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WashingtonandRoosevelt

Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt

… a black man sat down to dinner and it caused a national uproar. That man was Boooker T. Washington, President of Tuskegee, sitting down to dinner at the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt.

StarGazetteOct1901

It was not as if, as one paper noted, it was the first time “a negro had been the guest of the White House. During former administrations … Frederick Douglas and B. K. Bruce registrar of the treasury had attended White House receptions.” [1]

BruceandDouglass

Blanche Kelso Bruce and Frederick Douglass

And “Queen Lilliuokalani, whose skin is as dark hued as a full-blooded negro, was once a dinner guest of President Cleveland.” [1] So what was the difference?

Liliuokalani_in_London_(PPWD-16-4.014)

Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee

In an NPR interview about her book on the subject, Guest of Honor (2013), Deborah Davis notes that from a Southern perspective inviting a man to dine with your family was acknowledging him as a social equal. Such a man, as your social equal, could even woo your daughter. If that’s true, Roosevelt’s action, as President of the United States, must have come across as a slap in the face to those southerners whom he had been courting politically.

WeeklyClarionLedgerMS

excerpts from Weekly Clarion-Ledge, Mississippi 1901

In 1901, the nation was grappling with what was referred to as the Negro Problem. Millions of black people in the South freed for a generation. Some had moved north and west but some stayed having finally acquired some political voice with the right to vote, a right being methodically stripped.

AtlantaConstitution1901

excerpt from Atlanta Constitutution 1901

By 1901 blacks had become refugees within their own country as they moved across the land, often up north, seeking new opportunities. For many of those who stayed in the South, invisible if not literal walls were being built between the races. Each state took their own approach.

OgdenStandard1901

Peoples’ fears and anxieties were heightened, and others’s sense of supremacy legitimized, by the fiery words of white supremacists like Ben Tillman of South Carolina and the Reverend Thomas F. Dixon.

TillmanandDixon

Benjamin Tillman and Thomas Dixon

Dixon had yet to publish the first book in his Ku Klux Klan trilogy that would inspire D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation fourteen years later, but as an extremely popular preacher of his day, Dixon was widely known, his lectures sold out and his words published in newspapers and journals nationwide.

McKinley-Theodore_Roosevelt_Campaign_and_Inaugural_Items,_ca._1900-1901_(4360047582)_(cropped01)

One month prior to the dinner, Vice President Roosevelt had been sworn in as President after McKinley’s death following an assassination attempt. Only thirty-six years since the end of the Civil War, Roosevelt sorely needed to keep a still-shaky Union together by remaining aware of, if not outright appeasing, a once again politically powerful South.

Booker_T._Washington and Family

Booker T. Washington and Family

Earlier in the year, Booker T. Washington had published his memoir Up From Slavery. For years he had traveled the world promoting the success and the ideal of Tuskegee, an educational institution that combined necessary academics with industrial training. In terms of the two sides of “the color line,” there were probably few other national figures as famous as Roosevelt and Washington.

Theodore_Roosevelt_and_Family_-_24_August_1907

Theodore Roosevelt and Family

So for these two men to dine in the White House in 1901 was of significance. Evidence suggests that Washington was well aware of this fact whereas Roosevelt, with his impulsive nature, was less so.

BrooklynDailyEagle1901

The uproar incited by the press, especially the Southern press, was unprecedented. For those who felt threatened by freed blacks, the dinner, its portrayal in the press, conversations on the street and from the pulpit, fanned flames of hatred and gave reign to violence. After news of the dinner, Tillman, then a Congressman from South Carolina, is quoted as saying: “we shall have to kill a thousand niggers to get them back in their places”. He also says later that same year,

MoberlyWeeklyMonitorTillman1

excerpt from Moberly Weekly 1901

As Davis shares in her NPR interview, the impact of that dinner would have ripple effects across the decades. For instance in 1901 a poem was published and appeared in newspapers called Niggers in the White House. Six Months Hence. Written by an anonymous figure, the poem describes in all the derogatory ways possible how blacks had taken over the White House, but then it ends with a solution alluding to the two men’s sons and daughters …

kentuckynewspoemexcerpt

In 1929, the poem was sent to First Lady Lou Hoover as censure when she invited a black congressman’s wife, Jessie DePriest, to tea in the White House. At a time when Northern politicians were trying to enforce existing laws against racial discrimination, the tea became an event around which southern politicians could rally efforts to continue the segregation and disenfranchisement of blacks.

