We’ve all heard of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman and the great things they accomplished to advance the rights of blacks, but today I’d like to focus on a few lesser-known people who also were instrumental in the fight for abolition, and later for civil rights. These people embody strength, bravery, and perseverance but are often overlooked in the history books.
William Wells Brown – born into slavery in 1814, Brown went on to write Clotel, The President’s Daughter: a Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, believed to be the first novel written by an African American. He was also the first published African American playwright. Brown became a powerful orator in the anti-slavery fight, but was often overshadowed by his contemporary, Frederick Douglass.
Emmett Till –A Chicago native unfamiliar with the ways of the South, Emmett Till was murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi, for reportedly flirting with a white woman. Even more horrendous than the brutal way he was killed is the fact that his murderers were acquitted, partially due to difficulty in identifying Till’s body. The perpetrators admitted to taking the boy from his uncle’s house, but insisted they later returned him. Months after the murder they admitted in a magazine interview to killing him, but they could not be prosecuted since they were protected by “double jeopardy”. When Till’s body was returned to Chicago, his mother insisted on having an open casket funeral so that the world could see the horror inflicted on her son – severely beat, eye gouged out, shot in the head, weighted down with a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire, and tossed into the river – this 14-year-old unwittingly helped spark the Civil Rights Movement.
Claudette Colvin – 9 months before Rosa Parks became known for not giving up her seat on the bus, 15-yr-old Claudette Colvin decided it was time to stand up for her constitutional rights, and refused to obey the bus driver who commanded her to move. Arrested and thrown in jail, she eventually became involved in the lawsuit challenging segregation that ended up in the Supreme Court. Even though Parks became the face behind the movement, Colvin deserves credit for being one of the first people to resist bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama.
Ruby Bridges – This brave little girl was the first African American child to attend an all-white elementary school in New Orleans. Escorted by federal marshalls, and only 6 years old at the time, she didn’t understand what all the fuss was about and thought the crowds of loud, shouting people were some sort of Mardi Gras Party. Most of the parents subsequently took their children out of the school, and even the children who remained were segregated. In Bridges’ book, Through My Eyes, she gives her account of the time, including the memory of the protestors displaying a child’s coffin with a black doll in it. http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7049731n
Clyde Kennard – In the 1950’s Kennard returned to his parents’ farm in Mississippi from Illinois where he was enrolled at the University of Chicago. He tried to complete his degree by applying for admission to Mississippi Southern, which at the time was an all-white institution. Even though he was denied, he persevered, writing letters to the newspaper, and even meeting with the governor at one point. His attempts to enroll in the university were permanently blocked when he was convicted of being an accessory to burglary and sentenced to seven years in state prison (years later documents showed he had been framed & falsely accused). While in prison he developed intestinal cancer, and after many appeals and protests was finally released. He died soon after, at the age of 36. It took another 43 years(!) for this decorated Army Veteran to finally be fully exonerated. http://mshistory.k12.ms.us/articles/349/clyde-kennard-a-little-known-civil-rights-pioneer
I hope you take some time today to reflect on the lives of these people and how they stood up to adversity. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like to be that tiny little girl surrounded by the chaos of shouting people, men in uniform, prejudiced teachers and principals, being isolated from the other children, not fully realizing at the time that it was all because the color of her skin. I applaud them and all those who have stood up and stood together to achieve equal rights and liberty for all.
I think all of us experience a few “ah-ha” moments in life when all of a sudden the understanding of something becomes crystal clear. Here are a few of mine as they relate to Black History Month.
They say that each person is a product of his/her environment and that racial hatred or misunderstanding is learned, not innate. I find this to be true. After moving to an all-White neighborhood, it was easy to forget the plight of the African-American students I left behind and to focus only on myself—what I was going to wear to school, new friends, my plans for the weekend, etc. Using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, with my safety needs taken care of, I could move to the next level of concern—social needs.
