Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes and Happy Black History Month 2016!
For my A’Lelia Walker biography, I’m in the midst of simultaneously writing three connected chapters right now focused on late 1925 through 1926 about white novelist and music critic Carl Van Vechten’s entrance into Harlem and how the community above 125th Street begins to pivot from being inward and self-affirming — and comfortable with that — to the insertion of and fascination by the white downtown, Prohibition-era gaze.
There’s a lot more that I’d say if I had more time this evening, but I didn’t want to let Langston’s birthday and the beginning of Black History Month pass without taking the opportunity to forecast some of what I’m discovering about A’Lelia Walker’s relationship with Langston.
I am very, very grateful to Langston Hughes for giving me a biographical profile and interpretation of A’Lelia Walker that has guided me for many years as I have learned about her and researched her life.
Langston’s The Big Sea, Arnold Rampersad’s The Life of Langston Hughes Volume I and Emily Bernard’s Remember Me to Harlem
Here’s what Hughes wrote in his memoir, The Big Sea: “It was a period when local and visiting royalty were not at all uncommon in Harlem. And when the parties of A’Lelia Walker, the Negro heiress, were filled with guests whose names would turn any Nordic social climber green with envy.”
His description of one of the parties she hosted in her 80 Edgecombe Avenue apartment captures the spirit of the era: “A’Lelia Walker was the then great Harlem party giver, although Mrs. Bernia Austin fell but little behind…At her “at homes” Negro poets and Negro number bankers mingled with downtown poets and seat-on-the-stock-exchange racketeers…A’Lelia Walker was a gorgeous dark Amazon…A’Lelia Walker was the joy-goddess of Harlem’s 1920s.”
What he wrote has been critical to me because many authors and scholars have written about her in a quite two-dimensional manner. But Langston knew her, so I am inclined to give more credence to his interpretation.
Langston Hughes’s “The Weary Blues” was published in 1926 after Carl Van Vechten introducer Hughes to Alfred Knopf.
My research of the last decade for my in-progress book, The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, has allowed me to track when they met.
On January 31, 1926 –when A’Lelia Walker couldn’t attend Langston’s book signing at the Shipwreck Inn at 107 Claremont Avenue near Columbia University — she gave mutual friend and author Wallace Thurman two copies of Langston’s new book, The Weary Blues, with a request for him to autograph them for her.
A few days later, Thurman wrote to Hughes: ““Dear Langston. . .Madam Walker was tickled pink over your inscription. She just must meet you, and will try to arrange to do so as soon as you return.”
In late February, Hughes wrote to Van Vechten about an upcoming trip to New York (from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania where he was still a student): “I think I’ll be in New York Friday. Of course, I want to come see you sometime during the weekend, if you’ll let me…and also this trip I am supposed to meet A’Lelia Walker. Last time, she sent two books for me to autograph for her, but I didn’t’ get to see her.”
Between 1926 and 1931, Hughes attended many of A’Lelia Walker’s parties at her Edgecombe Avenue apartment and at The Dark Tower on 136th Street. On March 1, 1930, he sent this postcard to her from Havana, Cuba, a place they both loved. ” Dear A’Lelia — I think you would adore Havana. (Have you been here?) The people are marvelous, bars and dance halls everywhere and a too-bad beach. All the leading artists and writers and actresses are treating me royally.” A’Lelia Walker, indeed, had been to Cuba in 1918.
When A’Lelia Walker died in August 1931, Langston Hughes wrote this poem, which was read at her funeral.
To learn more about A’Lelia Walker, please check out some of these blog articles about her
She was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana on the same planation where her parents Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove had been enslaved. The first child in her family to be born after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, her birth was greeted with much hope and promise. But the Breedlove family’s reality was bleak.
By the time Sarah was seven years old, both parents had died. At ten, she moved across the Mississippi River to Vicksburg, Mississippi with her older sister, Louvenia, and her brother-in-law, Jesse Powell, who was so cruel, she would later say, that she “married at 14 to get a home of my own.” Another blow came with the death of her husband, Moses McWilliams, when she was 20. Now with her two-year old daughter, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia Walker) to raise, she moved up the river to St. Louis, Missouri where her older brothers worked as barbers.
She struggled for the next decade working as a laundress, doing the back-breaking work of washing clothes by hand in tubs and without indoor plumbing. At the end of some weeks, she’d made as little as $1.50, but her dreams for her daughter made her persevere. One day while her hands were buried deep in soap suds, she despaired that life might never get better. But the solution to her problems eventually came when she developed a shampoo and ointment to heal the scalp disease that was causing her to go bald.
