Tuesday, January 31, 2023

History and It Meanings and Power


DUKES FANS           

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots. MARCUS GARVEY 

If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. MICHAEL CRICHTON 

If history and science have taught us anything, it is that passion and desire are not the same as truth. E. O. WILSON 

A generation which ignores history has no past — and no future.   


“We should not emphasize “Negro History,” but “The Negro IN history.”  

CARTER WOODSON, historian 

 “The incredible thing about history is that there is always more to discover; it is never “finished.” ANONYMOUS                                                                                                                                                   

As readers of these missives have no doubt noticed, a lot of the newsletters I send start with quotes. A couple of people have asked me over the years why I do that, and the reasons haven’t really changed. Life, to me, is mostly about going through transitions, change, discovery and re-discovery, finding purpose, and making meaning out of it all. The quotes that I choose are ones that speak to my own journey through all of this over the years, and they convey things that have become important to me in my attempts to navigate the world. Reflecting on quotes reminds me that I am not the first person to go through this process and will not be the last. It also reminds me that I can learn from the experiences of others-I am not the font of all knowledge, and my experience is far from the only valid one.  As I have spent more than half my life as a history teache, and as tomorrow is the official start of something called Black History Month, I thought it might be good to reflect on what history has meant to me throughout my life-what it is, what it can be, and what it can do. These quotes guide me in doing that. 

  I have been a history freak since, well, forever. I can recall being a young child, looking through the World Book Encyclopedias that my mother sold, and being fascinated by people, times and events that had happened a long time ago. In elementary school and junior high school. I memorized a lot of names and dates, was captured and intrigued by timelines, and fell in love with the 300 and 900 stacks in the Philadelphia Free Library--the stacks that by Dewey’s system contained most of the historical material. I knew that if I was interested in subject “A” and the book I was looking for wasn’t in, I could look to the right or to the left of where that book should be and there would probably be something as interesting as what I had been looking for originally. I grew up during the 1950’s and 1960’s, and there was an explosion of new ways of looking at history happening then. New sources were being found and explored, new interpretations of time periods and events abounded, new theories about history were being put forth, and many different people’s stories were now being included. The library was an important gateway to all of that for me; I was able to find out things I had little knowledge about due to the wealth of information in those stacks. What I found in one book led me to still others, and the more I found, the more I wanted to find out.  For an insatiably curious kid, it was heaven. To me, libraries are sacred ground. 

 All this fed my curiosity, made me hungry for knowledge, and turned me into someone who looked for connections between ideas, times and people.  When my wife and I would travel somewhere new, I would have read or seen something about the history of the place by the time we got there. And wherever we traveled somewhere for more than a day or two, we would spend part of that time at an historical site, a walking tour and/or in a library. My wife would often say, “You have never met an historical marker you didn’t love!” And she was right. 

  That interest continues to this very day. The ideas about history that I encountered in my official education were initially cursory and spotty. We were taught the names of famous people, largely white, and we looked at events through the lens of great accomplishments; things that made the United States great. But from all the reading I was doing before I even started school, I knew I wanted more. We had the wonders of Negro History Week when I was growing up-a week during which special emphasis was given to studying the stories and history of Negro people, as we were then called. My church and my school provided some books, told us some stories, and put on some plays that got me exposed and interested in the lives of men and women who were generally not in the school's history books. Part of the beauty and power of that week for me was that it had been started by us-we were starting to tell our own stories publicly and officially. Negro History Week was started by a Black historian in the mid-1920’s. Carter G. Woodson, the son of slaves, had received a doctorate from Harvard in 1912, and he realized that in most history books Blacks were either depicted in stereotypical and inaccurate ways or not mentioned at all. To counter this, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life in 1915, and he started publishing The Journal of Negro History. The Journal published research articles by and about Blacks and was distributed to schools and people who educated Blacks. Interest in the publication and topic soared, and it became an important repository for historical research about Blacks. In 1926 the Association established Negro History Week, a time for black churches, students, communities, colleges, and more to focus on the history of Blacks in this country and the world. The Civil Rights Movement and the rise of Black Power in the 1960’s and 1970’s gave it a new emphasis, and it became more of a part in many schools’ curricula. By then it had been renamed and had expanded to Black History Month, and it was much more visible. President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976 to coordinate with the bicentennial of the country, and it has been officially recognized by most schools and communities since then. Newspapers, TV networks, and radio stations do special programming. Cities and towns host special breakfasts, award ceremonies, essay contests, and more. It is pretty much in the mainstream now, and in many ways that is good. But there is still more to do 

