I’m glad that we have this (short) month to try to play catch up.
Black people were being “cancelled” before “cancelling” even became a thing – so many people have been intent on disparaging and ignoring Black accomplishments that our understanding of what it took to build America is pretty incomplete. Since there’s a lot of ground to cover I’ll write fast and keep this short; that way, you’ll have plenty of time to dig into other interesting material elsewhere. (Check out, for instance, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, where Sojourner talks about, among other things, suing the human trafficker who illegally sold her son and winning.)
In crazy times like these it’s good to look for inspiration from the heroes who came before us, just as a reminder that we can get through this. Biddy Mason, a previously enslaved woman who became one of Los Angeles’ great landowners, is one of mine. So is Madame CJ Walker, the country’s first self-made woman millionaire. Some thought them “too Black” to succeed; others may have found them “too uppity” for their place. For me, they are a good reminder to shut out the noise and be the decider of my own life.
Robert Smalls, a previously enslaved South Carolinian who commandeered a Confederate battleship, sailed it past Confederate battle lines and delivered it to the Union army (after which he bought the home of his former enslaver and served in the South Carolina and U.S. legislatures), is a reminder that the things other people say are impossible may not be, really. The U.S. Naval training facility named for him, Camp Robert Smalls, was where Vice Admiral Samuel Gravely, the first African-American to command a Navy battleship, served as a newly commissioned Ensign. This month on the Battleship IOWA (where Vice Admiral Gravely served as communications officer), we will continue our annual celebration of Admiral Gravely’s life. (insert link.)
The stories we choose to tell – and those to which we choose to listen – are an important part of what shapes our history. Among the guests on my podcast this month are 3 masterful storytellers: Stanley Nelson, whose film Crack: Cocaine, Corruption and Conspiracy (Netflix), reexamines the crack epidemic with nuance and context; Dr. Gretchen Sorin, Co-Director of Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America (PBS), which explores the way in which African-Americans embraced automobile travel as a way to escape racist terror and build new communities; and Yoruba Richen, whose movie “How It Feels To Be Free” (PBS) tells the story of six African-American icons – Lena Horne, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson and Pam Grier – who insisted on owning their artistic spaces on their own terms, and who are the forerunners for the opportunities that so many of us have today.
While we are exploring others’ stories we should be mindful of our own– especially in times like this, which are all kinds of weird and stressful. Dr. Nzinga Harrison, host of In Recovery Podcast and co-founder of Eleanor Health, joins me for a talk about how we can maintain some semblance of sanity and balance in what is a spectacularly uncertain and frightening time for so many. She reminds us to seek moderation and to be kind to ourselves. It’s a good and timely reminder.
Like the people who came before us, we can get through this, too.
Happy Black History Month, everyone.