Madam Walker died at Villa Lewaro in May 1919.
By the time she died on May 25, 1919 at Villa Lewaro (her mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York), she had founded the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company and become a millionaire, some say the first self-made American woman to attain that level of financial success.
There is much more to her story of course. How she discovered, developed and marketed her “Wonderful Hair Grower.” How she employed thousands of women as Walker sales agents and beauty culturists. How she spoke up to Booker T. Washington at his 1912 National Negro Business League Convention. How she gathered more than 200 women together for one of America’s first national conventions of women entrepreneurs in 1917. Her prominence as a philanthropist and patron of the arts. Her friendships with Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune and James Weldon Johnson among others. Her $1,000 contribution to Indianapolis’s YMCA and $5,000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign. Her activism on behalf of black soldiers, young women and the rights of African Americans.
Her legacy of entrepreneurship and philanthropy still empowers others. She is often mentioned by businesswomen in America and beyond as an inspiration. Her company is discussed and critiqued in a Harvard Business School course. Dozens of students across the nation prepare projects about her every year for National History Day. Countless young girls have dressed up as Madam Walker for Black History Month and Women’s History Month. She is the subject of numerous documentaries, public service announcements and news stories. Several organizations host annual Madam Walker awards luncheons. The Madam Walker Collection of photographs, letters and business records is the most popular collection at the Indiana Historical Society. She was featured on a U. S. postage stamp in 1998. Recently her name was touted as contender for the $20 bill. There are two National Historic Landmarks associated with her life: Villa Lewaro in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York and the Madam Walker Theatre Center in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Here are some of the books in which she has been featured or mentioned in the last couple of years.
Angella M. Nazarian’s Visionary Women (Assouline Publishers)
Cynthia L. Greene’s Entrepreneurship: Ideas in Action (Cengage Learning)
Faith Ringgold’s Harlem Renaissance Party (Amistad)
James J. Madison and Lee Ann Sandweiss’s Hoosiers and the American Story (Indiana Historical Society)
Martin Kilson’s Transformation of the African American Intelligentsia 1880 – 2012 (Harvard University Press)
Diane Radmacher’s Famous Firsts of St. Louis: A Celebration of Facts, Figures, Food & Fun
As we approach the 150th anniversary of her birth, we can say there are more exciting announcements to come in the new year. Stay tuned!
The 54th annual Emancipation reunion at Cosmopolitan Baptist Church in Washington, DC October 1916 (Harris & Ewing Collection/Library of Congress)
In April 2012 at the time of the 150th anniversary of the emancipation of enslaved people in the District of Columbia–a prelude to the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863–I saw a photograph in the Washington Post of four women centenarians, who had gathered with other freed people at a church in Washington, DC in 1916.
Here’s a link to the blog article I wrote two and a half years ago after I discovered more details about the event, about the photographer and about the minister whose church hosted the gathering.
Last week the PBS show, “To the Contrary,” interviewed me for a segment about the photo. The piece begins at 16:00.
“Going down a rabbit hole.” People use this phrase to mean many different things. For anyone whose writing requires research, it usually means following clues until enough dots are connected to create a credible scene.
And when writing nonfiction, it really is important not to make assumptions, because, as they say “truth is more interesting than fiction.” Or as Mark Twain wrote: “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”
Alice Down the Rabbit Hole from fc00.deviantart.net
The “rabbit hole” phrase comes from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” when Alice spies the White Rabbit checking his pocket watch. Curious and intrigued, she follows behind “just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”
She just HAD to know more. Her curiosity compelled her to follow. And, like Alice, one never knows exactly how one is going to “get out again.” But plunge ahead one must. Irrationally. Illogically. And with the faith that the answer one is seeking is somewhere in that tunnel.
This is the same searing, flaming curiosity that hit me a few days ago. That has kept me up past 2 a.m. for more than a few nights as I work on Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, the first major biography of my great-grandmother.
SS Paris departs New York’s Pier 57 in lower Manhattan
I really thought I had everything I needed to finish the chapter about A’Lelia Walker’s trip to Europe and Africa…and then I realized just what a fascinating cast of characters were on board the ship with her and whom she would see in the first class dining room and lounge during her five day voyage from Pier 57 in New York to Le Havre.
Among the passengers is the independent, iconoclastic daughter of one America’s wealthiest men; the spoiled, ne’er-do-well grandson of another billionaire; a celebrated Italian opera singer returning to La Scala; the sister of one of America’s most powerful politicians, who like many young women of her era married a titled European; the editor of one of America’s most important papers and the Prime Minister of France.
