This last week I’ve been introspective about the generation that I see steadily transitioning and the wealth of experience and knowledge that seems to be transitioning with them.
Many of us celebrated the 90th birthday of Rev. Joseph Lowery, the dean of the civil rights movement. He has had the kind of life experience that has taken him from working on the Montgomery Bus Boycott to giving the benediction for the Presidential Inauguration. And while even at 90, the reverend is never short on words, I wonder if the breath and depth of his knowledge is captured and chronicled.
Last week we lost two giants, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Derrick Albert Bell, Jr. While Shuttlesworth’s name is more well known as one of King’s lieutenants and the co-founder of the SCLC, Bell was the first tenured African-American professor of Law at Harvard University, and largely credited as the originator of Critical Race Theory. Both of these men were published, but where does the legacy of their genius and service rest?
Too often, black leadership lives only as long as those that remember them lift up their names. By that I mean we seldom institutionalize what they said, how they said it and when they said it, but we fail to institutionalize the spirit that they lived by into mechanisms to address what they lived for. Did you know that Malcolm X never published his work? The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which inspired and continues to inspire millions around the world, was his story as written by Alex Haley, but not his thoughts, philosophy or more importantly his prophetic recommendations of what he thought should come next. He left the world with his speeches, but we failed to capitalize on his mission by creating and supporting sustainable institutions to keep their knowledge flowing into the next generation in a way that is reflected beyond t-shirts and catch phrases.
But even when there is amazing documentation or a legacy of work, the institutions we have are too shortsighted or ill-equipped to secure such works. The vast personal library of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, historian and creator of Black History Month, does not sit at Morehouse, Howard or Hampton, but rather at Emory University. Now don’t get me wrong. I appreciate that the staff at Emory valued this history enough to dedicate resources to securing, managing, and displaying it to the world. I just wish that we would take more interest in our stories and history to do the same.
The Malcolm X papers and the historic Amistad find themselves at Columbia and Tulane, again disconnected from institutions managed and controlled by the very people many of these figures worked to inform and empower.
So what is the point? Stop. Let’s stop this right now. Because it is not just about the people whose names I have mentioned and those like Gil Scott Herron, or Dr. Dorothy Height, or Ozzie Davis, but it is my grandmother’s and your great uncle’s stories that I am worried about also. Do our children know where they come from, the stories that are a reflection of that history and connect themselves to something bigger and older than pop culture? Well, they can’t if we don’t. So please join me in a black family holiday project.
1. Identify the two youngest generations in the family to be the history collectors.
2. Assign some to be writers and others recorders. And provide them with the paper, pens, audio, and video recorders.
3. Identify the ten oldest members of your family and spend Thanksgiving and Christmas doing interviews of each elder.
4. Have them put together the written, audio, and video pieces, and every year continue to interview more members of the family.
5. Store this in a safe deposit box if you can afford it and in a safe space at home if not.
6. Twice a year at least find a weekend to talk to the family, the children in particular about that history and find out what they think about it.
I have a mentee in Ohio who is doing amazing work. He is a Chemistry/Pre-Med major with a minor in Africana Studies, is working with several organizations, and pushing to make a difference. When asked what motivates him to work so hard, he talked about his grandfather who worked in a factory in his hometown. He said that in nearly 50 years of work his grandfather missed only four days. He said that if his grandfather could work that hard with next to no opportunity, what right did he have to not get up everyday and work hard? That is the power of knowing where you come from. But so often our kids have no inspiration to pull from because we don’t tell the stories in a way that connects to them. Please do this project with me. Collect the stories, chronicle the history, share it and continue to build upon it. If we don’t, who will?
As always, I am Jeff and that’s my truth.