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Another Side of Black History

Long version: mp3, 4 MBs, 6:25
Short version: mp3, 3.2 MBs, 4:34

[Col. recorded 2/16/03]

The idea of Black History Month has always filled me with ambivalence.

On the one hand, there is understandable pride in the accomplishments of one’s ancestors; people who fought long and hard for their place in the sun, against monstrous odds, and indeed, against American white supremacist terrorism. They used every means imaginable to sustain themselves against a system that was predicated and dedicated to their spiritual, psychological, and material destruction. When one studies the life of Harriet Tubman, or other freedom fighters like her, it is almost impossible not to be moved.

On the other hand, the institutionalization of Black History Month, by corporate, and political America, has resulted in a kind of 'dead history', by which I mean the uses of advertising and even stamps, to promote historical figures, many from the distant past, who portray a 'safe' side to a history that was, and is, anything but safe.

This has resulted in the promotion of Black historical figures as one-dimensional icons, or advertising gimmicks, that reduce them to familiar names, but little else of substance. Thus, Martin Luther King, Jr. becomes the icon of choice, used by everything from insurance companies to dry cleaners to drum up business among the burgeoning black middle and working class. It has contributed to the selling of Black history, as something that looks, almost endearingly, to the past, as if there is not an awful lot of Black history to be made today. There is also a deep, troubling bourgeois
factor in popular black history that seems to remember the well-to-do, yet ignores those who struggled from among the ranks of the poor, who didn't wear clean suits every day, and didn't think that the vote represented the end-all or be-all of the Struggle. I speak of the forgotten ones; those people who fought for freedom and Black Liberation, not at news conferences, or in editorial board meetings with bored journalists, but in the fields, in the shops, in the streets, among the people.

In this new kind of bourgeois, safe, corporate Black history, people such as these make no real appearances. It's almost as if these agencies strive to create a kind of 'black history lite', that will not disturb the sleep or the stomachs of white Americans.

This is a shame, and a disservice to both white, and black Americans, and all who really want to know about the history of this country.

It is therefore fitting to recall those names of people who lived in the hearts and minds of their people, and who, in their own way, fought for freedom, but are rarely mentioned in most history books, and won’t be seen on U.S. postage stamps (at least anytime soon, for capitalism, if anything, learns how to co-opt almost everything for profit, eh?). Here are a few:

Ola Mae Quarterman: Long before the famed Rosa Parks refused to take a seat in the back of a Montgomery, Alabama bus, Ms. Quarterman, a bright, sensitive 18-year old girl boarded a bus in Albany, Georgia, and refused to move when the white driver ordered her to. She responded, "I paid my damn ten cents, and I'll sit where I please." When the segregationist-trained driver began to wag his finger in her face, she quite rationally responded, "Get your damn finger out of my face." What happened next was in some ways similar to what happened in Montgomery, and in other ways different. Ms. Quarterman was convicted of violating the segregationist laws, and sentenced to 30 days in jail. Dr. King even brought his fledgling organization down to Albany to respond to a campaign that was beginning to brew against this outrage. The differences were critical, however, for in Albany, the movement was divided. The president of the local college where Ms. Quarterman was enrolled expelled her, and the local support was so splintered that a disgusted King quit the city for home. Ms. Quarterman, alone, and without support, drifted into despair and depression. Her life options severely restricted in the apartheid South, she suffered what was diagnosed as "paranoid schizophrenia", committed to a mental institution, where she presumably remains to this day. (Question: Was she schizophrenic, or was the system of racial segregation and white supremacy?). Her life teaches us, not the impotence of resistance, but the necessity of united action in resistance to social wrongs. She was right; those who failed to support her, for any reason, were wrong.

There are, of course, others whom we will doubtful glimpse on U.S. postage stamps; like Margaret Morgan, a fugitive captive who fled to Pennsylvania in the 1840s, and was seized by a slavecatcher, Edward Prigg under the draconian Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Legal scholars may recognize the slavecatcher's name as a famous caption in the case,

Prigg v. Pennsylvania

(1842), but most Americans, if asked the identity of Ms. Morgan, would probably ask, "What picture did she star in?" She was at the center of the case, for her freedom hinged on the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. 'Justice' Joseph Story (of Massachusetts) held on the side of the slavecatchers, and gave judicial blessing to the return of Margaret Morgan to a bitter bondage in the South — with her children — the youngest born into a 'free' state.

The lesson? That freedom proceeds from the struggle for freedom, not from the courts of the rich and influential.

Will there be any postage stamps to honor the historical contributions of Dr. Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party? To Ramona Africa, the courageous fighter and resister who survived an urban holocaust on May 13th,1985? To George (or Jonathan?) Jackson? To Ruchell Magee — a brilliant jailhouse lawyer whose work has led to the freedom of over 40 young(er) men, but who is perhaps the longest-held Black political prisoner in the Americas? To the great Seminole warrior, Coacoochee (also called "Wild Cat") who fought for Red and Black freedom from the American slavers, and his brother fighter, John Horse (Coacoochee & Horse fought over 400 American outlaws, soldiers and bandits in 1851 in northern Mexico, and beat them, with 60 Seminole warriors)? We think not.

Black History isn’t 'safe', it's challenging, and troubling, and speaks to the lives we live now, under the illusion of "freedom". It ain’t MLK alone, but the many who followed, and the many who did not.

Why not jettison Black History Month, just as Black History Week was jettisoned?

Why not a Black Liberation Month? That would concentrate our minds, not only on history, but on the sometimes painful lessons of history; but more importantly, it would point us to the undiscovered land that beckons us all — the future.


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"Faith of Our Fathers: An Examination of the Spiritual Life of African and African-American People" at www.africanworld.com

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Submitted by: Sis. Marpessa

 

Text © copyright 2003 by Mumia Abu-Jamal.
All rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission of the author.