Anne Morgan, daughter of J. Pierpont Morgan, traveled on the SS Paris in November 1921
To my surprise there are mutual friendships, interests and serendipitous coincidences that link A’Lelia Walker to almost all of these people.
What was it like to be the only black woman in first class on the most luxurious ocean liner of the day? How was she treated? With whom did she interact? How did she spend her days and her evenings? She surely did not go unnoticed. One French newspaper reporter said some wondered, as she strolled along the deck for her afternoon walk, if she were a princess. “Her life is a mystery, others say, as they examine her and her dazzling diamonds and pearls,” he wrote.
And now having gone down the rabbit hole, I have what I need. I wish I had diaries and journals, but I don’t. But I have what I need.
A’Lelia Walker traveled to Europe, Africa and the Middle East from November 1921 to April 1922 (Photo: Madam Walker Family Archives)
So imagine, if you will, A’Lelia Walker standing at the top of the stairwell of the great hall in the photo below, looking down at her fellow first class passengers and contemplating with whom she wishes to spend her evening. Will she play bridge? Will she speak with the opera singer about her love of music? Will she find a common thread with the other women on board who volunteered with the Red Cross during the war?
Oh, I am soooo very eager to tell you all I know!!
The Great Hall for first class passengers on the SS Paris. Imagining A’Lelia Walker on the landing surveying the room and contemplating how she would spend her evening.
Langston Hughes called A’Lelia Walker “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s.”
Many thanks to Quintard Taylor and BlackPast.org for inviting me to write an essay about A’Lelia Walker for Black History Month 2014. Here is the essay as it appears on the website. And please do visit this wonderful, information website for hundreds of articles that make Black History Month last all year long. Click HERE to go the A’Lelia Walker essay, which is posted below:
In the following account based on her forthcoming book on A’Lelia Walker titled The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, A’Lelia Bundles provides a glimpse into the life of her famous great-grandmother whose own powerful story is often overshadowed by accounts of her mother, cosmetics entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker. I first began to learn about my great-grandmother and namesake, A’Lelia Walker, when I was three or four years old. On visits with my mother to my grandfather’s apartment, I always slipped away to explore a chest of drawers filled with her jewelry, clothes, photographs and opera glasses. Later I discovered that the baby grand piano on which I learned to read music had been played by famous musicians who visited her Harlem home. The first edition copies of Countee Cullen’s Color and Jean Toomer’s Caneon our bookshelves had come from her personal library.
To the wider world, she was a cosmetics industry executive and patron of the arts. Born Lelia McWilliams on June 6, 1885 in Delta, Louisiana, she was the only child of future hair care entrepreneur and philanthropist Madam C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove), and Moses McWilliams, a sharecropper. As an adult, she changed her name to A’Lelia.
In 1888, while still a toddler, she moved with her widowed mother from Vicksburg, Mississippi to St. Louis, Missouri,
where three of her maternal uncles operated a barber shop. At nearby St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, women parishioners reached out, caring for A’Lelia in the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home while Sarah worked during the week as a washerwoman. As a choir member, Sarah was exposed for the first time to educated, urban, middle class African American women, many of whom were members of the National Association of Colored Women. Motivated by these interactions, she began to aspire to a better life for herself and her daughter. Sarah’s marriage to an abusive alcoholic named John Davis during A’Lelia’s adolescence created instability and frequently disrupted her school attendance.
In 1901, when A’Lelia was 16, her mother left Davis. She then sent A’Lelia to Knoxville College in Tennessee, where she remained for less than a year.A’Lelia Walker’s love of music and theatre, which later would inform her philanthropy, was established long before she attended college. During the late 1890s, she and her mother had lived across the alley from Tom Turpin’s Rosebud Café, the St. Louis piano hall where ragtime composer Scott Joplin often performed.
During the late 1890s, A’Lelia Walker and her mother, who then was still a washerwoman, lived across the alley behind this building which housed Tom Turpin’s Rosebud Cafe.
Her elementary school principals included black Oberlin College graduates who exposed A’Lelia and the other children to opera, German lieder, marches and spirituals. St. Paul’s organist was a classically-trained tenor who appeared in black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s opera Hiawatha at the 1893 Chicago World’s Exposition. Among her childhood friends were Porgy and Bess cast member Georgette Harvey and musicians Sam Patterson, Joe Jordan, and Louis Chauvin.In 1906, 21-year-old A’Lelia joined her mother and new stepfather, Charles Joseph Walker, in Denver, Colorado, where they recently had founded the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, a hair care products firm that soon would become one of America’s most successful women-owned and black-owned companies.
