Category Archives: Black history

And….Cut! Take 2

I made a commitment to get more involved in racial injustice, and I realized I needed to educate myself. Ain’t nobody need a white woman to show up with her guilt and then have to help her figure out her racial junk. That’s on me to learn about my own biases and what I do consciously or unconsciously that keeps systemic racism alive. Many years ago, I took a more straight forward route and read a number of books about the civil rights movement. I never learned that in school — we were lucky to make it to WWII, which we sped through in the final weeks of the school year. Germans invade Europe! We Americans swoop into rescue them! England kinda helps! Russians bad! We beat Hitler, yay, we’re out for the summer!

But getting back to an actual education, the civil rights movement was good for me to understand, but this time I wanted to learn more about what’s going on now in the lives and struggles of people of color. How can I be helpful now? So I have been trying to educate myself, admittedly a little randomly, with the idea that the things I need to learn will find their way to me.

That sounds soooo white hippy dippy doesn’t it? See how much work I have to do? As I learned from one of the books I read, the Black folks are giving me “shade” and “side eye.”

I have written 5 or 6 posts on the topic, and the last few kind of bothered me, and not in the good way like, “Wow, I feel defensive, I must be poking myself in the right places!” (Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and “Get Out”: A Spoonful of Sugar.)

They definitely feel too preachy, as in, “white people, let me tell you a thing or two.” My bad writing spidey sense was tingling, but I couldn’t make out why. So please forgive me for pushing the publish button anyway. The show must go on! Or at least the Monday morning post. I grant you it’s obnoxious, but far worse, it’s bad writing, which I will not tolerate…I’m fired! Wait, no, I’ll just try to do better.

I wasn’t able to put my finger on the problem until I started talking about it with my friends Becky and Susan, whose questions help clarify the issue. They are gay and have witnessed how I have been an ally for gay folks for many years now. What’s different about trying to be a Black ally?

And that is a good question. It feels different, more complicated. I told them when I first started showing up at the Gay Pride Parade and listening to my friends coming out stories, I was welcomed and appreciated for my efforts. Also, the movement was so new (compared to, say, Black history), that it didn’t take long to catch up. Hiding, hiding, hiding, Stonewall! We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it! I didn’t even have to learn about the AIDS. I witnessed it. How convenient is that? Also, there is a lot of dancing and fabulousness, and turning pain into joy. That also happens to be my main coping mechanism.

Being an ally to gay folks seemed to be a bit like going to France. Although the gay people I know are way nicer than the French. France, if you try to speak a little French, they will put you ahead of the obnoxious American tourist who makes no effort to communicate, except to speak English louder, as if that will help. Gay folks were like, hey, you listen, you want to learn, come on in!

My uncomfortable realization is that I like being praised for my efforts. I want to get the gold star, the A+ for participation. And I got that from gay people who are happy to have me and want to tell me their stores.

On the other hand, Black people seem very tired of explaining themselves, and who the heck can blame them? I’m not sure how to show my interest without, well, being white about it. Black people have turned their pain into joy too, and I like gospel music, but the church part kinda gives me the willies. Although, I have discovered we have in common our dislike/distrust of the Catholic Church, so, you know, that’s a start.

For other types of music, I don’t think you can be white and show up at a Kiss-n-Grind, which is all about dancing to soul, house, and other kinds of music and hanging out — I learned about it from the HBO show Insecure. (It’s a really good show, and I’ll write more about it, but go watch it!) Well, OK, I just Googled the real thing and there are pictures of a few white people in the crowd. But I can’t go because I’m probably too old, not cool enough, and it seems like it’s just an LA thing. And I get pretty East Coast provincial about LA, but maybe I can work on that.

More talk with Becky and Susan helped me see that this is my journey of discovery, the good, the bad, the awkward, and the difficult. I have no right to say how other white or Black people are feeling or should feel, but I can write truthfully about all the missteps and embarrassing things I’m doing while I’m finding my way. That also just so happens to make better blog material, so it’s win-win.