DePriestandHoover

Jessie DePriest and Lou Hoover

Clearly both Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt survived the dinner’s aftermath. Roosevelt would even be elected for a second term as President. Roosevelt and Washington would meet again, several more times, but they never dined again in the White House.

Sources & Additional Reading

Guest of Honor by Deborah Davis (2013)

http://www.npr.org/books/titles/152665080/guest-of-honor-booker-t-washington-theodore-roosevelt-and-the-white-house-dinner

[1]Star-Gazette (Elmira, NY), October 19, 1901

[2] Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, GA) January 13, 1901

https://www.newspapers.com/

Blanche Kelso Bruce

Frederick Douglass

Queen Liliuokalani

Benjamin Tillman

Thomas F. Dixon

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niggers_in_the_White_House

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessie_De_Priest_tea_at_the_White_House

 

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butterfly in herbs

butterfly in herbs

I don’t trust the incoming President of the United States, nor the people he is likely to appoint to his cabinet, nor the Republicans already in Congress who supported him, nor those Republicans who didn’t support him but were re-elected anyway, not the person he will try to appoint to the Supreme Court, and possibly not even the person he will hire to walk his dog assuming he decides to have one in the White House — I don’t trust any of these people to look out for my best interests as a human being let alone as a citizen of the United States and of the world. So what am I supposed to do as a human being, as a citizen of the United States and of the world?

It is rather despicable to see the likes of Mitch McConnel and Paul Ryan on stage stating that as soon as Trump is officially President they will work to repeal the Affordable Care Act (why not work to fix its problems and expand what works?), cut taxes (for whom or what?), confirm conservative judges (why not find the best judges?), shrink government programs (which ones and why?) and roll back regulations (for whom and why?). They speak only to removing and wiping away President Obama’s legacy — they speak not a word about how they will unite a clearly divided country, provide support to people of all races and socio-economic backgrounds whether at the federal level or by supporting state governments to do work at the ground level.  There is no acknowledgement, nor will there ever be I suspect, of how the Republicans chose to purposefully roadblock Obama every chance they could, and that roadblocking had absolutely nothing to do with the best interests of the American people. It was to prove a point, to hammer it home, at the expense of the American people.

I will not pull out the race card, immigration, fear of “the other.” Van Jones did that eloquently enough.

To some degree the issues that divide this nation are the issues that have been present since the founding of this nation – race, class, gender, fear, hope, desire and so on. There especially seems to be a universal anxiety about the future. If there are those who are not anxious then I wonder what bubble they live in.  Somehow or other, we have been able over time, and sometimes bloodily so, to overcome if not outright address these issues. But these issues, a part of our human nature, do not ever fade away.

I will continue to mull over what I will do positively to move forward as a human being and citizen of the United States and of the world. I personally do not feel a desire to wrap myself inside a cocoon until a better day arrives. Today is all we have. I will continue to celebrate what has made this country great all along, to seek out its beauty with my camera, to share the stories of its people, past and present, and those who strive to become part of its future, and I will make a greater effort to be an active citizen. I’m never going into politics, but I am reinvigorated to go knocking at the door of those who serve the people at the local level and to ask them, what are you going to do?

