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COMMENTARY: Are we forgetting 400 years?

FLORIDA COURIER — This milestone 400th anniversary year of the single incident that began the relationship for the next four centuries among Africans, English, and Native Americans.

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By Dinizulu Gene Tinnie

As Black History Month (BHM) 2019 begins, we might easily find ourselves simultaneously gratified, impressed, and nearly overwhelmed by the rich smorgasbord of programs and activities taking place in South Florida alone (diligently compiled by the Miami-Dade Office of Black Affairs and other sources).

This reflects a rapidly-growing availability of previously lost and hidden information steadily coming to light in this new day ‒ or what Native American First Nations people have recognized as a “Time of Awakening,” from which there is no escape or going back to past ignorance.

This year, for example, many are learning for the first time this year that February 1, the anniversary of the 13th Amendment officially ending legal slavery in the U.S. in 1865, is officially National Freedom Day, signed into law in 1948 by President Truman to celebrate the freedom enjoyed by all Americans. This is thanks to the dedicated efforts of Major Richard Robert Wright.

Pushed for recognition

Wright was born into slavery in Georgia in the 1850s. After a distinguished military career and numerous remarkable achievements in education and business, he launched his campaign in 1941 to establish the holiday – a fitting beginning of Black History Month.

However, just as this rapidly increasing knowledge and awareness might make this year’s BHM the most empowering ever, enhanced by the 2019 National Black History Theme of “Black Migrations,” there is a striking absence in virtually all of the programs listed on this full calendar of any reference to one of the most significant Black migrations of all time.

That is the fateful 1619 arrival from Ndongo, Angola, West Africa 400 years ago of the first “20 and odd” captive Africans to be brought into British-occupied Native North America, at Point Comfort, Virginia (not Jamestown, as is usually reported).

Their arrival notably occurred more than a year “Before the Mayflower” (the title of Lerone Bennett Jr.’s classic study of America’s Black history), but also more than a century after the first Africans of the modern era, free and enslaved, had come to the Spanish-claimed territory of Florida peninsula and other coastal settlements (including one which was destroyed by a slave revolt).

Note that there are much earlier documented African arrivals in the Americas centuries before Columbus, or the African presence among Indigenous peoples long before then.

More than one incident

In that larger historical and geographical context, the storied landing of a few Africans brought to a remote British North American outpost on the ship “White Lion” might seem to be almost insignificant, considering how commonplace such human trafficking had become since the early 1500s under Spanish and Portuguese flags.

(In case you didn’t know, the White Lion’s captain had stolen these same Africans from a Spanish vessel which he attacked and raided, and then sold the captives to the English settlers as commodity in exchange for food and supplies.)

That very point about context is convincingly made in Dr. Michael Guasco’s September 2017, article in Smithsonian magazine, cautioning against the dangers of overemphasizing the single 1619 incident at the expense of ignoring how much equally or more important history preceded, surrounded, and followed it.

Even without that caveat, other factors have already long been in play which serve to downplay the importance of those particular African men and women’s arrival in the Virginia colony.

On the one hand, many thoughtful observers astutely refuse to give undue importance to historical occurrences which become emphasized as parts of “his-story,” presented and defined by the settlers’ perspectives only.

On the other hand, there is also the inescapable factor of traumatic pain and unhealed psychic wounds associated with such stories which lead many African descendants to prefer not to be reminded of them, even though they continue to haunt our every hour ‒ whether we acknowledge them or not.

Knowledge empowers us

And that becomes the most important point today. “Knowledge is power,” and we are all certainly more empowered by knowledge of the collective history which has played such a prominent role in making us who we are today than by ignorance ‒ or worse yet, myths, lies, and propaganda ‒ calculated to disempower us.

This milestone 400th anniversary year of the single incident that began the relationship for the next four centuries among Africans, English, and Native Americans in North America is the ultimate “teachable moment,” an opportunity not to be missed, especially in this Time of Awakening when information abounds, and a new generation is coming of age as yet another is being born.

A quadricentennial only comes once. Only the present generations can gather and preserve historical facts that were either unavailable or too painful for those before us, and may well be lost and forgotten forever if we do not pass them on to those who come after us.

