(Original post, May 31, 2020; Updated June 1, 2021)
What kind of revolutionary are you?
(A reflection on race relations in honor of the African-Americans who died 100 years ago on May 31/June 1 as part of the Tulsa Race Massacre)
When I was 9 years old, I had to watch Roots. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roots_(1977_miniseries)
It was 8 nights of watching TV to learn about the history of Black people from Africa to the United States. As a young girl, it was horrifying to watch the whippings and beatings.
The images always stuck with me.
I felt the hate. I feel the hate.
When I went to college at Iowa and studied African-American history and then taught African-American literature and history at Fisk University, I learned more so much about the legacy of being Black and having Black skin and what it meant to me.
I learned that although the Civil War ended slavery, it did not end the hate. I learned about Reconstruction (1865-1877) and how America was supposed to be reconstructed after a civil war that had torn the country apart. I had always thought it was about helping the Black people – newly freed slaves – get on their feet with a new life. They had nothing, you know, after freedom. No education, no jobs, no food. The Freedmen’s Bureau was supposed to help them. There were a lot of them to help. Over 4 million Black people, now “free.”
Reconstruction was about states’ rights and Whiteness, not about the newly free formerly enslaved. But, as the formerly enslaved became politically powerful, radical action was needed to stamp out their power.
And so, a new slavery came about as legalized segregation/Jim Crow after reconstruction from 1877 until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. It was a time where White hate was sanctioned, legalized, institutionalized and legitimized.
It was a time when lynching became acceptable forms of murder of African-Americans. When they were public spectacles for White men, women, and children to witness the massacre and mutiliation of Black men and women. It was legitimate forum and space for White hate, for almost 3500 documented African-Americans to be killed.
White hate was legitimated through race massacres. May 31, 1921 was the Tulsa Race Massacre where Whites with hate burned Black Wall Street and destroyed the Black community.
In 1923, the Rosewood Massacre in Florida destroyed a Black town, because of White hate.
There have been others; many others.
In my current book project on what it means to be a Black girl and Black woman in America, I dedicate my book to Lorraine Hansberry. Her words, always a reminder:
“It isn’t as if we got up today and said, you know, ‘what can we do to irritate America?’ “you know. It’s because that since 1619, Negroes have tried every method of communication, of transformation of their situation from petition to the vote, everything. We’ve tried it all. There isn’t anything that hasn’t been exhausted. … And now the charge of impatience is simply unbearable. “
A Town Hall forum was held in 1964 in New York. The forum was sponsored by the Association of Artists for Freedom, a loose coalition of well-known black performers and writers that included Sidney Poitier, James Baldwin, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee. The Town Hall forum was designed for white liberals and black activists to have an open conversation about tensions mounting between them in the civil rights movement. Charles Silberman, one of the white panelists, described the strain in a book he published in early 1964:
“[W]hen the struggle for Negro rights moves into the streets, the majority of [white] liberals are reluctant to move along with it. They are all for the Negroes’ objectives, they say, but they cannot go along with the means.” During the forum Hansberry blasted this reluctance, declaring, “We have to find some way with these dialogues to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.”
The question for me is not one of liberals or conservatives or radical. It is not one of labels. It is about the ability of America to address the issue of race, radically, bluntly, directly, honestly.
In 1968, James Baldwin had a powerful interview with Esquire, during a time of riots in our country. https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a23960/james-baldwin-cool-it/
ESQ: How can we get the black people to cool it?
Baldwin: It is not for us to cool it.
ESQ: But aren’t you the ones who are getting hurt the most?
Baldwin: No, we are only the ones who are dying fastest.
ESQ: “Let’s talk about the average citizen, the white man who lives on Eighty-ninth Street and Riverside Drive, what should he be doing?
Baldwin: It depends on what he feels. It he feels he wants to save his country, he should be talking to his neighbors and talking to his children, He shouldn’t, by the way, be talking to me.
ESQ: What should he be telling his neighbors?
Baldwin: That if I go under in this country—I, the black man—he goes, too.
ESQ: Is there any action he can take?
Baldwin: Pressure wherever he can exert pressure. Pressure, above all, on the educational system. Make them change textbooks so that his children and my children will be taught something of the truth about our history.
ESQ: Is there any white man who can…
Baldwin: White, by the way, is not a color—it’s an attitude. You’re as white as you think you are. It’s your choice.
ESQ: Then black is a state of mind, too?
Baldwin: No, black is a condition.
ESQ: Who among the white community can talk to the black community and be accepted?
Baldwin: Anybody, who doesn’t think of himself as white.
This exchange and conversation reflects the reality of race in America: an attitude, an assumed power, contrasted with a powerlessness, a vulnerability.
There is a hate in America. How do we fight hate? It is a hate that is triggered by color, by skin color. It is a hate rooted in 400 years of an ideology of inferiority based on skin color.
One way to begin to address hate is to acknowledge it; to educate about it; and to use education as a means to change reality.
