“Why 1619 Matters”

This month marks the 400-year commemoration of the first enslaved Africans who arrived in what would become the United States of America. Granted these were not the first Africans to set foot in the New World. In 1572 Estevanico or “Little Esteban” arrived with a group of Spanish explorers who explored what today is known as Florida. For eight years he traveled with Spanish explorers who made their way to what was called New Spain and later the US Southwest. The fact that people of African descent can point to a 400 year sojourn in this nation gives us one of the strongest claims to national ownership excluding that of Indigenous peoples.

Today, many people when confronted with the fact of slavery say, “But that was so long ago. People need to get over it!” I want to argue that slavery and its legacy is one of the more enduring memories of this nation. It taints almost everything we do and the recent compendium of essays in the New York Times Magazine underscores how everything from healthcare, to education, to housing reverberates and suffers from the sting of slavery. However, I want to tell a personal story of how slavery lingers in my own life.

I had a number of friends who were a part of the “Jamestown to Jamestown” voyage from Virginia to Ghana. Having traveled to Ghana myself some 20 years ago I remembered many of the sites they shared on social media. Going to the Nkrumah Museum, the W. E. B. DuBois Institute, and the Cape Coast Slave Dungeon brought back many memories. The pain of seeing the “Door of No Return” is an experience that is difficult to articulate. But what is equally painful is watching the legacy of slavery put its mark on my children.

Years ago, after writing an outstanding 8th grade project on the Black impact on the Revolutionary War Era my daughter refused to participate in the optional “Colonial Days” fair. When I pressed her she responded, “I’m not going to stand up there and be a slave in front of those White people!” As a parent I was obligated to support her decision. In 9th grade she railed against having to read Huckleberry Finn. She was the only Black student in her class and having to repeatedly read Twain’s use of the N-word was just too much. An additional insult came when she was repeatedly the top student in her classes filled with White students and one of her classmates asked if she were “mixed” (having at least one White parent) presumably because of her intellect and linguistic abilities.

Almost every stereotype Black people endure finds their origins in slavery. The watermelon, fried chicken eating, slow-talking, lazy but happy slave images are replayed in countless popular culture images. The desire for some Whites to put on Black face (indeed 2 former state governors recently were found to have done so) and perform as minstrels reminds Whites of a time when they were “masters” and Blacks were slaves. When I hear Southern Whites claim that the Confederate flag reminds them of their “heritage” I ask, “What specifically in your heritage does that flag represent?” The only thing they can honestly say is slavery, the Confederacy (designed to defend slavery), and when Whites could legally terrorize Blacks.

Our Jewish brothers and sisters have a phrase that keeps the horror and their survival despite the Holocaust alive. That phrase is, “Never forget!” No one begrudges them the use of that phrase. It is the way they pass the memories of their collective horror down to their children and their children’s children. Black people have to be willing to do just that. We can’t be afraid to say, “1619 still matters!”

Stay Black & Smart!

“She had ALL the words”

Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name? Although she has claim, she is not claimed. In the place where long grass opens, the girl who waited to be loved and cry shame erupts into her separate parts, to make it easy for the chewing laughter to swallow her all away.
Toni Morrison- Beloved, 1987

Today was one of those days when everything stopped for me. The Queen of the English language has died. Born Chloe Ardella Wofford, Toni Morrison was America’s most celebrated literary artist. In 1993 she became the first Black woman to win the Noble Prize in Literature. Her accolades are numerous. Her career amazing, but my attachment to Toni Morrison feels personal. No, I never met her (although I did speak with her on the telephone once), but through her novels I felt like she was speaking directly to me.

There are many Black women writers who gave voice to my concerns and identities—Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Maya Angelou, Dorothy West, and Alice Childress are but a few. But, no one had the command of language Toni Morrison did. Her powerful use of language and understanding of the challenge of Blackness in the midst of the most virulent racism and White supremacy spoke to the nation and the world in ways few others could. James Baldwin was a literary genius but he rarely spoke directly to the double bind of race and gender. Toni Morrison knew me from the inside out.

As soon as it was published (1987) I began reading Beloved. It is not a long book—a mere 275 pages but it took me a long time to finish it. Every evening I would come home from work and sit down to read it. It was so heavy, so soul shattering, and so disturbing that I could only process a chapter or two at a time. For someone who reads tons of books every year, this was new. I had breezed through The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Tar Baby. I loved every book but Beloved was something all together different. Morrison dedicated it to “Sixty Million and More” and every conscious Black person knows who those 60 million and more were.

In 1989 the Michigan Quarterly Review published her University of Michigan lecture, “Unspeakable things unspoken: The Afro-American presence in American literature” and Morrison once again rocked the world. Her critique of the American literary canon spoke to all of the ways racism pervades every aspect of American life. Her words so energized and challenged me that I began to re-think much of what I was writing. At that time I was finishing up data collection on a study that would result in my first book. I was also writing articles about “multicultural education” but something was disturbing me about what I was attempting to argue. Morrison’s unflinching look at race and White supremacy woke me out of the academic sleepwalking that had become a part of “playing the game.” If one of the best writers in the world could call out race, I could at least begin to explore it in my scholarship.

From the moment I began writing about Critical Race Theory (1995) I have quoted Morrison. From the time I began teaching about race and racism in education I have required students to read Morrison (especially, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the literary imagination, 1992) and watch a portion of her PBS interview with Bill Moyers (1990). Watching her do what she does with the English language blew my students’ minds. How did she think of that? Who knew you could create such eloquence with English? I feel so inadequate listening to her! These were just a few of my graduate students’ comments. I knew exactly how they felt. When I truly discovered Toni Morrison I came to realize she had ALL the words!

Rest in Peace and Power our beautiful Literary Queen!

Stay Black & Smart!