I kept an eye on the racial tension in Omaha’s Near North Side through the evening news, newspapers, television specials, and the talk around school. I mostly listened and absorbed as now it seemed so far away. However, one afternoon, my dad was sitting in his chair watching television and when I walked into the room, noticed he was listening to Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech. I was in awe, because it was the first time I had ever heard an African-American man talk so eloquently. I remember actually sitting down on the couch to listen to what he had to say. I remember thinking to myself, and knowing better, that African-Americans are also an intelligent race. I knew it before but all of the subliminal and outspoken racist comments in the world I now lived in were taking their toll. It was also at that moment that I knew I lived in a very racist environment.
Famous African Americans who originated from Omaha:
One of the most famousAfrican American activists to hail from Omaha, in my opinion, was Malcolm X. Feared by the White population because of his influence and outspokenness and because he condemned White America for its crimes against Blacks, Malcolm X was accused of preaching racism, Black supremacy, anti-Semitism, and violence. It wasn’t until I took a sociology class in college that I learned that Malcolm X did say and act hateful against Whites, but only for a short period of time. He eventually found the courage to resign from the Nation of Islam (NOI) and follow his true beliefs—that of integration instead of separation; working with civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King instead of radical hate groups like the NOI, and promoting Black determination and self-esteem. Had I not read Malcolm X’s biography in college, I would have only known the Malcom X I knew from the Omaha rumor mill—another “ah-ha” moment.
Senator Ernie Chambers is a lifetime Omaha resident and civil rights activist, who rose to the position of Nebraska State Senator, representing North Omaha’s 11th District. He graduated from Central High School, another large Omaha high school with high diversity. Central had a large student population of approx. 2,500 students, but also had college preparatory, honors, and advanced placement program, and the school where Denise transferred after Technical Middle School. Chambers graduated from Creighton University Law School but never passed the bar.
Ernie Chambers was feared by White people. One of his constituents described him this way:
“I think Mr. Chambers is one of the most brilliant men I have ever associated with. The only problem you got is that he hates white people.”– Terry Carpenter
Read more about Ernie Chambers on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernie_Chambers
There was also a strong presence called the Omaha Black Panthers, a National organization that was 10,000 members strong by 1969, advocating the Black Power movement and influencing local and national politics. The group used provocative rhetoric, had a militant presence, and was feared by White people. The photo at the left is taken as the Omaha Black Panthers exited an Omaha Police Station. More information can be read on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Panthers
My point: To find out the real story about someone, it’s worth the time and effort to dig deeper. When I was younger, most of my knowledge of these African-American men was from the perspective of others—racist comments and opinions, slanted news casts, or incidents in the news taken out of context. It’s not easy to get the full story in real time—while it’s happening—but the biographies written on these men are enlightening and tell the other side.
By the way, the Black Panthers dissolved in the 80s, and Ernie Chambers is still a larger than life character in Omaha. Chambers’ beliefs are just too far out there for me to endorse—for Pete’s sake, we are talking about a man who actually filed a lawsuit against God in 2007–but I respect him for his strength and determination.
Thank you for listening. Peace.
“The revolution has always been in the hands of the young. The young always inherit the revolution.”
~ Huey Newton
February 17, 1942, marked the historical birth date of social activist Huey Percy Newton. The future co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Newton had a tough upbringing on the streets of Oakland, California. Despite the negative aura enclosing him, Newton understood the importance of education and took initiative to teach himself how to read.
Pursuing higher education at Merritt College, part of the Peralta Community College District in California, Newton became enthusiastic about politics. While serving in a school oriented political group held at Merritt, Huey encountered a fellow colleague by the name of Bobby Seale. As a result of sharing some of the same inspiration and similar ideology, Newton and Seale built a camaraderie, which evolved into the creation of the African American revolutionary leftist organization that became known as simply The Black Panthers.
In 1966, The Black Panthers for Self Defense, co-founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, obtained international notoriety in the Revolution against segregation. Promoting the Ten- Point Program, the Panther’s focused on acquiring better occupations, housing, and education for the entire Black community. Unlike other activist groups during the time, the Black Panthers resorted to any means necessary for results. Advocating militancy and force if necessary, the group encouraged the ownership and use of weapons for all. For example, in protest to a gun bill in 1967, Newton’s organization entered the California Legislature fully armed intending to scare authorities into producing results.