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A long trip is nearing its end. I rest in a place that is stunningly beautiful. It is an unexpectedly thought provoking place. The mountains of West Virginia. I have been here before but never during a campaign year. Trump-Pence signs are on many a lawn, as are surprisingly to me, a few Gary Johnson. No Hillary Clinton signs seen so far. As I interact with people here, I can imagine that she would seem quite foreign. I am reminded of the time I sat in an airport near two older ladies watching a television. George W. Bush was on the screen. He spoke but the sound was on mute. One of the ladies said, “I’d invite him to my picnic. I think I’ll vote for him.” Policy and experience were moot. He came across as familiar and likeable. Clinton does not. Yet Trump does? Fascinating.

I am in an area that is approximately 96 percent non-Hispanic White according to demographic tables. Without looking up the statistic, I suspected such a number. I stand out quite a bit. People stare whenever I step out of a car, walk across the parking lot, sit in a restaurant. The culture here is a bit different than my recent experience in South Carolina. There, even if you stand out as different, the culture is such that you “throw up a hand” or acknowledge a presence in some way. At least, that’s the way it used to be. Here … people sometimes seem startled when I say hello or look at them and smile in greeting. Some will nod back. Others just stare. At times I felt uncomfortable, and it wasn’t just the Confederate flags peppering various places. The flags were old and tattered. Perhaps those were really about heritage and not about the new symbolism of hate.

Sitting in a diner — lovely staff, good food –I watched the local news. On screen, a black man was asked by a white man if discrimination still existed. Everyone who walked through the door glanced at me. That’s fine. Once while working with a youth writing program in Boston, we brought the children across town to do an activity. Afterwards we went for ice cream at a nearby ice cream shop. One of the girls leaned against me. She said, “Cynthia, nobody here looks like me. Like us.” I said, “And that’s okay. To go places and to be different. Let’s pick out our ice cream.”

To go places. To be different. Even if one is not readily welcomed. There is value in that especially in a world where it is too easy to view those who are different, those with whom one has had no personal experience, as … well … those who should be held at bay with walls and exclusionary laws that have been passed in the past and can be again.

Because of the various circles I run in for work and pleasure, sometimes people will say to me, “Cynthia, I think you’re the first black person that such-and-such has interacted with.” I have to hope that I am not the last. And I have to hope that interaction is more than what’s shown on TV and in social media.

This is an incomplete post in the sense that these thoughts and my experiences from this trip are still percolating. We’ll see what the future holds. I’m grateful for the opportunity to wind my way through West Virginia and to glimpse just a bit of its natural beauty.

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Visiting Virginia a few summers ago, I stopped in a small city. It was a literal crossroads of sorts. Fancy antique stores and cheap thrift shops lined the road. Around these buildings people had set up long tables for further display.  My partner and I sauntered through the buildings.  As usual in such places we found a wonderful mix of treasure and trash. Later, he wanted to peruse the tables.  Usually I would have raced ahead but I found myself hesitating as I watched one of the tables being prepared.  Two men arranged an amazing array of items, items that had one unifying theme. They all displayed the Confederate flag.

While I had to pass that table to get back to the car, I did not get close. Eye contact was made with one gentleman. With both our heads held high, we nodded in that southern way of closed lipped acknowledgement. It was not an unexpected sight especially because this encounter took place shortly after all the hullabaloo of removing the Confederate flag from institutions nationwide. Not unexpectedly, at least to me, online sales of the flag (and in-store sales depending on where one lived) went through the roof. But it’s America, right? As private citizens, those gentlemen could choose to sell the flag. And I could choose to walk away.

Recently one of my brothers who lives in southern Virginia described driving past an estate where half of the owner’s lawn was covered by a Confederate flag. I told him I wanted to ask the owner what was the intention behind such a display. He joked that I probably wouldn’t make it halfway up the driveway before the owner would step out with his licensed gun, and perhaps his dog at his side, to encourage me to leave his property. Okay, my brother became a bit more descriptive and I chastised him for making such jokes. If the owner wanted me to leave his property, he could. It’s America, right?