Among the most important facts of 1619 ‒ even more than knowing what those Africans and the millions who came after them, both on ships and as descendants for the next 400 years contributed to the building of the nation that we know today ‒ is the knowledge of who those first surviving Africans (like all others to follow) were.

What happened?

What did they feel upon their arrival in this strange place? How did they interact with one another and with the English settlers and the Native Nations which surrounded them? What indelible marks did their lives-that-mattered make on the society of which they were an integral part, regardless of what social status the settlers attempted to force upon them?

By going back to this beginning, without forgetting and by including that larger historical and geographic context around those 20-plus first Africans in British-occupied North America, we take full advantage of the proverb, “The past is present, the future is now.”

Yesterday is not tomorrow, which will be largely defined by what we do. As products of our ancestral past, what we do with our knowledge in the present moment shapes the future of our next generations.

This is why this milestone 400th year adds so much power and significance to all of our various inspired Black History Month and year-round activities. This is why each of these activities will benefit us and their audiences by including prominent public mention and recognition of this anniversary. Conversely, we will lose a precious and invaluable opportunity forever by not doing so.

***

Dinizulu Gene Tinnie is a South Florida-based artist, activist and historian. Click on this commentary at www.flcourier.com to write your own response.

This article originally appeared in the Florida Courier.

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Activism

IN MEMORIAM: Robert Farris Thompson, Renowned Professor of African American Studies

Prolific Professor Robert Farris Thompson truly embodied the term ‘Maestro de Maestros.’ He was an absolute giant in the field of Afro-Atlantic history and art, respected by his peers for his groundbreaking work and multiple major articles and publications, particularly the seminal “Flash of the Spirit” (1984) and “Faces of the Gods” (1993).

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Robert Farris Thompson. Yale University photo.
Robert Farris Thompson. Yale University photo.

TRIBUTE

By John Santos

We’ve lost a Rosetta Stone.

Prolific Professor Robert Farris Thompson passed in his sleep Monday morning due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease and having been weakened by a bout with COVID-19 at the beginning of the year. He would’ve completed his 89th year on December 30.

Born on Dec. 30, 1932, Thompson was a White Texan who spectacularly disproved the fallacy of White supremacy through his pioneering and tireless elevation and clarification of African art, philosophy and culture. He removed the blinders and changed the way that generations of international students see African art.

A U.S. Army veteran, he went to Yale on a football scholarship and earned a B.A. in 1955. He joined the faculty in 1964 and earned his Ph.D. in 1965. He remained on the faculty until 2015.

‘Master T,’ as his students and friends often referred to him, was the Col. John Trumbull professor of the History of Art and professor of African American Studies at Yale University.

Thompson was also an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the Maryland Institute College of Art.

He curated game-changing national exhibitions such as “African Art in Motion,” “The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds,” and “Faces of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas.” The latter had a run at U.C. Berkeley in 1995 when local practitioners of African spirituality and musicians — including myself – demonstrated the powerful knowledge of tradition.

Thompson truly embodied the term ‘Maestro de Maestros.’ He was an absolute giant in the field of Afro-Atlantic history and art, respected by his peers for his groundbreaking work and multiple major articles and publications, particularly the seminal “Flash of the Spirit” (1984) and “Faces of the Gods” (1993). If he did not coin, he certainly standardized the term ‘Black Atlantic.’ He was a brilliant presenter, writer and teacher. But unlike many if not most academicians, he was also loved, revered and respected by the musicians, artists and communities about whom he wrote.

Initiated in Africa to Erinle, the deity of deep, still water, Thompson was hip, quirky and totally immersed in African and African-based music, dance, language, art and history. His lifetime of research, immersion and visionary work formed a bridge between Black America and her African roots.

Countless trips to Africa, the Southern U.S., the Caribbean and Central and South America informed his passionate work. He wrote about sculpture, painting, architecture, dance, music, language, poetry, food, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, African history, stolen antiquities, African spirituality, African retention, Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, Black Argentina, New York, México, mambo, tango, jazz, spirit possession and so much more. He recorded African drumming. He befriended giants of African diaspora music such as Julito Collazo, Babatunde Olatunji and Mongo Santamaría.

I first saw his writing around 1970 on the back of the classic red vinyl 1961 Mongo Santamaria LP, Arriba! La Pachanga (Fantasy 3324). They are inarguably among the deepest liner notes ever written.