Bear with me as I am halfway through several books that crossed my somewhat confused path, (I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era by Ashley Farmer). Books waiting to be read like The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae (actress, writer, and producer of the aforementioned “Insecure”). There are a couple of movies on order, such as “Sorry to Bother You” and Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.”  Actually, Spike Lee grabbed me in the 80s with “She’s Gotta Have It,” and I need to keep pace with him, which I should get extra points for — he’s prolific!

Ah. OK. I’m doing not for the A+, but to be a better person. Right. But you know, if any Black folks out there want to think I’m hip for loving “Insecure” and following Luvvie Ajayi, that’s cool, even if I’m more like Frieda, the awkward, overly earnest white chick in the show,  I ain’t no hollaback girl. Or maybe I am. Can you wait a minute while I go look that up?

 

“Get Out”: A Spoonful of Sugar

Apologies for the title. I’m sure there is a special place in hell for white writers who use white people references when talking about Black culture, but I’m pretty sure I’m going there anyway, so what the heck. I’m still very much a newbie in my quest to be an agent of social justice and learn about Black culture , so I’ll use what I know until I can use Black culture references appropriately.

Are ya still with me? Mary Poppins! Mary Poppins! OK, that’s better.

I had seen the ads for the movie “Get Out,” but I am a big weenie when it comes to horror movies. Between the violent bloody parts and the unbearable tension created by slasher music and white teenagers always going into the creepy house to have sex or drink, I find the whole thing disturbing and annoying. That is until the crazy person/spirit/monster comes out of nowhere with an ax, and then I’m cowering in my seat,  yelling, “Is it over?”

I’m kidding, I’ve never actually sat through a horror movie; I can scare myself in the dark for free in a fraction of the time. But I made an exception when my friend Sonia said I had to see “Get Out.” The movie is the directorial debut of Jordan Peele, who, if you don’t live under a media rock like I do, you may know him from his acting work: 5 seasons as a cast member on Mad TV, starring with Keegan-Michael Key in the Comedy Central ketch series Key & Peele, and a recurring role in the first season of the FX anthology series Fargo. 

Halfway through the making of “Get Out.” Jordan Peele realized the story he wanted to tell: A horror-thriller for Black audiences that delivered a searing satirical critique of systemic racism. It is definitely a cleverly written social commentary on being black in America, and he tucks in some humor along the way while he plays with the genre. If you’re white and love horror movies, and even if you aren’t really looking for any deep meaning in your movies, I’d still encourage you to see it. It’s a quality addition to the genre; you will be entertained and surprised and terrified.

But it’s even better if you take a few minutes to see it from a Black perspective.

I put it on my viewing list, but I rarely stay awake long enough to watch movies, so I didn’t actually get to watch it until I visited Sonia a few months ago. It was 100 times better than me watching it by myself for several reasons:

  1. I would’ve missed most, if not all of the social commentary and symbolism that is embedded in the movie.
  2. I would’ve have had anyone to tell me when it was OK to unplug my ears and untuck my head from the pillow to deal with the bloody horror junk at the end.

If you’re sensitive like I am, invite a horror movie loving buddy to watch it with you, preferably one who doesn’t think it’s funny to say, “It’s safe to watch now!” just when the ax is in mid-swing.

The premise of the movie is that the main character Chris is a Black man meeting his white girlfriend’s family for the first time, of course at their house, which in typical horror movie fashion is in the middle of nowhere. He soon realizes there is something strange and creepy about their obsession with Blackness; their maid and gardener are Black, and at a party later, there is young Black man who is married to an older white woman. He tried to connect with the Black people, but they are all placid and vacant, but showing brief moments of desperation that he doesn’t understand.

This is a condensed version from “We Need to Talk About All of the Symbolism in Get Out” from VH1 News.