Due to numerous run-ins with the legal system and violent confrontations, often resulting in arrest, The Black Panthers dissolved with the death of the party’s treasurer Bobby Hutton. In 1980, Newton eventually went back to college and obtained a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Huey Percy Newton died on August 22, 1989 in Oakland, California.
Although, Newton’s organization gave the African American revolution a negative personification, primarily because of its advocacy of violence when necessary, his efforts provided both inspiration and motivation to all young African Americans to strive for change. Huey’s dying wish would not perish after his death because he embedded the dream into the minds and hands of the young, who inherited the revolution.
Thinking of movies to feature during Black History Month was tougher than I thought it would be. Of course there are quality documentaries and historical pieces to watch, but in thinking of feature films unfortunately a lot of stereotypes and exclusions still exist. And in looking closer at some of my favorites that deal with black history, it is amazing to me how often the main character is white, and is in a role that is the “hero”, while the black characters are the “victims”. Maybe some of these historical films are a reflection of how things were, but I still find it bothersome. For instance, in Glory – you have a white man leading the Civil War’s first all-black volunteer company. In Cadillac Records – owner and record producer Leonard Chess treats the performers (Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Etta James) like members of his family and tries to take care of them. The Help – the story isn’t so much of the lives of the maids as it is of the white journalist’s interest in their stories. And even those set in more recent times: Blood Diamond – Even though black African Solomon Vandy’s struggle is an integral part of the story, the movie centers around the white diamond smuggler, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. And in The Blind Side – it’s a white woman nobly helping the much less-fortunate black youth. It could be that I’m reading too much into these things, but it would be nice to see fewer movies with blacks as “victims”.
Another pet peeve of mine is that you hardly ever see interracial romances, especially between black men and white women. Will Smith & Denzel Washington are two of Hollywood’s powerhouses, but are rarely cast in romantic roles. In fact, both have played lead characters in movies based on books in which the characters were involved in romances, but those romances were written out of the movie versions. And if there is an interracial romance, either race plays a pivotal role and is a big issue (such as in “O”, “Jungle Fever”, “Something New”, “Save the Last Dance”, and “Guess Who”), or a Latina actress is cast opposite the black actor (think Eva Mendes/Will Smith – Hitch; Eva Mendes/Denzel Washington – Training Day). I would love Hollywood (and America) to get to the point where actors and actresses are cast in roles without any regard to the color of their skin. One movie that did this is especially relevant this week. “The Bodyguard’s” romance between Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner caused a bit of a stir when it came out, but I appreciated that race wasn’t an issue or even mentioned in the movie. I especially liked one of Costner’s quotes in regard to the final scene:
“I kissed her once for everybody in America, and I kissed her once for myself.”
So, what are some good movies to watch for Black History Month? These are some of my picks:
- Roots – This groundbreaking TV movie opened a lot of eyes to the horrors of slavery.
- Love & Basketball – One of my favorite movies, this on-again/off-again romance between neighbors features talented actors Omar Epps, Sanaa Lathan, and Alfre Woodard (and it has a great soundtrack!).
- The Color Purple – The classic film follows the life of Celie, a young black girl growing up in the early 1900′s.
- Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (along with other Sidney Poitier films including A Raisin in the Sun, Lilies of the Field, In the Heat of the Night, and To Sir, With Love) – A landmark film, it features an interracial couple (Katherine Hepburn and the impeccable Sidney Poitier) going home to meet her family. Guess Who starring Ashton Kutcher & Bernie Mac is the updated version of this classic.
- To Kill a Mockingbird – Another classic, this one looks at the racism and prejudices of society; when a young black man is accused of raping a white woman a lawyer takes the case even though the man’s fate is already sealed.