He told me that he used our 1984 recording, Bárbara Milagrosa, by the Orquesta Batachanga, to demonstrate danzón-mambo to his students. I nearly burst into tears when he invited me and Omar Sosa to address and perform for his students at Yale, his alma mater, where he was a rock star. It was an unforgettable occasion for me.

He wrote wonderful liner notes on our 2002 Grammy-nominated production SF Bay, by the Machete Ensemble. He went out of his way to support and encourage countless students and followers like me. I was highly honored to count him as a friend as well as mentor.

He will be missed.

John Santos is a seven-time Grammy-nominated percussionist and former director of Orquesta Batachanga and Machete Ensemble and current director of the John Santos Sextet.

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Activism

New California “Strike Force” Gives Teeth to State Housing Laws

California Attorney General Rob Bonta said that California’s 17 million renters spend a significant portion of their paychecks on rent, with an estimated 700,000 Californians at risk of eviction. High home purchase costs — the median price of a single-family home in California is more than $800,000 — have led to the lowest homeownership rates since the 1940s.

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The Housing Strike Force will address the shortage and affordability crisis by enforcing state housing and development laws in the attorney general’s independent capacity and on behalf of the DOJ’s client agencies.
The Housing Strike Force will address the shortage and affordability crisis by enforcing state housing and development laws in the attorney general’s independent capacity and on behalf of the DOJ’s client agencies.

By Antonio Ray Harvey, California Black Media

To advance housing access, affordability and equity, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced earlier this month the creation of a Housing Strike Force.

The team, housed within the California Department of Justice (Cal DOJ) has been tasked with enforcing California housing laws that cities across the state have been evading or ignoring.

The strike force will conduct a series of roundtables across the state to educate and involve tenants and homeowners as the state puts pressure on municipalities failing to follow housing rules and falling short of housing production goals set by the state.

“California is facing a housing shortage and affordability crisis of epic proportion,” Bonta said. “Every day, millions of Californians worry about keeping a roof over their heads, and there are too many across this state who lack housing altogether.

“This is a top priority and a fight we won’t back down from. As Attorney General, I am committed to using all the tools my office has available to advance Californians’ fundamental right to housing.”

The Housing Strike Force will take “an innovative and intersectional approach” to addressing the housing crisis, focusing on tenant protections, housing availability and environmental sustainability, housing affordability, and equitable and fair housing opportunity for tenants and owners.

Bonta also launched a Housing Portal on the Cal DOJ’s web site with resources and information for California homeowners and tenants.

The strike force will enlist the expertise of attorneys from the Cal DOJ’s Land Use and Conservation Section, the Consumer Protection Section, the Civil Rights Enforcement Section, and the Environment Section’s Bureau of Environmental Justice in its enforcement efforts.

“California has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address its housing crisis, thanks to the historic $22 billion housing and homelessness investments in this year’s budget. But it’ll only work if local governments do their part to zone and permit new housing,” Governor Gavin Newsom said. “The attorney general’s emphasis on holding cities and counties accountable for fair housing, equity, and housing production is an important component to the state’s efforts to tackle the affordability crisis and create greater opportunities for all Californians to have an affordable place to call home.”

According to the National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB), the level of Black ownership nationally has decreased below levels achieved during the decades when housing discrimination was legal.

The 2020 census reports that there was a 29.6% gap between homeownership rates for African Americans and whites. Homeowners accounted for 44.6% of the Black population as compared to 74.2% for whites.

“Blacks have made little, if any, strides at closing the homeownership gap. Systemic discriminatory regulations and policies continue to thwart any meaningful effort at increasing Black homeownership,” Lydia Pope, NAREB’s president, said.

In California, the DOJ reports that over the last four decades, housing needs have outpaced housing production. It has caused a crisis that stretches from homelessness to unaffordable homes.

Despite significant effort, the DOJ stated that California continues to host a disproportionate share of people experiencing homelessness in the United States, with an estimated 150,000 Californians sleeping in shelters, in their cars, or on the street.

Bonta said that California’s 17 million renters spend a significant portion of their paychecks on rent, with an estimated 700,000 Californians at risk of eviction. High home purchase costs — the median price of a single-family home in California is more than $800,000 — have led to the lowest homeownership rates since the 1940s.