  1. On the way to the girlfriend’s parents’ house the couples’ car hits a deer. When the cop arrives, the scene re-enacts what happens commonly across country. The cop demands Chris’s ID, even though he wasn’t the one driving. Indignant, the girlfriend argues with the cop about why that is necessary, while Chris tries to calm her down and comply. The scene emphasizes that white privilege gets to argue with a cop without serious consequences. Chris can’t take that chance.
  2. Once at the parents’ house, Chris’s girlfriend’s mother offers to hypnotize him to help cure him of his nicotine addiction him. Of course nastier things are afoot. She actually taps into a traumatic experience from his past to put him into a psychological “Sunken Place” where he’s falling in a hole and can’t move. From the VH-1 website: “This out-of-body experience represents the greater narrative of Black America. It’s a theme we’ve seen play out again and again in American history – from slavery to the Tuskegee experiments all the way to mass incarceration…the idea that terrifying and denigrating things come from white ownership of Black bodies.”
  3. The mother uses the clinking of a silver spoon against a teacup to control when Chris goes to the sunken place. In addition to the symbolism of the being born with a “silver spoon” equating with wealth, is also calls to mind Black servants serving tea to wealthy white people.
  4. The movie is not without its funny moments. Chris’s friend Rod had misgivings for Chris’s girlfriend from the start. When Chris’s calls from the parents’ house get stranger and more worrisome, and then finally stop, he takes action. He’s a goofy TSA agent and plays his seriousness about his job and his melodramatic take on what’s happened to Chris for laughs — his theory is that some white people are kidnapping Black people and making them slaves. Which all the people in authority that he tells laugh at, so he uses his TSA training to max to launch a rescue.
  5. Chris finds himself tied to a comfy chair in the basement. The sound of the tinkling spoon puts him in and out of the sunken place, and there is seemingly no escape. However, in his anxiety, he starts picking at the arm of the chair, freeing, what else, tufts of cotton. He uses it to plug his ears so he can’t hear the hypnosis signal, and is able to free himself when they bring him food thinking he is incapacitated. As the VH-1 website perfectly said, “This might be the only time where a Black man picking cotton has been a lifesaving task.”

There are more references, so check them out. Think of it like Schoolhouse Rock — you get to be entertained and learn something at the same time. If you can’t deal with the horror, I get it. I’m working on finding other options. Stay tuned and meanwhile hum, “Conjunction, junction, what’s your function?

 

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

I’m still haunted by the 52% of white women who voted for Trump. I’m being lumped in with them, and I don’t like it, but guess what, buttercup? The Black folks are saying, “Welcome to my world of being held responsible for your race.” So, this buttercup is sucking it up.

I wrote the piece about it in the spring of 2017, and at that time, I couldn’t get the actual numbers of white women voters. The few websites that had data said the final numbers were still being calculated. So here it is, well over a year later, and you still cannot Google “How many white women voted for Trump” and get an actual number. News outlets give only repeat that depressing percentage.

This could be white guilt, or perimenopause anger talking, but I need to know the actual number.

Would you rather inherit 75% of someone’s bank account or $50,000? You’d need to know the number in the bank account, right? 75% sounds good until you learn there is $1,000 in the account. That’s why I’m obsessed with this white woman number. Yes, 52% blows me away, makes me angry, depresses the living heck out of me. How many whackadoodles are we dealing with? 1 million? 10 million? 100 million? How big is my problem?

Because no one seems to have the straight up number, Word Girl here had to do math, and that is never a good thing. And I needed the high school math I hated the most– an algebraic word problem.

If 138.8 million people voted in the election, and according to exit polls 37% of those were white women, and (according to every maddening news source) 52% of those women voted for Trump, how many white women pissed me off in 2016? According to my calculations…

trumpvotersblog

26.7 million women are not my friends. OK, so the numbers didn’t make me feel any better (and actually made me feel slightly worse) but defining how deep the hole we’re in is important.

If 22 million white women voted for Hillary, and 94% of Black women voted for her, how many Black women do I have more in common with than the Trump white whackadoodles?

9.1 million.

So, you 22 million white women, I invite you along as I try to educate myself about Black culture. If you went to France, you wouldn’t go knowing no French and asking (in English) for hot dogs and pizza, would you? Well, if you did, you would be known as the really bad stereotypical American tourist and ruin it for the rest of us. Black culture is the same. Black people have enough on their plate without having to teach whites about their culture. We need to do it ourselves. Showing up knowing a little is a sign of respect. Knowing a lot gives you more access. I’m not an expert, just going where my interest and curiosity takes me. Oh, and white men, you are welcome to come along, too, I just used all my math skills on the women, so I couldn’t quantify you. But by all means, hop on board.