- Glory – Denzel Washington won his first Oscar for his role in this story of the first African American Army unit in the Civil War. No matter how many times I watch it, the scene with him shuffling back into camp to be whipped for “deserting” never fails to make me teary-eyed. (Also check out his other films, especially Man on Fire, Malcolm X, Remember the Titans and The Great Debaters).
- Do the Right Thing (and others by Spike Lee, such as Crooklyn)
- Akeelah and the Bee – A heart-warming story of a young girl from South Los Angeles trying to make it the National Spelling Bee. I found the methods they used for practicing spelling and word origins fascinating!
- Tyler Perry’s movies including Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Why Did I Get Married – Love him or just shake your head at him, my daughter and I get a kick out of Perry’s “Madea”, and enjoy most of his other movies as well.
- Hoop Dreams – A documentary that follows the lives of two inner-city youth and their struggle to become college basketball players on the road to going professional.
- The Tuskegee Airmen — True story of the black flyers who broke the color barrier in the U.S. Air Force during World War II (it’s actually been quite a while since I saw this one, but I think I liked it. I’m anxious to see the updated version, Red Tails, with Terrence Howard).
Which movies would you include on a Black History Month “must-see” list? Which of these do you disagree with? Please share your thoughts on black film roles, then and now.
Those days at Technical High School were bad for White students, as we were the hated minority. Tech was one of three high schools in the Omaha area labeled as one of the “Black Schools.” The student population at school was more than 80 percent African-American and when I attended there, racial tension on the Near North Side (where it was located) was running high.
Most of the White students who attended Tech either drove (high school students), their parents drove them to and from school, or they lived in the opposite direction of the African-American students.
My parents both worked and our house was north, so my sister and I walked home in the same direction as the African American students. We didn’t mind walking home with the African-American kids, but apparently the color of our skin made me and my sister the perfect target of hatred.
There were several incidents that forced us to find alternate or creative ways home. At first, it was just harassment. We’d be walking home, talking, and suddenly a group of African-American students would come up behind us, intimidating us with words and walking on our heels for blocks. Literally, stepping on the backs of our shoes until we would trip or our shoes would come off.
Getting tired of it, we decided to avoid the situation and walk one block over. However, to get to this street, it was necessary to catch the sidewalk through an open park area—Bemis Park. A large group of African-American students must have noticed us walking through Bemis and, to our surprise, were waiting for us as we entered this new neighborhood. That’s when it turned violent.
It was an ugly moment, quite surreal. There were four of us, all Caucasian, against a group of approximately 20 African-American males and females who immediately surrounded us. They shoved us down, kicked us, punched us, threw our possessions around, and screamed obscenities at us. Luckily, a White woman noticed, came out of her house, yelled she was calling the police, and invited us into her home. The group immediately scattered and after filing a complaint, the policeman drove us home.
After that, for basic survival purposes, we strategically varied our route home or caught a ride. Sometimes we would walk for blocks in the opposite direction with our Caucasian friends, which would take longer but allowed the streets to clear; or we stayed later at school until the streets were emptied; or walked up to the Catholic School and waited with our neighborhood friends to catch a ride home; or went to friends’ houses until we could get picked up; or caught rides anytime we could with older friends of my brother or anyone else who would haul us home.
One particular afternoon, circumstances arose that forced me to walk home alone. Having no other choice, I waited for what I thought was a decent amount of time to let the streets clear out—probably a good hour. When I finally headed out I chose to take 33rd Street home and without another thought, skipped down the stairs of the 33rd Street underpass unaware that a large group of African-American students was hanging around down there.
I know I was mortified the second I saw this group, but was determined not to show fear. It was all I could do to keep my knees from buckling, but I forged forward. Then, like magic, the 30 or so bodies neatly parted to let me by. As I was walking through I noticed Denise was among this group of African-American kids, and she was solely responsible for my safety. When one of the students tried to shove me, she immediately came to my defense. She never said anything directly to me, but instructed her friend to leave me alone. It was a poignant moment I will never forget.
We moved my freshman year in high school to an all-White neighborhood and transferred to a very non-diverse high school. It was an easier transition for me than my older brother and sister. My brother refused to transfer and graduated from Tech but my sisters, younger brother, and I all graduated from Benson High School.