For those who do not know, I am an African American woman who grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. When I return to my hometown or attend a reunion at the school I attended in North Carolina or visit family now settled in South Carolina, I have at least two expectations. One is to bathe in the beauty of the southern natural landscape and two is the likelihood of seeing Confederate flags. After living in New England for nearly twenty years, I certainly have that first expectation. There is no New England state that I have visited where I have not experienced great natural beauty. But that latter expectation … no, I guess I did not have that one though I now do after last weekend.

I later described it as being caught up in a Klu Klux Klan rally but no one wore a hood. There were no torches or anyone burning but there was plenty of black smoke and revving of engines. I’m  sure there were guns but none were on display. Nothing illegal was done that I could see except for some bikers racing by in the breakdown lane but they didn’t do so for long. They just did it to keep up with the pack, or I guess I should say the convoy, of three dozen or more vehicles — trucks, cars, jeeps, bikes — driving along the highway from Massachusetts into Rhode Island, waving the Confederate flag. The American flag was flown too of course.

When I saw the first truck, a large black pick up, with Trump and Pence stenciled in white on the side, I thought, “Well, this is America.” Then as we kept driving along I saw more vehicles, a beat up Corvette with a Confederate flag nailed to the roof, more pickup trucks with large chimneys and flashing lights in addition to their flags, bikers with the flags pinned to their leathers.  I really, really, really didn’t want to be in their midst but there was no other route to our destination.

I could avoid that table in the Virginia flea market with its sea of Confederate flags but I could not escape this experience. We all had to share the road, and we did so for a very long time. Finally the vehicles all left the road, to pull into a Rhode Island rest stop.  Their final destination I have no idea. We completed our journey into the quiet of Rhode Island’s small towns.  I slumped back into the seat, exhausted. Why was I exhausted?

Well …

Later that weekend, people asked me how did I know that there were three dozen or so vehicles in the convoy. I explained that I counted them. With the luxury of being a passenger and not the driver, I looked at each vehicle surrounding and then passing me. I looked at license plates (several New England states were represented). I looked at the drivers who would not look back at me. I got the feeling that they had all been instructed to keep their eyes on the road and to do nothing intimidating individually because what they were doing as a group was much more effective.

I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture, likely a combination, but there’s a thing that happens to me in certain situations. It’s the confluence of past and present. There’s a scene in the movie 12 Years a Slave, and a scene in the movie Glory, and scene in any movie  involving slavery, where a man or woman is tied up and whipped. I have many a friend and family member, of different races and ages and life experiences, who will turn away. I cannot. My back straightens. I hold my head high. Not so much to bear witness but it feels almost like channeling ancestors who did what they had to do to survive but they would not be subjugated. To sit in that position for an hour, so tense, was exhausting.

In that Virginia flea market, when I made eye contact with the vendor selling the Confederate flag, and nodded at him in acknowledgement, in a different day and age, for such behavior, for stepping out of my place, I would have been whipped. I know, I know. There some who might say, there you go stirring up the past again. But that past is a part of my American heritage, and every American’s heritage.

I am a major proponent of “just go with flow” and “just let things go.” Being caught up in that convoy for about an hour, those philosophical tendencies were replaced with something else. I increasingly wanted the drivers to look at me. I wanted to look into his or her eyes and to see who they were. And I wanted them to see me. As with the man in Virginia with the Confederate flag covering his lawn, I want them all to explain to me the intention of their display and to do so with other words than “It’s about heritage, not hate.”

I had my camera with me, of course, but I refused to pull it out. There was no need to capture in pixels and post on this blog such imagery. But I did want to share an experience that I will not let go of but I will certainly move beyond.

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They could have stayed in the land where they had been born, a land that over time their ancestors had come to consider home. During the war the land had been bloodied but the war was over. A few cities and institutions had been destroyed but for the most part key systems and infrastructures had been preserved.  Yes, war had ended, and with war’s end some change had come.  Were they not free? A big change, for sure, but clearly not enough.

Word spread of a different place, a place with more opportunities, where one could make a fresh start.  It would be an all or nothing gamble. Not everyone was sure of such a gamble but some were.  Families mobilized.  All they need do to reach this promised land was to cross the river.  And they did.