Because it’s summer, and I am a big believer in the power of music to connect people, let’s talk about “Motown the Musical.” I saw it in Boston in June, at the end of its North American tour. You can now only see it in London, but it will be at the Shaftesbury Theatre through November 2019, and other parts of the UK, so you’d better get on that. That’s plenty of time to find bargain fares, and I know you want to see Princess Meghan or one of those royal babies anyway, so now you have more reasons to go.

It was on Broadway from March 2013 to January 2015 came back in July 2016, so shame on me for not knowing about it all this time. If you already know the story of Motown, then good for you — you can skip this lesson and post your favorite fact.

Motown gives you the back story to all the music you love/grew up with/heard in a meme/were embarrassed to hear your mother/child singing to. Young Berry Gordy  makes and produces music, but can’t get the white radio stations to play it. They say they don’t play Black music, but he argues that his music belongs to everyone. They won’t budge, so he borrows money to start his own label.

But the story starts before then. As a child, Berry experienced an amazing moment when his childhood hero boxer Joe Louis defeated the German boxing great Max Schmeling in 1938. It’s one of the most famous matches of all time. This occurred at a time when Black boxers were often denied championships, and the Nazi party issued statements that a Black man could not defeat Schmeling. After the fight, Berry recalled, “I saw my mother crying. I saw my father crying. Everyone was so crazy, just going mad.” Berry decided then that he wanted to do something that made people that happy.

And so he did. For the rest of the musical you get to see both the musical genius and just creative people doing their thing — arguing over creative differences, falling in love, falling out of love, working together towards a goal, feeling artistic jealousy, and making incredible music. Through it all is, for many of us, the soundtrack of our lives that wouldn’t exist without Black people. Where would you be without Diana Ross and the Supremes, Michael Jackson, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson?

Don’t take that soundtrack for granted. That music emerged from people constantly having to prove themselves. Dive a little deeper and learn more about where it came from. You love this music, you’ve danced to it, made out to it, laughed and cried to it.

Read some books about Motown, watch some movies.

Taking a deeper dive into the music of Motown is not going to solve racism. But if you are familiar with how the music flourished in spite of racism, how promoting the music in segregated towns was risky and even dangerous, maybe it provides an opportunity to connect or have a conversation. Just remember, no mansplaining, please. Black people still know way more than you do, but it’s a place to start.

I heard that through the grapevine.

Who Are We Not Seeing?

I spent the weekend celebrating Gay Pride with my friends. The parade gets longer every year, seemingly with more corporate sponsors, which is both a blessing and a curse. Great to have more support, as long as those companies truly work toward equity and not just give lip service about all kinds of diversity just to gain a target market. During the Obama years, the Pride discussions among my friends centered around what the parade had evolved into. Originally started as an angry protest in response to the police raid in 1969 of a gay club called the Stonewall Inn in New York City, the parade had over the years become a fun, social event. Or just like many other parades. Well, at least here in gay Massachusetts. As rights and acceptance were gained, the gay identity also became mainstream, and there was also a loss — less pushing the boundaries, protesting, challenging the status quo. I haven’t seen a really good group of outrageous drag queens at the parade in years.

Cheeto flea changed all that, or perhaps merely gave voice to the fear that was bubbling just under the surface around gays and “other.” For better or worse, showing up to the Gay Pride parade feels essential again. It’s important to continue to be seen and heard.

Indeed, we seem to be spending much more time these days talking and yelling at each other, and not listening very much. I do it too. Because we all seem to have our panties in a twist about something, maybe listening is too high a bar start with — to just shut our pie holes for a few minutes and listen. It’s biological after all, once our panties are twisted, the heart rate increases and the amygdala gets activated, the part of the brain responsible for the instinctive “fight or flight” response, which pretty much reduces us to our caveman/woman state. Lash out first, and ask questions never. Plus, many of us have stopped actually listening to the people we love and like, so what chance does a stranger with an opposite opinion have?

