Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Black History: Real, Personal, Necessary

Black History: Real, Personal, Necessary

My father was a minister.

He came to his chosen profession relatively late in his career, during what turned out to be the last third of his life. For most of his ministry, which lasted from his ordination and installation in 1953 until his death at 61 in 1974, he wrote his sermons out in longhand, using a fountain pen and 5” x 8” loose leaf lined paper. He stored them in a series of thick black leather binders. Later on, some of his sermons were taped using reel-to-reel technology that preceded by several iterative generations the digital world we now know.

As his preaching matured, he would on occasion depart from his printed text. This would most often occur when he knew that someone in his congregation had been touched in some deep and personal way — perhaps the death of a spouse or a child, the loss of a job, or the revelation of a deathly diagnosis. A scholar of both the Bible and of literature, he had a way of way of relating the personal to the eternal. Even though his sermons were peppered with quotes from such abstruse or mystical sources as Kierkegaard, Niebuhr, Tillich, and Thurman, he nonetheless shared their insights in a way that made sense to the hardworking middle class strivers and strainers who filled the pews every Sunday in the 1950s and ‘60s. And he did it so well that people of disparate backgrounds would come up to shake his hand or receive an embrace in the narthex after service and tell him they felt his words had been addressed specifically to them.

They might have been right, since in those days before mega churches were invented, he knew every member of his flock, had likely been in their homes, and perhaps more tellingly, had invited all of them to his home, because it was literally their home.

You see, from 1953 until 1967, the year following my mother’s death, our home was the church parsonage [google it if you are under 40]. He moved into an apartment after that; a widower with one son in the Air Force and the other mostly away at school, he didn’t want the space, the memories, or the parsonage stairs. So he bid goodbye to 9703 Parmelee Avenue in the heart of Glenville and moved into a new apartment building on the outskirts of the city limits.

But in the fifties, with a congregation growing by leaps and bounds, he started a tradition by hosting an Open House for church members and friends on New Year’s Day. Hundreds of people of all ages, sizes, and dispositions trekked to that three-bedroom colonial to eat, drink [punch], socialize, satisfy their curiosity about how their pastor lived [very modestly], and sometimes plop down to watch one of the classic bowl games [Rose, Sugar, Orange, or Cotton]. I thought those Open Houses were one of the coolest perks of being a preacher’s kid.

I didn’t know I was going to write any of this when I sat down. I just finished listening to the broadcast of today’s Civic Commons show, which ends with my trying to accelerate the pace of my mellifluous drawl in order to cram 500 words about black history into my allotted three minutes. At the conclusion of the show, one of the hosts says that you can find my just-delivered commentary in this space. And that evoked this reverie.

My dad understood that writing a message for the ear is different than writing for the eye. It was principally for this reason that he never wanted his sermons published. A second reason was that he occasionally departed from prepared text.

Many of the sermons that survived him in physical form [the notebooks and the tapes] now rest in the archives of his alma mater, the Howard University Divinity School in Washington, DC. One day I discovered a few of his written sermons in my possession. I sat down and transcribed them over a fortnight or so. As I did so, I could hear him speaking. Where the handwriting was near indecipherable [he was a converted left hander], I had the filial satisfaction of knowing that I was a sympathetic editor.

I think it is partially by virtue of the experience of having typed out those sermons that while my memory of my mother is visual and tactile, my sense of my father is aural.

Well, I have now subjected the more loyal or physically fit of my readers to a preamble to a commentary on black history that is longer than the commentary itself. If you are still with me, you can read the commentary below, or listen to it at the end of this podcast [the discussion about sustainability that precedes my commentary is pretty good, too!].

I’ll be back later today [I promise!] with my thoughts about who should be the next prosecutor in Cuyahoga County.

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Remarks prepared for airing at 12:30PM February 28, 2012 on the Civic Commons Radio, WJCU 88.7 FM. [podcast on iTunes]

Warning!! Dangerous Curves Ahead! We are about to discuss Black History. Don’t worry: there won’t be a lot of dates to learn. This is more a discussion about your attitude towards black history.

From one perspective, these are the best of times. To begin with, there is that brilliant, handsome, Christian, family-centered, hard-working, compassionate, high achieving black man in the White House. His very presence there connotes the progress  now possible for the descendants of the captured peoples brought chained together through the terrible Middle Passage to an unimaginably bleak future, their histories, identities and lives stolen and tossed overboard. 

By some cultural alchemy President Obama has internalized and represents that history even though his hereditary tree is not the typical African American one.

Through perseverance and scholarship, a good portion of black and African history continues to be recovered, even as black history continues to be made. New achievements abound for Africans in America on almost every civic, cultural, commercial and social front. New identities have also been established, tied to the old in ways we don’t always comprehend. 

We especially don’t understand them when we consider that these are also the worst of times, with so many fellow citizens chained to plantations where the new slave quarters are poisonous schools that multiply ignorance, ghettos whose zip codes are predictors of ill health and quickened existence, and where too many pathways are pipelines to despair and incarceration.

This new Jim Crow is also part of our American history. 

When our great grandchildren study our era, they will learn that underneath an America of wealth and privilege and unprecedented possibility for some, there existed another, mostly darker, America with virtually no access to those prizes at any point from birth to death.

They will learn these things only if their history books are more inclusive than the ones I saw in the nation’s best schools. In those books notions of Manifest Destiny basically kicked to the gutter anything that didn’t support the United States as the home of the free and the land of the brave.

It was that narrow chauvinism, admittedly present in just about every society, that led Frederick Douglass in 1851 to ask, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, to say on that Independence Day in Rochester, New York: “Fellow citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are today rendered more intolerable by the jubilant shouts that reach them.”

A similarly informed understanding led W. E. B. DuBois in 1903 to write in The Souls of Black Folk of the “double consciousness” of black people, and prompted Carter G. Woodson in 1926 to establish the Negro History Week that has now become Black History Month which may one day be known as African American Heritage Month.

Until all Americans consider this month’s focus to be a part of their history, this annual period of celebration and study will be needed.
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