My point: Unlike a lot of Caucasians, I know from personal experience what it is like to be on the other side, the minority, and hated based purely on the color of one’s skin. I believe these are life experiences that can affect people differently. In my case, it could either make one bitter and full of racial hatred, or one can learn from it. I’d like to think I learned from it, because I am not a prejudice person. I believe every person has worth, and everyone has a moral obligation to not judge people superficially. I’m not perfect, but I do make a concerted effort and have instilled these beliefs in my children.
In my next blog, I will write about notable African American personalities who originated from the Omaha area.
February 10, 1992 marked the death of the renowned African American writer Alexander Murray Palmer Haley, known greatly for his artistic journalism work. Alexander Haley is most prominent for his novel series Roots: The Saga of an American Family and coauthoring The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Haley’s legacy started in the metropolitan area of Ithaca, New York, where he was born August 11, 1921. At age 17, Alexander resigned from Alcorn State University (a historically Black college and university in Alcorn, Mississippi) and faced the harsh scrutiny of his father’s disappointment. Believing his son lacked both discipline and focus, Simon Haley persuaded Alex to enroll in the Coast Guard.
Restricted by racial discrimination, Alex obtained the highest ranking allowed to African Americans in the Coast Guard during the time, Petty Officer Third Class. During his twenty year service, Haley started his literay pursuits through composing love letters for his fellow sailors’ girlfriends on their behalf. Recognizing Alex’s spectacular talents, the Coast Guard permitted him to transfer into the occupation of journalism, giving resurrection to Mr. Haley’s legacy.
Before Mr. Alex Haley’s death, he acquired and accumulated a significant number of awards and accolades such as: the American Defense Service Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic- Pacific Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, the Coast Guard Good Conduct Medal, the Korean Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, the Coast Guard Expert Marksmanship Medal, the Pulitzer Prize, the Spingarn Medal, and a National Book Award.
Mr. Alex Haley exemplifies the importance of Black History Month. In fact, Alex solely educated the public through his character Kunta Kinte in the novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which depicted the harsh brutalities of slavery and the struggle of one’s fight to live. Both the volume and movie presented a visual simulation of the unfortunate experiences many African Americans’ ancestors underwent.
Adriel A. Hilton, Ph.D.
Before I worked at Upper Iowa, I was a children’s librarian at a public library. Even though I don’t keep up with children’s books as much now, they remain my favorites. In this week’s blog post I list some of the books we have here at the library that deal with black history or have black characters in them. I TRIED to limit the list to 10 in each category , but for more book ideas, just Google “children’s books for black history month”, and you’ll get lots of good lists. Also, check out the Coretta Scott King Book Award page at http://www.ala.org/emiert/cskbookawards/recipients.
The CSK award is given to African American authors and illustrators for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions. The titles promote understanding and appreciation of the culture of all peoples and their contribution to the realization of the American dream of a pluralistic society. The award is designed to commemorate the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to honor Mrs. Coretta Scott King for her courage and determination to continue the work for peace and world brotherhood.
Another site I like for booklists is UW-Madison’s CCBC at http://www.education.wisc.edu/ccbc/books/detailLists.asp?idBookListCat=7. It includes topics such as “30 Multicultural Books Every Teen Should Know”, and “Recommended Picture Books Featuring Interracial Families”.
Although there are more and more beautiful books featuring diverse people each year, there is still a lot of room for improvement. In encouraging children to read, it’s important for them to be able to relate to the characters they read about, and to be able see themselves in the story. I hope authors continue to take this into account and increasingly write/illustrate books in which race is not integral to the storyline, but simply reflects the diversity of our society.
And now, the list! Visit a library today to share some of these books with children in your life, or check them out for yourself [of the following titles, the ones that are starred are some of my favorites]:
Children’s Picture Books:
- Black is Brown is Tan – Describes in verse a family with a brown-skinned mother, white-skinned father, two children, and their various relatives.