So maybe we should start with something simpler, such as looking. No, strike that. I mean start with seeing. We look at things all day, but do we really see them? Or see them for what they truly are? When a dog crosses your path, do you see that actual dog, or are you seeing the one that nipped you when you were 5 playing on the neighbor’s swing set? Because of a recent pigeon experience, when I see a pigeon, I’m not seeing the one in front of me, I’m seeing that damn one that hit me in the face, and I want to stomp on the one in front of me.

And I think we have all felt invisible to others at some point, but let’s put that in the parking lot, or as we call it round these pahts, the pahking lawt. We do this in some meetings I go to when you’re trying to figure out how to solve one problem and related problems pop up. However, if you try to deal the new problems, you’ll never solve the first one. Let’s jump off one bridge at a time, shall we?

OK, consider these two examples of not being seen:

  1. I work with a doctor who is also a senior leader of our organization, and he was on vacation at a ski resort this winter. He told a story of how he was standing outside of the resort, just getting some fresh air, and not 1, but 5 men in a row tried to hand him their keys, mistaking him for a valet. Never mind that valets tend to have jackets clearly marked with the word “valet” or the name and logo of the resort. These drivers were looking, but not really seeing. Well, what they were seeing was a Black man standing in front of a ski resort. I know, I know. Let’s just put racism in the pahking lawt for now. If 1 guy does it, you can call him out. We like that kind of example, because then we can point to that 1 person, call him or her a bad apple, and declare it isn’t me or the people I know. But 5 White guys in a row? That’s what you call “systemic.” As in, it ain’t just a few bad apples, honey. A good first step would be for them to take 5-10 seconds to collect enough information to not make a jerk out of themselves. We can assume they know how valet works because they freely handed the keys to their expensive cars to an utter stranger. So, c’mon people, go beyond your assumptions and really see the person in front of you. Notice that person has no traditional markings of a valet because he’s wearing a plain ski jacket. Then look around to find the actual valet. See? That took 5 seconds. Easy peasey.
  2. The second story was in the Boston Globe. It’s about how many business people who retired on the Cape have taken jobs parking cars at the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket for something to do. “Beyond paying them minimum wage or just slightly above to stand out in the heat and the rain, the job offers these retirees new insights into how differently low-wage service workers are treated.” These retirees are pleasant and chatty and believe in good customer service, but most people barely acknowledged them. Most of these men are white, so we’ve removed the racism card. What remains is not seeing the person providing a service. Sure, the article says most people trying to catch the ferry are stressed. But what if they took 5-10 seconds to get out of their head and acknowledge the person parking their car? They might have a pleasant exchange (the workers are pretty happy — they are retired and doing this for fun!) that would send them off on their vacation on a happier note. At least some of the business people have had some insight, and we hope are getting better at really seeing the valet and others now.

OK, I can feel myself protesting that I rarely do that, and I’m starting to sputter about all the times I’m not seen, yadda, yadda, yadda. OK, I’m putting myself in the pahking lawt, and asking myself straight up:

Who don’t I see?

The person cleaning the hotel rooms, building cleaners in general? The store clerk? The older person struggling to get up a steep step because I’m in a hurry and helping would take time?

For today, or for this week, as you move through the world, spend 5-10 seconds to consider: who aren’t you seeing?

 

Markle Sparkle

While I have always professed my love for those pasty Brits — tea time, little cakes, stiff upper lip, did I mention tea time? — I confess I have paid less attention lately. My main connection was the Queen Mum, godresthersoul, because we shared the same birthday. That and I also hope to have a daily gin and Dubonnet or something equally classy like she did when I’m 101.

She left us in 2002, and I carried her torch for a good bit, but then life kind of got in the way of royal worship — small child, divorce, getting my life back. It’s all so time-consuming that I had begun to neglect my beloved royals.