Not everyone was happy.

This is how one group’s journey was described by an observer:

“… today there are sixty or seventy … of all ages and sexes on the river bank … singing and shouting … waiting for a government boat that will give them free transportation … These emigrants are the most lazy … too lazy to make a living in this warm and generous climate, where nature holds out to them her arms laden with rich and magnificent fruits that never fail. She points to her lakes … with unfailing yield of food from the waters, and can boast of a soil more productive than any other. Yet this lazy class of emigrants are compelled to go [elsewhere] to make a living or be fed by a magnanimous government.  The most important of these emigrants have abandoned comfortable homes, and many of them have no means to pay passage … and what money they had was expended … [They] have been deceived by designing rascals in our midst who have held out flattering hopes and promises for the future that can never be realized. …”

As for that elsewhere considered a promised land? It was Kansas. The river crossed was the Mississippi.  The emigrants were African Americans departing the south in what’s considered to be one of the first major migrations after the Civil War. The above excerpts were posted in the Boston Post on May 2, 1879 (just fourteen years after the end of the Civil War and two years after the end of Reconstruction) in a letter written by a resident of Vidalia, Louisiana to his client in Massachusetts. His client owned a Louisiana plantation.

While over six million people were freed by the end of the Civil War, many continued to work the fields where they had once been enslaved. Few other employment options existed.  By the late 1870s, white southern elites returned to power and quickly undid many of the advancements made with regard to voting rights and economic opportunities for blacks. As economic pathways disappeared and violence increased, people sought a promised land and that land was out west and especially Kansas, home of the mythic John Brown.

One concern sparked by the exodus of African Americans was, who would work the fields?  In his 1879 letter, the author includes a clipping from another southern voice reflecting upon this potential impact and proposed federal actions.

“The proposition of [President] Garfield to appropriate from the Treasury of the United States seventy-five thousand dollars for the relief of these emigrants … it is one the of most “cheeky”propositions, to use a cant expression, we have ever heard.  Here is a people, probably in combination with Garfield himself and other haters of the South, who leave their comfortable homes in the South, and under certain unexplained influences go voluntarily to the West to better their condition.  They there find only those who have persuaded them into such a wild goose chase … They find the conditions identical with what had been told them over and over again by intelligent men in the country they have left, they find the same difficulties and trials which every class of immigrants have to encounter when moving to a new country, and they are thrown on their own resources to no greater extent than the thousands of white immigrants who every year throng the Western Territories. Why does not Mr. Garfield ask the Congress of the United States to appropriate money for the temporary support of German and Irish and other European emigrants? They are as worthy …

“If this proposition to support this band of crazy wanderers should be adopted and money appropriated for keeping them in idleness, there would be created a drain on the public Treasury which hundreds of millions would not satisfy … and the time would not be long before our Western friends would have a surfeit of their colored brethren. … How long is this peculiar care for this class of our population to continue? … The colored people are as free as the whites … He has the same right as the white man has to emigrate but he has no further right than the white man for assistance …

“The place of those who go from the South will doubtless be soon supplied by the Chinamen, and what would Mr. Garfield say if the people of the South should apply to Congress for a year’s support for the almond-eyed Mongolians who may be brought here to develop our cotton lands?”

There are other letters from that time that echo the same sentiments about the roles of African Americans, the Chinese immigrants and more but I stop here. The history of that time — of emigration, migration and refugees arriving in a new land — is complex and is part of what makes America so darned unique.  Though no wall around Kansas or along the Mississippi was mentioned, as I read the words, I could not help but think of Trump. He is nothing new. Nor are the people who look up to someone like him, a man who puts down everyone, and who enables some peoples’ worse base instincts toward selfishness, fear of others and violence.

I do not find hope in these old letters but I am reminded that we as a nation have survived such people and attitudes before.  I have seen many stories of late debating whether or not Alex Haley’s Roots should have been remade. I don’t know but I do believe that there are always lessons to be learned from studying and remembering the past.