Due to decades of systemic racism, these challenges have continuously and disproportionately impacted communities of color. For example, Bonta said, almost half of Black households in California spend more than 30% of their income on housing, compared with only a third of White families.

In addition, less than one in five Black California households could afford to purchase the $659,380 statewide median-priced home in 2020, compared to two in five white California households that could afford to purchase the same median-priced home, the California Association Realtors (CAR) said in a February 2021 statement.

The percentage of Black home buyers who could afford to purchase a median-priced, existing single-family home in California in 2020 was 19%, compared to 38% for white households, CAR stated.

“Just as the price for a single-median home reaches a new record of more than $800,000 in California, everywhere you look, we are in a housing crisis,” Bonta said during the virtual news conference on Nov. 3.

“Among all households, one in four renters pays more than half of their income on rent.”

The Housing Strike Force will address the shortage and affordability crisis by enforcing state housing and development laws in the attorney general’s independent capacity and on behalf of the DOJ’s client agencies.

Earlier this year, Newsom signed Assembly Bill (AB) 215, enhancing the attorney general’s concurrent role in enforcing state housing laws.

AB 215 was designed for reforms, facilitating housing development and combating the current housing crisis.

Newsom also signed Senate Bill (SB) 9 and SB 10 in September, legislation designed to help increase the supply of affordable housing and speed up the production of multi-family housing units statewide.

Authored by Senate President Pro Tem Sen. Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), SB 9 allows a homeowner to subdivide an existing single-family residential lot to create a duplex, triplex, or fourplex.

In response to SB 9, homeowner groups have formed across the state to oppose it. The groups are citing challenges they anticipate the law will bring to their communities, from garbage collection to increased risk of fires.

Livable California, a San Francisco-based non-profit that focuses on housing, is one of the groups that opposes the new laws.

“Senate Bill 9 ends single-family zoning to allow four homes where one now stands. It was signed by Gov. Newsom, backed by 73 of 120 legislators and praised by many media. Yet a respected pollster found 71% of California voters oppose SB 9,” the Livable California website reads.

“It opens 1.12 million homes in severe fire zones to unmanaged density — one-sixth of single-family homes in California,” the message continues. “SB 9 could reshape, in unwanted ways, hundreds of high-risk fire zones that sprawl across California’s urban and rural areas.”

But Newsom says the laws are urgent and overdue.

“The housing affordability crisis is undermining the California Dream for families across the state, and threatens our long-term growth and prosperity,” Newsom said in a Sept. 16 statement.

SB 10 was designed for jurisdictions that want to opt-in and up-zone urbanized areas close to transit, allowing up to 10 units per parcel without the oversight of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

“Passing strong housing laws is only the first step. To tackle our severe housing shortage, those laws must be consistently and vigorously enforced,” said California State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), chair of the Senate Housing Committee. “I applaud Attorney General Bonta’s commitment to strong enforcement of California’s housing laws.”

The Housing Strike Force encourages Californians to send complaints or tips related to housing to housing@doj.ca.gov. Information on legal aid in your area is available at https://lawhelpca.org.

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Activism

Facebook’s “We the Culture” Panel Discusses Black Portrayals in Mainstream News

The increase in Black representation in the news media was discussed when the topic turned to controversy surrounding Rachel Nichols, an NBA sportscaster on ESPN. In a July 2020 leaked recording, she appeared to be uncomfortable sharing hosting duties with Maria Taylor, another ESPN personality who is African American. In the recording, Nichols, who is white, suggested Taylor had been promoted because she is Black.

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A 2019 Pew Research Center analysis revealed that Black media professionals only make up 7% of newsroom staffers nationally.

By McKenzie Jackson, California Black Media

When Erica Cobb, co-host of the Daily Blast Live, first stepped into the world of mainstream news over two decades ago, she overheard a conversation in which an industry person considered Cobb the perfect minority for a particular role because, although she is Black, to them she “didn’t come across like a Black person” based on stereotypes in their head.

“Those convos now are few and far between because we have more seats at the table,” said Cobb, who is also a podcaster with a background in radio. She was referring to the growing numbers of Black faces appearing regularly in the news media. “The pipeline has opened for more people of color.”

However, Cobb said, the news industry still needs more African Americans.

