Black excellence and the racial mountain

Beyond the general notion of Nashville, Tennessee as a “music city”, this city has a deep history of racial discrimination and segregation given that it is in the South.  As I toured the city through the lenses of a historian, I visited Jefferson street, a place believed to be the origins of Black American music – jazz and blues. I also visited the pedestrian plaza that commemorates the African American history of Nashville and Jefferson Street. At the plaza, I saw black people that had made waves in the areas of education, athletics, music, civil rights and religion. There were black men and women alike who had invested tremendously in North Nashville but whose efforts were not recognized because of racial segregation that was the order of the day at the time.

As I looked through the pictures and achievements of these people, I saw individuals that had pushed themselves out of the box that society had created for them. It was clear that during the time of segregation, there were black people who had achieved great feats and could stand on the same pedestal as white people. There were many individuals who were as learned as Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey and W.E.B Dubois. One of the individuals that struck me the most, was Jesse Russell, the Father of 2G Wireless Communication.

These individuals had benefited from the work of previous black generations who built Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in order to enable black Americans to integrate into American institutional life. The building of schools, clubs, churches and businesses marked the advent of the black excellence.

Unfortunately, black Americans began to have the desire to move up the racial mountain – to be white. Hugues gives an example of an artist in his article who said, “I want to be a poet – not a Negro poet”. Hughes interprets this statement as meaning, “I want to write like a white poet” or “I want to be white”.

Although it is interesting that black men and women decided to push themselves outside the box and strive for the same achievements as white men, could it be that some of these people were also attempting to climb up the racial mountain? Indeed for some, this might have been the case. Hugues mentions ‘high class’ Negro men, women and families who raced up the racial mountain. For this group, they might have striven to earn a place as close to the white man as possible. Therefore, for them, achieving excellence was synonymous with achieving whiteness.

On the other hand, the other group of black people such as those mentioned at the beginning of this essay created a whole new niche for themselves. They formed their own brilliant standards for black people that present and succeeding generations of black people could imitate.

In recent years, this has reduced the need for a racial mountain. Or has it?

Fighting racial segregation

Civil Rights Room at Nashville Public Library photo: Demarco Johnson

I was in Nashville, Tennessee last week and I had the opportunity to see the city, not through the lenses of a tourist but through the lenses of a historian. One of the places I visited was the Nashville Public Library and on the second floor was the Civil Rights Room. As I stepped into this part of the building, I began to think about what I had been learning in the History of Black America class since the beginning of the semester. Things became clearer to me, as I saw pictures of riots, pictures of black men who were jailed for challenging racial segregation and pictures of black women who accompanied their children to segregated schools at the beginning of the school term for the same purpose-challenging racial segregation. I saw in these activities as an attempt to change the status quo, an attempt to create the change that the laws had failed to create.

I saw a community of struggle. As mentioned in class, there were two goals that this community had. One of them was to “fight for integration into American institutional life, to integrate schools, the workplace, residential neighbourhoods, public accommodations like hotels and restaurants, and especially councils of government.” This generation of people had hardly experienced slavery, given this time period and so they could not fully understand the reason for racial discrimination. The non-violent protests that were carried out were aimed at achieving equality with white people and bringing an end to segregation in America.

The formation of black union organizations was also an attempt to bring an end to racial discrimination in America. The formation of organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the early 20th century went a long way in uniting black people and helping them fight racial segregation.

For me, thinking about the history of Black Americans and racial segregation has made me see that when laws are unable to adequately support the people bound them, engaging in non-violent protests and challenging those laws helps to bring about positive results.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities is a documentary about the creation and significance of Historically Black College and Universities in the United States.  It starts from the end of slavery in the 1860s when freed slaves are quenching for knowledge that have longed been denied from them.  Then it moves through the years of students protest coinciding with protests with the Civil Rights Movement.  Finally, it ends with a look at contemporary HBCUs and their lack of enrollment, funding, and thus closing of dozens around the country. The importance of this documentary is to showcase how significant HBCUs have been for the development and production of black excellence in our history. The need to continue and help rebuild the deterioration of how HBCUs are still needed in the United States even 150 years after slavery has ended.

Today’s Eerie Echoes of the Civil War

Manisha Sinha “Today’s Eerie Echoes of the Civil War” 

“In 1858, Abraham Lincoln launched his campaign for the Senate seat from Illinois with his now famous “A House Divided” speech. While he did not predict disunion or civil war, Lincoln alluded to the country’s deep political divisions over slavery and concluded, “I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”

Even before what historians call the political crisis of the 1850s, the rise of an interracial abolition movement had encountered mob violence in the streets and gag rules in Congress. From then on, abolitionism in the United States was tied to civil liberties and the fate of American democracy itself. By the eve of the war, in 1861, most people in the northern free states felt that the democratic institutions of the country were being subverted.

There are many Americans who feel the same way today. Some have pointed to the glaring, and growing, partisan divide in the US to conjure doomsday scenarios, including “civil war.” How does our own epoch of fierce political polarization compare to the decade that was rent over the issue of slavery before the Civil War? Predictions are often overwrought and historical analogies can be misleading, but the controversies that bedeviled that age and its legacies still haunt us. In certain ways, they foreshadow—or, perhaps, still condition—our own divided house.”