“All that can save you now is your confrontation with your own history—which is not your past, but your present.” James Baldwin
The education about race and gender must begin in the way higher education institutions train teachers. It must begin in local school boards and the curriculum that is approved to teach children in k-12. It must continue in colleges and universities through relationships that can help unlearn bias and stereotypes. The history of America and its inevitable connection to race and racism must be brought to light and taught age appropriately throughout the educational system.
And, the existing institutional structures that perpetuate marginalization, inferior education, inferior housing, incarceration, and poverty must be re-imagined and redesigned.
It is this hope for a radical redesign of society for which I live and what I work for. The use of the power of education to empower those most marginalized and disenfranchised in society; the power of education to change minds and behavior; and the power of education to create equity.
It has to start with conversations. At Virginia Tech, President Sands and I had a conversation about diversity, inclusion, and race. He talked about his background and his awareness of issues of difference and diversity; his commitment to using education to address issues of equity, inclusion, and diversity, and the painful trauma from the killings of Black lives.
I think more conversations must be had and more strategies implemented.
It is more than conversations, but it has to start with conversation. At Virginia Tech, this year, we are anticipating that 8% of the entering class will be African-American (compared to 3.8%) four years ago when I started and 10% will be Latinx. (compared to 6%) for years ago.
This progress is the result of an investment in strategic way of identifying and recruiting underrepresented students and removing barriers to their application, engaging in a holistic review of their application (especially now with so many institutions moving away from test scores), and providing opportunities for them to learn about our institution and our commitment.
Minority faculty represent 10% of faculty at Virginia Tech. Still a long way to go, but a reflection of progress, from 6% four years ago. Change is possible, but it takes leadership and the commitment of a campus community.
Virginia Tech isn’t perfect. Blacksburg isn’t perfect. Montgomery County isn’t perfect. But, the Dialogue on Race focuses on African-Americans. I wrote about that important effort here:
It focuses on issues faced by black people in Montgomery: (1) law enforcement, (2) education, (3) jobs and employment, (4) income gap, (5) white privilege and Jim Crow orientations, and (6) the limited presence of African Americans on boards and commissions. https://www.dialogueonrace.info/courses
One of the issue groups is Law Enforcement and I have witnessed conversation and efforts and initiatives undertaken by the Blacksburg/Christiansburg Police, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, and Blacksburg Police to assess bias and racism, and to create opportunities for African-Americans to become police officers.
The primary focus areas are eliminating racial profiling, achieving law enforcement employee hiring that resembles the county’s racial makeup and supporting community policing efforts.
These are small steps but change begins with steps. This work takes time, persistence and consistency of purpose. Read Blacksburg Polie Chief Anthony Wilson’s letter of support for this work recognizing that “What started as a conversation evolved into action.”
The question for all of us must be what steps are we willing to take?
As Lorraine asked herself: “Do I remain a revolutionary? Intellectually – without a doubt. But am I prepared to give my body to the struggle or even my comforts?…Comfort has come to be its own corruption.” In July of 1964, while but hopefully that she might recover, she wrote that when she regained her health she might travel to the South “to find out what kind of revolutionary I am.” http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/blackspeech/lhansberry.html
In the midst of our current reality and the killings and the pain and the hate, we all should answer one question:
What kind of revolutionary are we?
The Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence was, at its core, a battle of values.
The Declaration of Independence states, in part:
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
What should we do to promote the safety and happiness of all? Revolution is about a turning around; a looking at oneself; a looking inward. The illnesses of our current world are calling us all to a revolution — to an inward looking, to a rethinking, a reimagining, a revisioning of what and how our world should be.
What kind of revolutionary will we be?
The Civil War was about an attempt to create a new government, founded on states’ rights. It wasn’t about freeing the enslaved; it was about power and economic security and wealth. And today, in the midst of the pandemic, we as a country are still divided over states’ rights, local control, and issues of power. We have not healed from that war; we have not yet yielded the fruits of a potential visionof safety and happiness for all envisioned boldly, yet imperfectly in the Declaration, as Frederick Douglass reminds us in his essay in 1852: “What is the Fourth of July to the slave?”
“Oppression makes a wise man mad. Your fathers were wise men, and if they did not go mad, they became restive under this treatment. They felt themselves the victims of grievous wrongs, wholly incurable in their colonial capacity. With brave men there is always a remedy for oppression.”
In a remarkable denounciation of America with words that resonate today, Douglass states:
“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.“
And so, My Dear America, my country, my home:
What kind of revolutionary will we be in today’s world, in today’s crisis, in today’s pain, in today’s hurt?
What kind of radical healing revolutionary will we be?
To learn more:https://docs.google.com/document/d/1BRlF2_zhNe86SGgHa6-VlBO-QgirITwCTugSfKie5Fs/preview?pru=AAABcnZds8Y%2ABosNWbot9-ulTo9FajbiNA&fbclid=IwAR0cVH1OI9YYgRJSlBe_9pb9tyZgX4ZQmGAcTfwyKzuAMPzw-t03b_Poe-0