Independent journalist Georgia Fort, the founder of BLCK Press, said the lack of Black professionals in newsrooms across the U.S. contributes to African Americans being portrayed in a negative way.

“The media industry since its inception has capitalized on exploiting our stories and disproportionately portraying us in a negative light,” said Cobb, who identifies as biracial.

“You can go back to blackface; even modern-day newscasts are saturated with Black mug shots,” she said.

The current state of Black representation in the mainstream media was the subject of a recent online discussion hosted by Facebook’s “We The Culture,” a content initiative created and managed by a team of Black Facebook employees focused on amplifying content from Black creators.

The social networking giant launched the platform in February with an inaugural class of over 120 creators specializing in news and social media content.

Cobb and Fort were panelists on We The Culture’s video chat on how Blacks are depicted in mainstream media.

The third panelist was Zyahna Bryant, a student activist, community organizer, and online content creator who is known for spearheading the movement to take down a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in in Charlottesville, Va.

The 53-minute discussion was moderated by Rushadd Hayard, a freelance web producer.

The quartet’s webcast happened a year after the murder of George Floyd, an African American man who died after Derek Chauvin, a white former Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Video of Floyd’s death shined a light on the aggressive tactics law enforcement officers sometimes employ when engaging Black Americans. The horror of his violent murder sparked national conversations on racial inequity, motivating many businesses and organizations in the U.S. to support African American causes and take steps to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in their organizations.

The increase in Black representation in the news media was discussed when the topic turned to controversy surrounding Rachel Nichols, an NBA sportscaster on ESPN. In a July 2020 leaked recording, she appeared to be uncomfortable sharing hosting duties with Maria Taylor, another ESPN personality who is African American.

In the recording, Nichols, who is white, suggested Taylor had been promoted because she is Black.

“A privileged woman like Nichols,” Fort said, “refusing to support — or even accept — the advancement of a person from a disenfranchised community like Taylor is a problem.”

“You have people like Rachel, she wants something to be done as long as it doesn’t require her to make a sacrifice,” Fort continued. “In order for our nation to be more equitable, it is going to require all the Rachels to step aside and make space. Performative ally-ship is the best way I can describe her.”

Cobb noted that Nichols, who has since been pulled from appearing on the sporting network but continues to be paid, put herself in the forefront of a perception in the industry that ESPN had a diversity issue.

Bryant said media groups’ desires to increase the number of Blacks as employees are empty gestures if they don’t come with institutional change.

“I noticed we needed more Black voices after the George Floyd incident,” she said. “After the entire summer of organizing and moving into the election cycle, I felt that there was a disconnect. Not just with white people talking about Black issues, but the media altogether not having their ear to the ground.”

Hayard cited a 2019 Pew Research Center analysis that revealed that Black media professionals only make up 7% of newsroom staffers nationally.

Cobb said she first realized more Black representation was needed in the media when former President Barack Obama, began his initial run for the country’s highest office and a controversy ignited around him attending the church of controversial pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

“I was the only one speaking out in defense of Obama,” she said. “I remember my co-host turning off my mic and people calling in saying I was racist. I left in the middle of the show. A Black reporter from the Chicago Tribune called me and first asked if I was OK and secondly, what happened and how it went down, and if I thought it was racist.”

The same realization came to Fort when she was assigned to cover the shooting of a Black man by a police officer for a news station. She was directed to pull up the criminal history of the man, but Fort also investigated the officer and found he had a litany of complaints against him, including racial-profiling ones.

“This was omitted from the five o’clock news because my white superiors didn’t feel it was relevant to the story,” she said. “I found myself being characterized in the newsroom as the angry Black woman.”

Cobb said for more African Americans to be present in front of news cameras, more Blacks need to be in positions of power behind the camera, beyond just the editor and producer roles.

Fort said a change in culture could also be helpful.

“The industry standard is AP-Style English and a certain image,” she said. “Not all Black people or people of color use AP English as their natural dialect, and we need to stop expecting people to conform to that. Allow people to be their authentic selves. Why are we saying we want diversity, but we want people to conform? To me that’s not diversity.”

When Bryant began her drive to get the Confederate statue removed, a Black reporter interviewed her. She said talking with a person from the same race, from possibly a similar background, and who was empathetic helped the interview go smoother

“I’m looking forward to seeing more journalists with their Blackness on display,” Bryant said.

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