Famed historian John Henrik Clarke was known to remind us “History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day.” While looking at the reality of our circumstances in 2022, it’s time to ask the question – what time is it?
Sitting here in 2022, amid the continued realities of this on-and-off online environment the COVID pandemic has forced us to navigate, we are no doubt feeling the frustrations of more virtual engagements, social restrictions, and health protocol requirements. And yet, it is hard not to feel grateful and extremely appreciative for the vaccines and boosters we can now avail ourselves of, the vigilance that businesses, universities and colleges, restaurants, and arenas now take with screening customers and attendees, and the selfless healthcare workers whose care and sacrifice during this health crisis is nothing short of miraculous.
How blessed are we to welcome in another African American History Month bolstered with a larger blanket of safety than we enjoyed over the past two years, dating back to February of 2020, and the technological innovations that make our everyday lives easier to negotiate. What time is it? It’s time to be grateful!
But, our occasional comfort in the midst of this health crisis should not obscure our focus on the realities of our day that sometimes appear to be a regressive nightmare scene right out of the “Twilight Zone” television show that Black people thought we had experienced and resolved long ago. This year represents a particularly challenging time in our nation’s history.
Voting rights are under assault, police officers are being held accountable for the death of civilians during traffic stops, citizen vigilantes are being tried and convicted for the senseless murder of unarmed Black citizens simply jogging through their neighborhood, and Congressional subcommittees are seeking to investigate and hold responsible those individuals and organizations who instigated and participated in the insurrection on the Capitol last January 6th. Added to that is the physical and psychological toll this COVID pandemic is having on each of us, as well as our families and fellow citizens, and we have a zeitgeist that challenges the best of our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual sensibilities.
Scholar and public intellectual Dr. Cornel West in his text, “Race Matters” (1993), described what we have seen and continue to witness as, “Black striving in a twilight civilization.” Alas, this continued struggle with American democracy is never easy, and resembles a constant push-pull of activity where progress is met with continued resistance and erosion of those very things we thought were resolved, and in some instances, should have been guaranteed.
A Retrospective Look – 100 Years Ago
I stepped into the time tunnel of African American history and my own memories to see if I could draw a parallel between the past and present-day America. Sadly, I found much had changed and still very little had changed. A look back in time some 100 years ago, finds us in the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance, and the great migration to the North.
The establishments of cultural havens of artists, poets, writers, and musicians led to some noteworthy and consequential innovations during that period. Also present was a new wave of political commentary as the words of many writers, intellectuals, and artists gave voice to an era of personal empowerment, self-determination, and cultural innovation. Much of the Black community in New York and Harlem thrived, and gave license for similar grass roots efforts and innovations in other parts of the country as well.
The movement North might have signaled opportunity for some Blacks, where escaping the cruelty of southern Jim Crow segregation and the hostilities that permeated every nook and cranny of southern states and towns was perceived as a welcome change by many Black people. Added to that was the perception of more employment opportunities in the factories, steel mills, manufacturing plants, and government agencies that provided Blacks the sense of agency to carve out a livelihood to support themselves and their families.
The appetite for political and social progress was heightened as well as African American people continued to question and wrestle with strategies that were anchored in integrationist versus culturally nationalist ideologies as the best way to seek change. Conceptual debates by leading thinkers and scholars of their day – Booker T. Washington (1895 and his “Atlanta Compromise” speech) versus W.E.B. DuBois (“The Souls of Black Folks”- 1903), or the Back To Africa Movement initiated by individuals like the Hon. Marcus Garvey – also provided intellectual anchors and substance to the queries that everyday people were struggling to navigate.
Unquestionably, the movement North did provide new opportunities for some, but it did not change the political mood and tactics of legislators in Washington, who continued to put a proverbial stranglehold on Black progress in America. One such example centers around the anti-lynching legislation that was proposed in the Senate in 1922.
On December 3, a federal anti-lynching bill was killed by a filibuster in the United States Senate. The legislation was blocked and restricted from final consideration and passage based on a tactic of a Republican caucus in the Congress of the United States. Sadly, some 51 Black Americans are known to have been lynched in 1922. What a sad legacy and continued stain on our democracy and the broader Republican Party those events represent.
And here we are, some 100 years removed from that space in time, where the context may have changed, but the tactic remains the same. Filibuster is now being used to restrict new laws and policies that will continue to keep Black people down and make it harder to exercise the full range of rights and privileges that should be afforded them.
You see, this time the filibuster is stalling progress on voting rights, and the efforts that will make it more difficult to find voice and exercise choice in future elections. Talk about backlash? America has still not reconciled the fact that a Black man was elected President of the United States and a beautiful African American family occupied the White House for what seemed like a magical eight years to many in the larger Black community.
What time is it? It is time to stay involved, focused, and intentional in our efforts to not allow voter suppression policies and tactics to dampen our resolve to persevere through whatever adversities this nation puts in our way.
A Retrospective Look- 50 Years Ago
My trip through the time tunnel of Black History instigated a sashay back down memory lane where I accelerated my view to 1972 Black America. Fifty years ago, I was a 17-year-old graduating senior at Daniel Murphy High School in Los Angeles. The institution was a part of the Catholic parochial school system promising to deliver a meaningful education to my peers and me.
Among the approximately 525 young men across four grade levels at the school (freshmen through senior), we were an experimental class admitted back in 1968 to a freshman cohort with 30 African Americans, out of the 120 total class size. With only 50 Black students in aggregate at the school, we did have an opportunity to attempt to carve out a new “cultural comfort zone” amid what represented a sea of cultural sterility.