There was a brief resurgence for me in 2011 when William and Kate got married, but I realized I like the old queens better. Queen Elizabeth just keeps hanging on — you really have to admire her. Yes, Kate and William are beautiful and charming, but they are young. They have miles to go before they have the gravitas of the Queen Mum or Queen Elizabeth. Charles, I just sort of feel sorry for. My dear old man, you are very likely never going to be king, but have fun with Camilla and your charity work. It’s good to keep busy.

The royal babies started coming, and I’m not much of a baby person, so my attention drifted once again.

Then the 2016 elections happened, and I’m pretty much in my news-free bunker most of the time, except to pop my head out now and again to see what’s what. But mostly I’m trying to get up to speed on social justice, and how I can counteract the Cheeto flea.

I heard bits and pieces about Meghan Markle — some sort of family brew ha ha once she and Harry were an item. Still, it was not as compelling for me as being 101 and drinking gin while wearing a perfectly poised hat. I have priorities.

Of course this past weekend you’d have to be a complete hermit to not know the wedding happened. But I still didn’t watch it or know much about Meghan. But people remember that I used to be such a fan and poked me enough that I looked her up. Very late to the party, I learned about her African-American heritage and how her culture was skillfully woven into a traditional ceremony. And let’s be clear, the Brits invented Western tradition, so even deviating a tiny bit is a huge accomplishment.

And that’s the other thing too. I can no longer call them pasty Brits. And that’s cool — I’m a bit pasty myself, so I always got a kick out of calling out people who are paler than I am. But of course they are just as diverse as we are in the states. Let’s hope they don’t get their knickers in a twist over it like we seem to be doing.

But you know what is even better than all that? Guess when Duchess Meghan was born? Yup, on the Queen Mum’s and my birthday. So guess who is going to be paying attention now. Yes, it’s all about me, so shut your tea and cake hole. And Duchess, pull up a chair. the Queen Mum and I got a nice gin drink waiting for you.

Photo credit: Hindustan Times

We Still Have to Pitch In

I’ve been sick the past 4 days, so I need to make this short. I wasn’t able to go to the March for Our Lives event in Boston,  but many of my friends did. This picture is from the gathering at the Boston Commons, courtesy of Becky.

I hope I’ve been misunderstanding many of the adults’ comments about the young people leading this movement. Yes, we are proud and cheering them on. But every time I see a quote or post along the lines of “This generation will be great leaders” and “These kids will lead the way,” it sounds to me like the adults are breathing a sigh of relief that we are somehow off the hook. Or that we were/are helpless to change anything, and a new sheriff has arrived in town to save us. I hope I am wrong.

Instead, I hope their voices have inspired you to start engaging to help change things you think are wrong. If you have been doing that already, I hope they inspire you to do more. If you’ve become discouraged, I hope their voices lift you up and keep you going. The more of us who wake up, keep going, join in, the better chance we have to make real, lasting change.

Yes, let’s cheer them on, and let’s dig in.

 

 

Tell Them We Are Rising

I had decided last year to fight the Cheeto flea and his chaos by working on racial injuctice — the lack of Black faces during the women’s march more than a year ago and the idea that white women have left Black women to fend for themselves still haunts me. But last year turned out busier than I thought, and I needed to educate myself before I try to help. Ain’t nobody want a white woman to show up with her guilt and then have to help her figure out her racial junk. That’s on me to learn about my own biases and what I do consciously or unconsciously that keeps systemic racism alive.

Interestingly, a mere 6 hours after writing the above, I got a mini lesson. I was at a Museum of Fine Arts event and got called out for having white privilege. As in, a Black woman came up to me, put her arm around me and said, “Congratulations on your white privilege.” Being a bonefide member of the snowflake, lefty liberal club, I was confused and stunned. My transgression was walking between her and her friends while they were trying to take a photo in front of a bank of elevator doors decorated with art from one of the exhibits. I had kind of noticed before that people were doing that. But it was a loud event with a lot of people, and Mike and I were just making our way to a set of stairs by the shortest route available. So, sure, I would describe it as being clueless, rude, and not paying attention to my surroundings. I would have walked in front of a bunch a white people, no doubt, because I am pretty clueless. I am, after all, the woman who did not notice when her college roommates short-sheeted her bed. The comment upset me, so I turned around to her group, said I was sorry and did a bow with namaste hands. Maybe that offended them too, I don’t know. Mike dragged me off and wisely said that I don’t know what her experience was that lead her to that comment. I remember one diversity training I took that explained how all the small micro aggressions that people of color encounter on their way to work can add up so that when they do get to work, one small thing could set them off. We’ve all been there, but as white people we don’t have to go there every day like people of color do. So maybe I was the 4th, 10th, or 20th that day. It did show me that I need to be prepared for that kind of response as I get deeper into this. Buckle up buttercup, lower the defences, keep your piehole shut, and listen.