   One of the things this month can do is allow us to pause, slow down and take a deeper look at a lot of our assumptions and collective knowledge about who we are as a country. As Carter Woodson said above, we need to focus not on a separate sense of the history of any one people in the United States, but on how each and every one of them are IN our history. How each one is a part of all of the things that have made us who we are as a nation and will continue to do so. If the month can be seen as an opportunity to expand our knowledge and better understand where we as an entire culture have been, the month can give us ways to deepen our understandings about this place and important ways the past influences the present. We know some things about slavery, for example, but for most of us slavery was something that happened on plantations and in the South-it was about picking things and working in the fields and the “Big House.” The reality, though, is far more complicated than that. There was slavery in each and every colony before the American Revolution, many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution held slaves, and slavery was legal in each and every state for years after the Revolution. And slaves did all sorts of work besdies field work, from making pots, to unloading the ships in Philadelphia's harbor, to doing much of the iron and brick work in Charleston, South Carolina. And all the activities and structures needed and developed to support slavery were at the very heart of US economic growth throughout the 18th and 19th century-domestic and international shipping, our systems of banking, the stock market, trade, and more. The New York Historical Society had a monumental exhibit in 2005 and 2006 on Slavery in New York City, and the history it revealed totally changed many people’s ideas about what the 19th century was about and the role of the Big Apple during that time. People had not realized that New York had been a slave state and that its’ role in banking, shipping, and trade made it the center of the entire United States slave system. While the whole online exhibit is no longer there, it is still a worthwhile site to visit. (http://www.slaveryinnewyork. org/ ) Likewise, there was a website developed in 2003 by historian Douglas Harper called, “Slavery in the North” that examines how each colony and state north of the Mason-Dixon line carried out their involvement with the “peculiar institution.” (http://slavenorth.com/index. html  Looking at these sites and other books, films, etc deepened my knowledge and unearthed moving and amazing stories about which I had known little. It also helped me learn new things about many other things beyond slavery. That is one of the wonderful things about history-there is usually so much more beneath the surface of any one thing than we see at first glance. There is always much to be uncovered and brought forth, and I love that digging. As stated above, history is never truly “finished.” 

   I hope this Black History Month finds you looking in new places for new things and discovering and uncovering new facts and new people. Libraries, the web, streaming services-there is no reason to not be learning something new. There is a universe of largely unknown, people whose lives have amazing stories to tell and whose accomplishments are astonishing. If I may jump start that for you, let me toss out some names with whom you may not be familiar: Benjamin Banneker, Bass Reaves, Miriam Benjamin, Daniel Hale Williams, Garret Morgan, Lewis Latimer, Dr. Charles Drew, and Valerie Thomas. If you are curious, look them up and see who they were and what they did, and how they are connected to so many things we take for granted today. Dig, uncover, and enjoy! 

Some Websites to Spark Curiosity: 

The Philadelphia Tribune Newspaper: https://www.phillytrib.com  

Ebony Magazine https://www.ebony.com  

The Association for the Study of African American Life and History:  https://asalh.org/  

The African-American Firefighter Museum www.aaffmuseum.org  

List of African-American Centered Museums Nationwide:  

Black Inventors Musuem: https://blackinventorsmuseum.com 

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The King Day of Service



"Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'" Dr. Martin Luther King 

Yesterday was the 37th national observance of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. There were more events and acts of service this year than during the last two years as the COVID numbers are substantially lower and more people have gotten vaccines and booster shots. So yesterday saw tons of people out in the community doing tons of things commemorating the man and his message, and living out parts of his commitment to justice, acts of kindness, and love for the human race. There were park cleanups, painting and refurbishing of buildings, feeding the homeless, fixing up houses and planting gardens, cleaning up streets, and more. Religious organizations, big and small businesses, community volunteer groups, city and town governments, schools and institutions were all involved in designing and organizing all of these works, and it was a wonderfully massive undertaking. It involved people across all types of demographic lines: age, color, wealth, language, education, etc. Millions of people nationwide were involved in simply helping other people. Of particular note this year were important activities in places where Dr. King had helped lead important demonstrations and protests during the Civil Rights Movement. These communities came together, much as many of them did during the Civil Rights Movement. Only this time they came to help deal with a more current problem. And in so doing, they illustrated the continued importance of Dr. King’s message. 

 Selma, Alabama was the site of two protests central to the long and often bloody struggle to extend the vote to African-Americans. On Sunday, March 7 ,1965 about 300 marchers organized by the Southern Conference Leadership Council (Dr. King's group) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) gathered for a march to the state capital of Montgomery protesting the killing of a protester at a previous march and demanding voting rights. They were met at the Edmund Petts Bridge by state troopers and a local mounted police force who stormed into the marchers, beat them with batons and trampled some with horses. TV networks had discovered the Civil Rights Movement by then, and the broadcast went national, shocking many Americans. This led to the introduction of a Voting Rights Act by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and to the famous 50-mile Selma to Montgomery March led by Dr. King. King had called on “people of conscience”, as he put it, to come to Selma to join in the march to the capital. Many did, including a large number of whites. National TV coverage put the march and King’s words across the airwaves, galvanizing a force for change. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was then passed in August, ending literacy tests, poll taxes, and other methods by which Blacks had been denied the right to vote. Selma had changed the nation. 