To identify herself with her mother’s increasingly successful business, A’Lelia began using the Walker surname, though she never was legally adopted by Charles Walker. In Denver and then in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as her mother traveled, she oversaw the mail order operation and manufacture of the Walker line of products. In 1909 she married hotel employee John Robinson whom she had met in Pittsburgh, but the union ended after three years.
Madam Walker opened Lelia College, her first beauty school on Wylie Avenue in 1908. (This photo from agatetype.com was shot in 1912.)
When Madam Walker moved her headquarters to Indianapolis, Indiana in 1910, A’Lelia remained in Pittsburgh to manage the company’s east coast operations. During this time, she adopted 13-year-old Fairy Mae Bryant, whose widowed biological mother had allowed her to travel with the Walkers as an assistant and model. Her hip-length braids were featured in Walker ads for their Wonderful Hair Grower, a product that healed dandruff and scalp disease. She became known as Mae Walker, later graduated from Spelman Seminary (now Spelman College) and was a Walker Company executive for more than 25 years.
In 1913 A’Lelia Walker convinced her mother to establish a Harlem office just as African Americans were moving into that uptown Manhattan neighborhood. Like her mother, she became involved in philanthropic activities, heading fundraising campaigns for several charitable causes, including an ambulance for black soldiers during World War I and a building for the Utopia Neighborhood Club’s Child Welfare and Recreation Center, which later served as the New York headquarters for the 1963 March on Washington. With Lucille Randolph—a Walker-trained beautician and wife of publisher and activist A. Philip Randolph—she founded the Harlem Debutantes Club as a vehicle to involve her daughter, Mae, and other young women from the community in social service activities.
Walker townhouse at 108-110 W. 136th Street. Today the space is occupied by the Countee Cullen branch of the NY Public Library.
Both Walker women cultivated relationships with black publishers and advertised extensively in The Messenger, The Crisis, the New York Age, the Baltimore Afro-American, the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender and dozens of other newspapers.In 1916 when Madam Walker moved from Indianapolis to Harlem, she joined A’Lelia at 108-110 West 136th Street in a townhouse, office and beauty salon near Lenox (now Malcolm X) Avenue designed for them by architect and Alpha Phi Alpha founder Vertner Tandy. Two years later she moved into another Tandy-designed home, a 34-room mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, 18 miles north of Harlem. Legendary tenor Enrico Caruso suggested the name Villa Lewaro in honor of A’Lelia (A’Lelia Walker Robinson). Madam Walker’s presence in the New York office resulted in conflict, however, as she sometimes usurped her daughter’s authority in business decisions involving their local sales agents. A long-time employee described their relationship in this way: “Fire and ice. They loved each other dearly and they sometimes fought fiercely.”
On May 25, 1919, while A’Lelia and Mae were en route home from a business trip to Panama, Madam Walker died, leaving A’Lelia as the 34-year-old company president and heiress of an estate and homes valued at a million dollars.
A’Lelia Walker was in Colon, Panama when her mother died on May 25, 1919.
Devastated by her mother’s death, she immediately married Dr. Wiley Merlio Wilson, a Howard University-trained physician and pharmacist, whom she had met several years earlier when he and his brother ran businesses in Pine Bluff, Arkansas and St. Louis. As a wedding gift, she purchased a building for his medical clinic, Wilson Sanitarium, at 138th and Seventh Avenue in one of the Strivers Row blocks. They divorced in 1924. Two years later, she married Dr. James Arthur Kennedy, a decorated World War I captain, who later became the assistant director at Tuskegee’s Veteran’s Hospital.
With her sizeable fortune backed by the Walker hair care products empire, A’Lelia Walker became a patron of the newly emerging Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. She hosted some of the most memorable parties of that decade, lending a glamorous, glitzy aura to the social scene above 110th Street.
The invitation A’Lelia Walker sent to hundreds of friends when she converted a floor of her 136th Street townhouse into a cultural salon called The Dark Tower in October 1927. (Madam Walker Family Archives)
At the Dark Tower—a converted floor of her 136th Street townhouse named for Cullen’s Opportunity column and poem—and at her 80 Edgecombe Avenue pied-á-terre, she welcomed Harlem and Greenwich Village writers, artists, actors, and musicians at a time when blacks and whites seldom socialized on equal terms.
