time period and a group of activists I am not familiar with or have never heard of. This includes Stokely Carmichael, someone who defined a movement with a simple phrase. I’m reading the book to learn more about Baldwin, who I think of as well known, but as I learn about other important figures, I see how my education has not been very robust when it comes to activism and activists, and I see how I need to step up my own game even more.

I’ll write about this book when it’s done; for now, back to Carmichael.

”When I first heard about the Negroes sitting in at lunch counters down South,” he told Gordon Parks in Life magazine in 1967, ”I thought they were just a bunch of publicity hounds. But one night when I saw those young kids on TV, getting back up on the lunch counter stools after being knocked off them, sugar in their eyes, ketchup in their hair — well, something happened to me. Suddenly I was burning.”

Stokely carmichael, as quoted in the new york times

Stokely Carmichael coined the phrase “Black power” in 1966. As a student at Howard University, he worked to promote Dr. King’s ideas of nonviolence, serving on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group created by King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to represent and drive youth.

Carmichael participated in various sit-ins to end segregation, excelled as a student and eventually moved from supporting King’s work promoting nonviolence to a position of advocating for “self-defense.” Politically motivated, Carmichael worked tirelessly in Alabama to get more Black people to vote; in 1965 he “managed to raise the number of registered black voters from 70 to 2,600 300 more than the number of registered white voters in the county.”

I realize that educators can’t cover every activist, and news sources can’t write about every amazing human. But as we’ve been hearing so much about Stacey Abrams doing this same thing in Georgia, I wonder why we haven’t heard anything about Carmichael’s work, which took place decades earlier.

Arrested dozens of times, Carmichael’s push for Black power and pride continued to set him at odds with powerful whites, who didn’t like what they perceived as a desire to make Blacks “rise up” against white systems. He eventually gave up on America and moved to Guinea. In 1998, at the age of 57, he died of prostate cancer.

As I read about Carmichael’s life and legacy, in the Baldwin book and in other sources, I see that he was just too “powerful” and too “dangerous” to be championed by mainstream (meaning white) historians, educators and resources. His belief that Black pride and Black power should be championed is a belief we see squelched today. Because so many of the people in power are still afraid of what it would mean for someone else to actually have pride in their people and draw on its power to help build a way of life, his ideas continue to be “revolutionary”– to some, in the scariest form of that word.

Black History Month offers lessons for everyone

It’s real easy for me to look at the calendar and come up with something to write, or at least the starting point for something. That’s no different tonight because I’ve been thinking about a flurry of social media posts I saw–and didn’t see– on the first day of the month.

What stormed my Facebook and Insta feeds was a lot of Imbolc photos. This ancient European festival day celebrates the halfway point between the solstice we go through in winter and the equinox we celebrate in the spring. It’s a pagan celebration, but no matter what religion or lack thereof one practices, it’s a day that signifies coming light and longer days. It looks forward to a change in seasons.

I’m not surprised I saw a lot of friends celebrating Imbolc. I have many friends doing the homestead thing, the farm thing, the fuck the mainstream thing. And even my friends who are clearly religious and live here in the Midwest are definitely looking forward to longer days.

And I’m not surprised about the lack of other posts I was thinking I’d see: Black History Month posts. It’s a bummer, but it seems to me that a lot of folks don’t think about Black History Month unless they celebrate Blackness as part of their heritage or their family’s heritage.

Black History Month was born in 1915 when Carter G. Woodson, who had studied at Harvard, and Jesse E. Moorland, a minister, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). Originally, Woodson had hoped for a day, and then a week to honor Black culture. Why February? Because it’s the month of Frederick Douglass‘ birthday and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. My calendar reminds me that it’s also Washington’s birthday month, and President’s Day (but the same calendar does not mention Douglass or Black History Month).

I can’t act like I knew all of this before this month; it was the lack of posts about Black History Month that spurred me to read posts about it. I think our present political climate has heightened people’s awareness of the fact that we don’t know so much about some groups of our fellow Americans. History, written by “the winners,” has silenced these stories.

So for the rest of the month, I want to share some of the things I’m finding and reading and learning about Black History Month and the people and culture it celebrates.

First up, on the first, I read this piece from the New York Times about Rosa Parks. Did you know she had been working to combat police brutality and sexual assault for two decades before the bus incident she’s famous for? Did you know she was married to a barber; after her stand for justice, she and her husband lost their jobs and could not find decent work in Montgomery again. Her family moved to Detroit, and she found work in U.S. Representative John Conyers’s office. I had no idea.

Yesterday, my friend Connie made a FB post about the ACE Academy, a private school in Sioux Falls, SD for kids in kindergarten through eight grade. This school runs year round and gives at-risk and students of color opportunities to engage in an academic community that values diversity and brings into the classroom concepts like meditation and culture-based curriculum. ACE is the kind of school that is working to support the real history of various cultures in our society, and they’re doing it not just for their students. This month they’re posting all sorts of tidbits about Black history. You can check out their FB page here to get in on updates, the fun posts and more.

And tonight I read that the Library of Congress is hosting a transcribe-athon Feb. 12-14 to finish a transcribing project of Mary Church Terrell‘s papers or documents related to her. Born in Tennessee in 1863, Terrell was the daughter of slaves. She earned both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from Oberlin College and became a teacher and advocate for racial justice.

I learned of Terrell tonight as I read about the transcribe-a-thon, and I am sure there are all sorts of things I’m going to learn this month. I’ll learn because I’m looking to learn, and I hope in the process I’ll be able to share some of this knowledge with you. I didn’t have a school like ACE as a kid, but as an adult, I know it’s up to me to educate myself in areas I’m unschooled in.

Did you know all of these little info nuggets? Any of them?