So with that auspicious start, I present to you what I hope to be a series of reports and observations as I go through an organic DIY project. I’m trusting I will find the resources and teachers I need, and I already had my first lesson, so I must be on my way.

February being Black History Month helped bring a few things to my attention, except that I got annoyed by the whole, “let’s only pay attention to this once a year” thing. I watched and recommend a documentary on PBS called “Tell Them We Are Rising.” You can stream it on the website until March 21. It chronicles the history of what are known as HBCUs — historically Black colleges and universities — from their formation shortly after the Civil War ended through today.  My only previous experience with HBCUs was Spike Lee’s movie from 1988, “School Daze.” It’s a good movie that presents a full range of Black personalities and the disagreements Blacks can have among themselves about their destiny — I recall that at the time it received some criticism from the Black community that it showed too much internal “dirty laundry.” But I agree with Spike Lee that’s exactly what we need to see. Black people just being people, fer cryin’ out loud in their own safe space, which many of the students interviewed in the documentary commented on as reason why HBCUs are still essential.

I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow review of the documentary, but I wanted to share a couple of things that struck me. The first colleges started as industrial arts type schools to teach the newly freed slaves skills. Remember before this, teaching slaves, especially things like reading, was not just illegal, but was also somewhat lethal. By the late 1800s there were more than 80 schools founded by the American Missionary Association, the African Methodist Episcopal church, and the federal government. Of course, the white landowners didn’t especially appreciate that, so between 1866 and 1872, they ran off countless teachers, set schools on fire, and killed more than 20,000 students and teachers. For having the audacity to learn and teach.

Fast forward to WWI, and the Black soldiers who went to Europe and fought were thinking they could come home and reap the benefits of the freedom they had just fought for. Not quite. They were often beaten by white mobs, including white veterans, at the train stations coming home from the war. The summer of 1919 was called the red summer because 28 cities burned in a series of what the documentary calls “small-scale race wars.” The difference between this time and the school killings previously is that these Blacks had been to war and learned how to fight back. Part of that fighting back is taking more control over their education. At the time, the HBCUs were primarily run by white men. So this is a period where Blacks try to get control of their schools.

The schools prevailed and the graduates and students of HBCUs help take control of their destiny, not to mention create a middle class. The 50s and 60s bring us the first lunch counter protests, thought of and executed by Black college students at HBCUs. And then guess what happened? Pissed off/scared white people commit acts of violence against the protesters, etc., etc. Are you seeing the pattern?

This one step up, two steps back thing, feels very much like what we’re in now, don’t you think? We had the audacity to have a Black president for 8 years and now, we’ve got the similar violent reaction against it. Cold comfort, but the documentary reminded me there are ways to address this, fight it, and keep moving the ball forward.

Another highlight for me was learning that Howard University specifically started a law school in 1869 to train black lawyers to legally challenge the system of segregation and discrimination. And guess what they ended up achieving? Among the students was Thurgood Marshall, and the first vice dean of the law school was Charles Houston, who was a graduate of Harvard Law School and the first Black person on the Harvard Review; they and others created the legal precedents that eventually led to Brown v. the Board of Education: On May 17, 1954, the US Supreme Court struck down racially segregated schools as unconstitutional in a landmark ruling. That is some kind of kick ass long-range planning.

There’s plenty more interesting information about these still important schools.

Watch Tell Them We Are Rising  on PBS, available until March 21. You can order the DVD here, rent it to stream on Amazon here, or find it at your local library.