This year the Selma community had originally planned a celebration of that March and the Voting Rights Act. But Thursday, January 12 saw tornadoes rip through the town, killing 7 people and doing tremendous damage to the town. And the same forces that mobilized in 1965 and came together joined with other agencies to help deliver aid to the victims of the storms. Community groups, churches, fraternal organizations and more joined together, helping shelter residents, providing food, digging out, and repairing homes and businesses, helping clothe people, and much, much more. We have had many natural and weather disasters recently, and after each one people have come together selflessly to offer immediate and direct service to others. This is truly in the spirit of Dr. King’s words above. Yes, there is a lot of work to be done. This won't be resolved easily or quickly, of course; the work and the workers will be there for a long time. It will be difficult. But the forces will still be there, doing what they can to help. Service is always needed; we all have the capability to help one another. 

Initially, I did not favor a nationwide “King Holiday.” I feared that we would see a parade of “Martin Luther King Day Sales,”  and the country would blow right past the messages embodied by his life and by his actions. But 37 years later, the day is still seen as a Day of Service; a day to give back and to help. Never have I been so glad to have been so wrong.  

Here is a link to ways we in the Philadelphia area can help support some of the groups who are doing such vital work in Alabama: 


(In 2018 I wrote a post about The Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and its role in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Here is a link to it, should you wish to read it: 

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Looking Back In Order To Move Forward


DUKES FANS:        

  January is often thought of as a time for looking ahead and thinking forward. It’s a New Year: we make New Year’s resolutions, new commitments, and those of us who still write checks struggle to remember to write the correct year on them. But January can also be a time to take a serious look in the rearview mirror; to look backwards at what has been as well as forward to what might be. In order to make new resolutions, for example, we need to look back and see what it is we want to change about what we are doing and our lives. We need to look back to do this, and we need to look back seriously. Indeed, all of the many rituals and practices we observe throughout December and early January are as much about looking back as they are about moving forward and welcoming the new. We have to recall the story of the birth of Christ or the ties to the past that each Kwanzaa or Hannukah candle represent, and then we can connect with those things and bring them forward into our current lives. We need to know our past to fully appreciate our present and to look honestly toward the future.  

  One way of doing this for me is to look at lists of who died in the last 12 months and reflect on their impact and influence on me. Of course, that is easy when it is a friend or a family member. There is grief and pain, and we are immediately deeply in touch with what we lost and what it means. But if we are lucky, there are also people outside our immediate relationships who have had an impact on us that we want to acknowledge. For me, these are often musicians, authors, and other artists that have played a role in how I see and experience the world. The arts have had an incredible effect on my life, and they have done a lot to help me become who I am today.  

  One of the things I’m reflecting on is that we lost two R’n’B masters in 2022. I don’t normally play a lot of funk and straightforward R’n’B with the Dukes, but I incorporate some of it in my playing and singing, and it is something that I regularly listen to. And in 2022 we said, “Goodbye” to a couple of my favorites.  

  One of the masters we lost was Calvin Simon, the co-founder of what became the group Parliament-Funkadelic. This was the group the brought to the fore bassist Bootsy Collins and master songwriter singer, stage and dance director George Clinton. Calvin came along in the late 60’s, 70’s and 80’s-a time when Black popular music was going through big changes and venturing into new sounds, different instrumentation, and bolder arrangements. He played everything from straight up R’n’B dance tunes and ballads to funk, to protest music, to psychedelia, to gospel, and more. He always found a way to mix things up with wah-wah on guitars and organs, strong horn arrangements, background singers, incredible bass lines, outrageous costumes, and characters such as Dr. Funkenstein. The musical changes he and Funkadelic developed have been sampled thousands of times in hip- hop and rap, and The Mothership stage shows Parliament-Funkadelic put on are legendary. Suffice it to say, along with Calvin, there are 15 other members of that group who have been inducted to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. Wow!  

We also lost Syl Johnon. I had heard Syl on songs such as Dresses Too Short, Different Strokes, and Is It Because I Am Black. His version of the Al Green song Take Me To The River is a classic; even Al said he preferred Syl’s version.  His, Could I Be Falling In Love is one of my favorite romantic ballads with a great arrangement and wonderful vocals. Love it.  

   So as I am heading forward into 2023, I am also taking time to look back and re-listen to some other folks I haven’t listened to in a while. We lost several others, of course-the great Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown, and Luther Guitar Johnson, to name a few. My remembering them and what they did is a good reminder of how things can come to influence me and matter to me, often without me necessarily looking for it or realizing that it is happening at the time. I think we are all lucky to have that experience. It is good to take time to stop, look back and be grateful for it. It takes at least one village to raise anyone, and if we are lucky, we have a number of great villages around us. For that I am eternally grateful.   

(There is also a lot of Syl Johnson on You Tube:  

https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=syl+johnson+ )