Sources

Boston Post, May 2, 1879, page 2, “The Negro Exodus”

National Archives Exodus to Kansas

 

 

 

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detail from untitled photo by joseph a. horne, 1940s

This photo was taken by Joseph Anthony Horne during the 1940s as he worked for the Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information.  As highlighted in a previous chapter of Interludes, he like many other photographers had been sent out across the country, under the direction of Roy Stryker, to capture the American experience. One of the areas that Horne captured on film was southeast Washington, D.C.,  an area not far from where his family lived and an area that was predominantly African American. The photos he took in that community were notable, for me, in part because there was no characterization or stereotyping. He simply photographed in a straightforward manner people living their daily lives. He, like many of the FSA photographers, was very good at that.  Otherwise in commercial media, unless it was an African-American specific publication, there was either no representation of “colored” people or it was often a mimicry.  Out of all the photos that Horne took in this community, I was especially struck by the series of photos of this little girl who had been positioned in front of the camera by a person who appeared to be her mother. No doubt she’d been placed in a best dress for the occasion. And its that dress that caught my attention.

There are people far more eloquent and scholarly than I who have written and who continue to write about how we as humans form our sense of self, our sense of self-worth, our sense of what is beautiful and our sense of how we individually fit within that definition of beauty.  This little girl is lovely and thoughtful. Her face clearly reads, who are you and what are you doing? The little face affixed to her dress is also lovely. Two different expressions of beauty.

This photograph was taken in 1905 and is located in the NYPL Digital Collection. I don’t know the context in which this photograph was taken though there is that accompanying caption suggesting to me that it was in a magazine and meant as a positive image highlighting how far African Americans had come in the 40-years since slavery and that a new generation would have even more success.  Too true as evidenced by the strength in that little girl’s face, and yet I am struck by the doll wrapped in her arm.  Growing up in the 1970s, I too had a lovely doll around which to wrap my arms and I enjoyed combing her blonde hair and wondering why it was so hard, in fact impossible, to braid her hair the way my mother braided mine. I grew up in a far different time than these two young girls but Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, published the year I was born, certainly resonated in my teenage years. I don’t remember ever wanting blue eyes but I think I wanted blonde hair (or maybe a lion’s mane).

These musings come to the fore because of a convergence of recent events, including having the opportunity to explore the imagery being made available through digital collections, seeing images of the past that had not been made widely available before, images that today have the potential to spark positive conversations about the past, present and future.

I recently pulled together research to tell two stories of one place.  One story focused on two sisters of great wealth whose lives are well-documented and whose enduring influences are often remarked upon.  The second story took great effort to pull together, of a gentleman whose image and good works I could only find because of the old texts and photographs being digitized and made available online.  The two sisters were white and the gentleman was black. They lived during the same time period and interacted in the same place.  When I printed my drafts and shared the stories with an elder (whose age I shall not share), she listened politely to the story of the two women but she took the story of the gentleman. We had a conversation and she said, “Cynthia, all my life I have heard about these women and the people like them. I never heard about this man. You keep doing your research. Why is it important? I want people to know that we were here. To know that we were a part of this place.”

Sources

https://www.loc.gov/item/owi2001000491/PP/

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “A little child shall lead them.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1906. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-9e16-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

 

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Blues 1

Blue Rose in the Hall

Maybe it was fear that made the young men shout “Nooooo!” as I stood next to a For Sale sign in front of a house in a suburb outside of Boston.  Fear of change, fear of something different coming into their midst.  And maybe it was fear that made a woman look me up and down as I questioned her entrance into a building (part of my job at the time).  As she left the building she made sure to look at me in that same way and I had to think, “Well, if looks could kill, I’d be six feet under.” And maybe it was fear that made the waitress do some things during a meal, such that once I’d left the restaurant with my friend (whose favorite restaurant it was), she said, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t expect that to happen.”