- Coming on Home Soon – After Mama takes a job in Chicago during World War II, Ada Ruth stays with Grandma but misses her mother who loves her more than rain and snow.
- *Dad, Jackie, and Me – A boy learns about discrimination and tolerance as he and his deaf father share their enthusiasm over baseball and the Dodgers’ first baseman, Jackie Robinson.
- Goin’ Someplace Special – In segregated 1950s Nashville, a young African American girl braves a series of indignities and obstacles to get to one of the few integrated places in town: the public library.
- The Hello, Goodbye Window – A little girl describes the magic kitchen window in her grandparents’ home.
- My People – Langston Hughes’ poem is interpreted with vivid photographs that capture the glory, the beauty, and the soul of being a black American today.
- *The Negro Speaks of Rivers – Another of Hughes’ poems, illustrated with watercolors.
- *The Other Side — Two girls, one white and one black, gradually get to know each other as they sit on the fence that divides their town.
- *Pink and Say – Say Curtis describes his meeting with Pinkus Aylee, a black soldier, during the Civil War, and their capture by Southern troops. Based on a true story about the author’s great-great-grandfather. [This one never fails to bring a tear to my eye!]
- *The Snowy Day – The tale of a boy waking up to discover snow has fallen during the night, covering everything in sight. [more info on this book on my blog http://www.upperiowauniversityblogs.org/blog14/?p=284 ]
- When I am Old with You — A child imagines being old with Grandaddy and joining him in such activities as playing cards all day, visiting the ocean, and eating bacon on the porch.
- The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. — Various diaries, letters, and other manuscripts chronicle the experiences of Octavian, a young African American, from birth to age sixteen, as he is brought up as part of a science experiment in the years leading up to and during the Revolutionary War.
- *Bud, Not Buddy – Ten-year-old Bud, a motherless boy living in Flint, Michigan, during the Great Depression, escapes a bad foster home and sets out in search of the man he believes to be his father–the renowned bandleader, H.E. Calloway of Grand Rapids.
- *Chains – When their owner dies at the start of the Revolution, Isabel and her younger sister are sold to Loyalists in New York, where Isabel is offered the chance to spy for the Patriots.
- Copper Sun — Two fifteen-year-old girls–one a slave and the other an indentured servant–escape their Carolina plantation and try to make their way to Fort Moses, Florida, a Spanish colony that gives sanctuary to slaves.
- *Fallen Angels — Seventeen-year-old Richie Perry, just out of his Harlem high school, enlists in the Army in the summer of 1967 and spends a devastating year on active duty in Vietnam.
- *The Land – After the Civil War, Paul, the son of a white father and a black mother, finds himself caught between two worlds as he pursues his dream of owning land of his own.
- *Nightjohn – Twelve-year-old Sarny’s brutal life as a slave becomes even more dangerous when a newly arrived slave offers to teach her how to read.
- One Crazy Summer — In the summer of 1968, after travelling from Brooklyn to Oakland, California, to spend a month with the mother they barely know, eleven-year-old Delphine and her two younger sisters arrive to a cold welcome as they discover that their mother, a dedicated poet and printer, is resentful of the intrusion of their visit and wants them to attend a nearby Black Panther summer camp.
- *The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 — The ordinary interactions and everyday routines of the Watsons, an African American family living in Flint, Michigan, are drastically changed after they go to visit Grandma in Alabama in the summer of 1963.
- *Whale Talk – TJ, a multiracial, adopted teenager, shuns organized sports and the gung-ho athletes at his high school until he agrees to form a swimming team and recruits some of the school’s less popular students.
- Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea: Poems — A collection of poems exploring the theme of African-American identity.
- Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice –Based on extensive interviews with Claudette Colvin and many others, this is the first in-depth account of an important yet largely unknown civil rights figure, weaving her dramatic story into the fabric of the historic Montgomery bus boycott and court case that would change the course of American history.
- Days of Jubilee: The End of Slavery in the United States — Uses slave narratives, letters, diaries, military orders, and other documents to chronicle the various stages leading to the emancipation of slaves in the United States.