A lone African American teacher, mentor, and basketball coach, and another part-time instructor who taught Black history represented the anchors to those efforts, along with the critical mass we represented. Despite the efforts of the instructional staff and school leadership who rarely supported the educational aspirations of Murphy’s Black students, I was nonetheless college bound to the CSU and then UC system to begin my higher education journey, having survived what felt like an assault on my and all of our self-esteem just to navigate our way through the educational experiences in high school.
During that year, there was a new sense of racial pride and cultural awareness among us. Perhaps we were still riding the wave of progress ushered in by the civil rights and Black power movements.
Maybe it was the self-affirmation, in part instigated by the 1969-1970 hit, “Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud,” by James Brown. Maybe it was a broader and deeper recognition of life in Black America ushered in by the 1971-1972 vocal stylings of Marvin Gaye, and his album, “What’s Going On.” Or perhaps it was my and our enhanced enlightenment after taking our first Black History course in high school and being exposed to the writings of Lerone Bennett in his text, “Before The Mayflower” (1962), which was written a decade earlier.
You see, 50 years ago, schools were beginning to desegregate curriculum. Fifty years ago, people of African descent were beginning to learn our stories un-sanitized by a Eurocentric lens that told our history from a White frame of reference. Fifty years ago, we were waking up and being introduced to the plethora of stories, writings, literature, and history that chronicled both the stories of adversity, challenge, and perseverance that characterized Black life in America, and the dehumanizing, degrading, and racist treatment we suffered at the hands of brothers and sisters in the White community.
Now, fifty years later, attempts to incorporate critical race theory (CRT) and historical narratives like Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “The 1619 Project” are being met with waves of resistance by political pundits, White elected leaders, and principally White parents, arguing against curriculum that lays bare the scandalous behaviors of many of this adult generation’s parents and grandparents.
I mean the sentiments of White fragility being brokered about would almost be comical if they weren’t so pitifully lame. And while I am cautious about speaking for brothers and sisters in the White community, the psychologist in me understands that the narratives that chronicle the bias, dishonorable, bigoted, racist, murderous, and abhorrent attitudes and behaviors that White people were and are guilty of not only serves as a blow to an ego that is bolstered by a belief that White progress is essentially about effort, hard work, and innate talent, but also helps to reinforce the fact that with the denial of the systemic racism and discrimination they perpetrated to thwart Black progress, the attributions they are able to make about why Black advancements have been so slow are specific to African American people themselves.
I suspect many of these White parents and politicians who object to truth telling about historical records in contemporary school curriculum have to reconcile with their own young children, many of which have had their own social consciousness pricked by the murders of Mike Brown, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Philando Castile, and others.
I can imagine the difficulty in explaining at dinner conversations why family members were involved in decades of atrocities, or sat in silence while they occurred. I mean I am not at those dinner tables, but even I want to know, as I have queried in the past, how one can bear witness to the suffering of others, remain silent, and still maintain one’s humanity?
What Time Is It? It is time for White and other People of Color (POC) allies to not only commit to truth telling about the heinous and abominable side of American democracy, their role in it, and their resolve to change policies that affirm yourselves while keeping other people down.
Black History Month is usually a time of celebration and cultural festivals that highlight our achievements, showcase speakers, and teach lessons about the journey of a proud and glorious people whose contributions to the world from Ancient times through present day are monumental. Beyond those days when Black men and women ruled the world in ancient Kemet, our history also teaches us that people of African descent have survived and persevered through a myriad of social, political, economic, educational, psychological, and even spiritual challenges. Indeed, let’s celebrate all of that.
However, my query regarding “what time is it” is meant to remind us that we have no time to relax and not continue pressing forward on the issues of the day. COVID is still disproportionately impacting our community and we must close the gap in health disparities that is still too apparent.
We, as a people, cannot fail to take advantage of the resources that are available to us. Too many of us, despite the availability of life saving vaccines, are not vaccinated or received boosters, which science tells us is our best protection against this dreaded disease. What time is it? It is time to get vaccinated.
Political and community pressures are not likely to wane when it comes to truth telling in our schools and the curriculum they teach. Resistance is quite formidable and bent on obscuring or distorting reality. But while that debate continues, our people, and particularly our children, do not need permission slips to study and master our Black history and cultural contributions we have made despite the indignities we have suffered. Teach that.
However, those revelations about our struggles are not meant to be a lifetime crutch or an excuse not to do one’s best. History teaches us a different lesson through example after example, and we would do well to use those exemplifications as precedent for what is possible if only we remain more vigilant, focused, undeterred, and intentional.
What time is it? It’s time to continue pressing the issues about educational reforms, while people also consider recruiting allies across demographic boundaries that are not afraid of truth telling, especially about Black history.
Lastly, the assault on our voting rights is in full swing and we look forward to a day when this basic right is protected by legislative policy and not temporary measures that extend this right for limited periods of time. So… what time is it? It is time to remember that voting in the immediate future may be more inconvenient in other states of the union that are less progressive when compared with California.
But, this is not time to grow weary, impatient, complacent, or dissatisfied. It is time to re-intensify our efforts to make our voices heard through the ballot, and honor the sacrifices our Ancestors and elders made to usher in whatever progress we do enjoy. Indeed, Dr. King argued for the fierce urgency of now. What time is it? It’s time to re-engage that sense of urgency.
Thomas A. Parham, Ph.D., is the president of California State University – Dominguez Hills.