Now if I were to say that all of those fairly recent events happened, in part, because all the other individuals were white and I am black … well, I think there are folks who might say, as is often said today, why does everything have to be attributed to race?  Because race does matter.  As does class, gender, and economics. It all matters.  But here’s why race stands out for me:  slavery. “Slavery ended,” someone said to me once. “Why keep bringing that up?”

Born in the 1970s USA, I have never been a slave.  I have never been shackled or forced to give up a child or beaten if I tried to put pen to paper or pick up a book.  I’ve never stood in a market while an overseer pointed out my attributes so that someone might buy me as a companion for their children or an extra servant in the kitchen.  Never needed to carry papers proving freedom (or ownership), nor been branded, or had to hope that my master would free our children in his will.

As former slaves did about 150 years ago, I’ve never been in a position of celebrating freedom and, on the other hand, having to deal with the realities of having little but the clothes on my back and waiting for forty acres and a mule.  Never had to deal with “separate but equal” or segregated schools (my older brothers did who were born in the 1950s and 1960s).  Never been in a position or location where I had the right to vote but other forces, those perhaps suffering from fear of change, were putting strategies into place to prevent me from voting (my parents dealt with that).

Nor have I had to watch a loved one (or even a stranger) brutally beaten, mutilated, hung from a tree or a telephone pole, and burned.  I’ve heard a few stories from older family, watched the documentaries and read quite a few articles.  When I read the stories of lynching, especially in old newspapers recently digitized, and see the images, I cry.  I cry for the people who died, the people who watched and tried to help, and even for the people who watched and did nothing.  I did wonder what the people who did nothing were thinking? And what about the people who sang and danced and even cut off parts for souvenirs or mailed those parts to white politicians trying to effect some change?

For some, did the actions they witnessed mean nothing because the people to whom the deeds were done looked nothing like them?  Or was it just that they did not know what to do? Were some people truly scared or were they simply seeking pleasure in establishing control over another?  All of those incidents are part of the fabric of this country, as are the people, of all races and backgrounds, who fought to end slavery, the people who fought to end routine lynchings and the people who continue to fight for economic and voting rights for all people.

Yes, I do indeed bring up slavery and other injustices from the so-called past because of present-day incidents like in Ferguson.   Slavery is an institution, one of many, that this country has yet to deal with. I don’t care about politics or how people choose to identify themselves in this country as Republican, Democrat, Tea Party, Libertarian and so on.   Political labels and tenets change over time.  But what about human behavior?  How has that changed over time?  Or has it?  Why do we treat people the way that we do?

You can “follow the money” in terms of why slavery was entrenched in this country for so long.  Economics, economics, economics.  In too many venues of late, I have read people saying stop talking about race and focus on the economic issues in a Ferguson.  Of course, economics is an issue and powerful factor leading to injustices happening in many communities.  But it comes down to a bit more than money to treat people as inferior or to hear their screams of pain and laugh or to make assumptions about their children’s ability to learn regardless of resources provided for education.  And it is about more than economics to see all those things taking place around you and to do nothing. To some extent, I feel little right to judge others because I do not always know what to do as I learn about the horrors around me, in this country and abroad.  I do know with regard to slavery and the seeds that were planted that continue to sprout, I do not want to forget.

I’ve been researching the past, including slave times, quite a bit of late for various projects as well as to better understand current events.  In the remembering, and rediscoveries, I don’t come to hate people who look different than me.  Not at all.  A part of me mourns.  I mourn the horrors, and I also celebrate the courage of so many different peoples, their hopes, their activism and their creativity in finding the beauty in this life.  And I celebrate such in the people who are active today.

As a final note in my Sunday ramblings, if you chose to read so far, … I came upon a 1920s newspaper article about a lynching. The reporter recounted that witnesses heard the dying man sing a song with his last breaths as the flames consumed him.  I looked up the song and came upon the following 1950s rendition by Sam Cooke.  A powerful piece.

 

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