- In Daddy’s Arms I am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers — A collection of poems celebrating African-American fathers.
- Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters — The lives these women led are part of an incredible story about courage in the face of oppression; about the challenges and triumphs of the battle for civil rights; and about speaking out for what you believe in–even when it feels like no one is listening.
- *Let It Shine: Three Favorite Spirituals — Illustrated versions of three well-known hymns.
- Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. –The immortal words of Dr. King are woven into a captivating narrative with accompanying art to paint an unforgettable portrait of a man whose dream changed the world forever.
- Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom — Describes Tubman’s spiritual journey as she hears the voice of God guiding her north to freedom on that very first trip to escape the brutal practice of forced servitude.
- Rosa — The story of Rosa Parks and her courageous act of defiance.
- *Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down – Four college students’ peaceful protest at a Woolworth’s lunch counter becomes a defining moment in the struggle for equality and the growing civil rights movement.
One final book not to be missed is this year’s Coretta Scott King award winner: Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans. This is the history of America and African Americans, from colonial days through the civil rights movement. Written in the voice of an “Everywoman,” an unnamed narrator whose forebears came to this country on slave ships and who lived to cast her vote for the first African American president, this inspiring, beautifully illustrated book demonstrates that in gaining their freedom and equal rights, African Americans helped our country achieve its promise of liberty and justice–the true heart and soul of our nation.
As promised, I will tell you about my best friend through sixth grade. She was a beautiful African-American girl, whom I always felt chose me to be her best friend and felt like I was the luckiest girl in our school. Denise was smart, popular, pretty, and personable; while I still felt like a country bumpkin.
We would meet up every day at school and were inseparable—whether it was being on the same team at recess, partners during reading group, lunch buddies, or walking home from school until she had to turn off and head in the direction of her house.
As I grew older, however, I realized that my family lived comfortably but Denise’s was rich in comparison. Whereas both my parents worked, like Denise’s mom and dad, there were five children in my family but just Denise and her older sister, Debbie.
My dad was an electrician and my mom worked a clerical position for an insurance company. Denise’s dad was a fireman for the city of Omaha and her mother was an executive for a bank—one of the first Black women to succeed to such a high-ranking position. I remember being at Denise’s house when her mother would come home from work—she would be dressed in power suits, high heels, and her hair and nails were impeccable. She was always so sweet, asked us about our day and if we had fixed ourselves a snack.
Denise’s house was on the boulevard in a more modern area to the west, across the street from another African-American girl in our grade, Sybil. Sybil was an only child and her home was even more splendid than Denny’s—she had her own room, leather furniture in the living room, a huge deck off the back of the house, televisions everywhere, and a perfectly manicured lawn with flowers and trimmed bushes.
Denise’s room was like something out of House and Garden magazine—a frilly pink spread and matching curtains, white shag carpet, lovely sit-around items on her dresser, a closet full of clothes that she didn’t have to share, and tons of Barbie’s with clothes galore. I hated to go home to my attic bedroom that I shared with my two sisters, along with clothes and most everything else. There was little privacy and it paled in comparison to my African-American friends’ homes. My dad couldn’t keep a lawn in the front or back of the house because there were too many kids trampling on it day in and day out.
The summer after graduating sixth grade, we all promised to see each other at our new middle school, which was an extension of Technical High School. Can you imagine a school so large it spanned three city blocks and its auditorium alone sat 2,600 students?
I remember that first morning of middle school as clear as if it were yesterday. I trekked the long walk down 33rd Street to Cuming Street, took the underpass to cross Cuming Street, and when my sister and I reached the top steps, I immediately spotted Denise among a crowd of African-American students about 20 feet away. Without hesitation, I walked right up to her and said, “Hi, Denny,” totally expecting the same reaction I had received every day for the last three years in grade school.
Instead, I got a cold glare that said, without words, I don’t know you; get lost. The rejection was a blow like no other I had ever experienced. Denise had made other friends over the summer and had moved on. Her look was a clear message that it was time for me to do the same. We never spoke again.