A’Lelia Walker visited Ethiopian Empress Zewditu in March 1922.
As a patron of the arts, she supported J. Rosamond Johnson’s Harlem Music School Settlement which offered classical music training for black students. Musicians James Reese Europe, Ford Dabney, Joseph Douglass, Harry T. Burleigh, Turner Layton, and Alberta Hunter performed at her dinners and parties. She also opened her home to theatrical rehearsals, movie shoots and art exhibitions. Among the photographers whose careers she promoted were R. E. Mercer and James Allen. At various times, actress Edna Lewis Thomas, author Eric Walrond, and singer Taylor Gordon lived rent-free at her Harlem house.
The best known black socialite of her time, A’Lelia Walker was such a rarity that Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes called her “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s” and noted that her parties “were filled with guests whose names would turn any Nordic social climber green with envy.” In April 1929, composer Max Ewing wrote, “Wherever else one is invited or expected, one must cancel all other plans if invited to A’Lelia’s! She is the Great Black Empress, She Who Must Be Obeyed!”
A’Lelia Walker served as inspiration for many photographers, artists and novelists. (Photo: Madam Walker Family Archives)
A’Lelia Walker personified the spirit and flamboyance of the Harlem Renaissance. Her always stylish appearance, which mixed regal, statuesque African beauty with haute couture, inspired poets, novelists, and painters. “She had a superb figure, the type that artists like to draw,” said a reporter who knew her well. Among those for whom she posed were photographer Berenice Abbott and sculptors Richmond Barthé and Augusta Savage. With admiration, close friend Langston Hughes called her a “gorgeous dark Amazon,” a phrase fraught with powerful meaning in an era when light-skinned African Americans often were perceived as more beautiful by many blacks and most whites. Literary critic Carl Van Vechten and Renaissance authors Zora Neale Hurston, George Schuyler, and Wallace Thurman created characters inspired by her.
As the first internationally visible black American heiress with celebrity status, she displayed an impresario’s gift for staging elaborate extravaganzas that made headlines, filled society gossip columns, and scandalized the more straitlaced social arbiters and race leaders of her mother’s generation. Her most memorable affairs included her daughter Mae’s lavish 1923 nuptials to Dr. Gordon Jackson, son of Niagara Movement treasurer George Jackson, and a fireworks-filled 1921 Fourth of July celebration at Villa Lewaro for C.D.B. King, the President of Liberia.
Like other entrepreneurs and art patrons of the era, A’Lelia Walker basked in the euphoria of the Jazz Age and like many of her contemporaries she personally felt the 1929 stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression. During this period as Walker Company sales plunged, her long-troublesome hypertension worsened. In 1931 she divorced Dr. James Arthur Kennedy.
Like many children of self-made figures, she struggled to define herself outside the sphere of her mother’s influence, expectations and legacy. On August 17, 1931, after an enjoyable day celebrating a friend’s birthday at the beach in Long Branch, New Jersey, A’Lelia Walker died from a cerebral hemorrhage.
A’Lelia Walker died in a private cottage near the beach in Long Branch, NJ in August 1931. (This photo from historiclong branch.org was taken in July 1930.)
A few days later, several thousand New Yorkers crowded the streets outside the Harlem funeral parlor where her body lay in repose. As her casket was lowered into the crypt next to her famous mother at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, aviator Hubert Julian, known as “The Black Eagle,” flew over the site releasing dahlias and gladiolas. Of her death, Langston Hughes wrote “That was really the end of the gay times of the New Negro era in Harlem…The depression brought everybody down a peg or two. And the Negroes had but few pegs to fall.”
A large collection of A’Lelia Walker’s letters, photographs, financial records, clothes and personal effects are in the author’s Madam Walker/A’Lelia Walker Family Archives in Washington, DC. Several dozen additional personal letters and other Walker Company materials are in the Madam C. J. Walker Collection at the Indiana Historical Society. Details of Walker’s life, especially prior to 1920, are included in On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker (Scribner 2001) by A’Lelia Bundles, whoseThe Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, is forthcoming from Scribner in 2015. Articles and photographs also appear at https://aleliabundles.com/ and http://www.madamcjwalker.com/. Langston Hughes’s The Big Sea (1940) and Carl Van Vechten’s unpublished New Yorker profile in “Keep A-Inchin’ Along”: Selected Writings of Carl Van Vechten about Black Art and Letters, ed. Bruce Kellner, provide useful accounts of her later life.
Azie Mira Dungey, the actress who plays Lizzie Mae in the web series “Ask a Slave.”