I walked away and joined a group of my White friends from grade school and for the first time in my life felt the color barrier. It was then that I started to pay attention to the news and realized what was going on around me and what caused my best friend for all those years to hate me so.
I recently looked Denise up and found her through her mother’s obituary in the Omaha World-Herald. Denise never married but went on to earn her doctorates and holds a very high-ranking position with the Education Department in the Federal Government. Denise is beautiful; she looks exactly like her mother.
My point: I grew up pretty naïve, and Denise’s rejection was a cold splash of reality. Back then, the mid-60s, we didn’t have cellphones or social networks to keep in constant touch with our friends outside of school. Denise’s world and my world—our circle of friends, family, and social experiences—were totally separate and completely different. I didn’t know racial discrimination, rejection, struggle; I didn’t hear stories of hate and poverty from my family and friends. Obviously, I had chosen to ignore what was on the news every day, even though I lived blocks away from the largest concentration of African-American population in the city of Omaha—which was also my neighborhood! Apparently, since it didn’t affect me I didn’t think of this racial tension as my problem. That first day of middle school was a true awakening for me—a very hard and painful lesson.
In my next blog I’ll write about the racial tension in Omaha, from my perspective.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to participate in the Black History Month Blog. I will in the course of the month of February share with you some of my experiences and views as a person of color within the American society.
Unlike the other contributors to this blog, I was not born and raised in the United States and as such, my experiences and views on race and related issues might be slightly different from that of the other bloggers here who have spent their entire lives in this country. That is not to say that my experiences and views are any more valuable than theirs but rather shows how peoples’ experiences can be different in spite of all falling under the same category – minority.
Born and raised in Kenya which is predominantly black, I came to this country to go to university when I was in my late teens. Prior to that, I had known and spent most of my formative years at home with people like my mother, father, uncles and others who had instilled in me strong values, sense of fairness, morals and work ethics. I did not need what I often hear people in this country refer to as role models – people outside of my immediate family or clan telling me how to act or behave in order to succeed in life.
At the time of my arrival in the United States, I had already formed a rock solid identity of who I was, based on the environment I was raised in and what was expected of me. Nothing anyone said or did to me, no matter how condescending or crass it was, shook my confidence or made me feel inferior. That is not to say the going was easy.
Though the land of my origin was and is still known as a bastion of corruption, nepotism and other vices, I am, however, forever thankful for one thing – not having been born and raised in a society labeled as a minority.
I have come to the realization that the term minority within the United States, in my opinion brings with it a burden that is almost impossible to unload. For example, the successes and sometimes failures of minorities are in many cases still dependent on some benevolent act of preferential treatment, better known as affirmative action.
I will be sharing more of my observations and views in this subject and others with you in the coming weeks. I hope that you too will join in the exchange to let us all know what your opinions and thoughts are on the issues.
- Benjamin Onyango
Through great struggle and tribulation, many African Americans fought relentlessly to obtain equal rights in the United States. A disreputable truth of America’s past, Black History Month reminds our wonderful country of the fallacy under which the greatest country in the world once lived. A fallacy once portrayed by the people under The Constitution, “The supreme law of the land,” stating that all men are created equal. America failed to live by that commandment — discriminating against a large number of its citizens through legal slavery, prejudice, and segregation. An annual reminder, Black History Month (BHM) prompts the enlightening fact that a country can admit to its hypocritical actions and reconstruct its ideology of equal rights.
Black History Month provides a period of reflection for all of America’s children by educating them about the hardships and sacrifices visited upon African Americans and in so doing, helping our youth to appreciate and enjoy all of life’s opportunities. Understanding and appreciating the power of life, freedom, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, the goal is to collectively collaborate to insure these rights are forever preserved.
Honoring all African Americans who have helped to bring about positive change to our society…Black History Month pays tribute to individuals like Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Dr. Woodson’s sole intention was to promote awareness of African American history to the public and educate young minds. As executive assistant to the President and chief diversity officer of the most diverse institution in the state of Iowa, I look forward to celebrating Black History Month at Upper Iowa University.