A few days ago, I came across Azie Mira Dungey’s new satirical web series, “Ask a Slave.” As a person who loves history–and who believes history is important for setting the record straight on oh, so many things–I believe this sistah is really on to something. She’s armed with facts and a sense of humor. She’s fortified with historical context and a wicked grasp of the ironic. She tells history with bite and brio. She hits us upside the head with truth in a manner my mother used to call “nice nasty.” She’s got you between the eyes when you don’t even know it’s coming.
You can hear her talk about her experiences playing the role of First Lady Martha Washington’s enslaved servant at historic Mount Vernon and why she created “Ask a Slave” in this NPR “Here and Now” interview with Meghna Chakrabarti. You can learn more on her Facebook page. You also can help fund the production at GoFundMe.com/AskASlave.
After I posted something about the first episode of the show on my author Facebook page a few days ago, several people mentioned that they liked the series. But a couple of folks asked questions I’ve been hearing a lot lately: “Why are there so many movies about slavery? Why now? Weren’t we freed 150 years ago? What’s the point?”
A family on December 31, 1862 waiting to hear the news about Emancipation.
I do understand that a lot of people don’t want to hear about this very ugly, unjust part of America’s past. I’m generalizing here, but I’d say that for some black folks, slavery represents shame, pain, anger and powerlessness they’d rather forget. Again, I’m generalizing, but I’d say that for some white folks, bringing up the topic of slavery means dealing with feelings of guilt, fear of retaliation and “stirring things up,” denial that they still have residual benefits from centuries’ old racially based privilege (whether their ancestors owned other people or not) and the contradictions that come from knowing the Founding Fathers’ ideal of equality was flawed and disingenuous when it came to people of color. Of course not all blacks and not all whites have this mindset, but we shouldn’t pretend those thoughts and attitudes don’t exist.
I think both perspectives have developed and become entrenched over time because history and civics are so poorly—and often inaccurately–taught in most schools in America. Sometimes that is by design. Sometimes it’s because teachers simply lack the language and the knowledge to explain the kinds of challenging truths that can evoke such strong emotions. It’s human nature to take the path of least resistance on topics that still are unsettled business in our society and that can, well, still piss people off.
Slavery, in particular, is sanitized. Rarely do high school history courses mention slave revolts or slave rebellions and the many subversive ways enslaved people navigated their environment. In my high school history book (or maybe it was the history teacher’s interpretation in my predominantly white school), the only time black people were mentioned—in ALL of American history my junior year—were as slaves. And not just as slaves, but as slaves who were treated well by their benevolent masters and who were portrayed as happy.
Henry Box Brown was so determined to escape slavery that he shipped himself north in a box. He was not at all “happy.”
Lessons like those leave black students with the impression that their ancestors willingly accepted their lot in life and surely were better off because of slavery. Everyone else can also walk away thinking they must have accepted all the horrible things that were done to them and perhaps even that they deserved to be treated badly.
Reconstruction and the right to vote.
Similarly, lessons about Reconstruction emphasize corruption and carpetbaggers and de-emphasize the power of black voters who exercised their franchise and the terrorist racial violence that rose up in response to negate and nullify the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. So it’s no wonder that talking about this era in our nation’s history is difficult. We see it through very different lenses depending on the level of our knowledge and our perspective.
Many of the media images we’ve been subjected to for the last century—from “Birth of a Nation” and “Amos and Andy” to Russell Simmon’s recent Harriet Tubman video—simply reinforce this idea that enslaved people were shufflin’, shuckin’ and jivin’, ignorant beings with no agency and little self-respect. Thankfully those who are willing to make the effort can turn to great scholarship, to books and documentaries and plays to counter this, but the negative and inaccurate portrayals predominate.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
It’s my opinion–and everyone won’t agree–that, for the most part, Americans are more comfortable being “ahistorical.” We like the notion that people can re-invent themselves. We like the rags to riches story, the Gatsby-esque notion that a past can be erased or overcome. The problem, of course, is that we fail to learn the lessons of the past.
Three quotations come to mind:
George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
Williams Shakespeare: “What’s past is prologue.”
William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup in “Twelve Years a Slave”
I admit I didn’t see Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” because I wasn’t interested in a cartoonish, self-proclaimed spaghetti Western about slavery. But I am going to see Chiwetel Ejiofor in “Twelve Years a Slave,” whose director, Steve McQueen, by the way, is a black Brit (and not the late American actor.)
And I’m looking forward to episode four of “Ask a Slave.” (Click here to help fund future productions.)