Filed Under:  OpEd, Opinion

Celebrate yourself

19th February 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Edmund W. Lewis

Part II

There’s been a great deal of conversation in the community in recent years about the power relationship between Blacks and whites and how that relationship is manifested in the criminal justice system, economy and local public schools.

It’s a dialogue that is long overdue and one we need to keep going until we find solutions to problems like the inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunities in this city.

Like Kwanzaa, Black History Month and its celebration need not be limited to a finite number of days. We can celebrate and utilize the lessons learned every day of our lives. We can also continue to expand our collective Black history I.Q. by gathering more information about our past in this city, nation and global village. The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know about the past. That realization can be overwhelming, but it also has the power to liberate our minds and spirits and give us a renewed sense of purpose.

Many of us, for example, still don’t know enough about Freedom’s Eve, the annual Dec. 31 observance that marks the night before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 1811 slave revolt which began just west of New Orleans and was the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history.

Many historians liken the excitement and hope surrounding Freedom’s Eve to the emotions many Black people felt 10 years ago when we witnessed the inauguration of the nation’s first Black president.

Many of us are still unaware of the historical and cultural importance of Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park here in New Orleans, where Africans gathered on Sundays for fellowship, commerce, the dissemination of critical information and creative expression. It is a cultural, historical and political mecca every bit as important to African America as Harlem was to people of color in the 1920s.

We still don’t know enough about the slave revolt of 1811, but that seems to be changing after we observed its 200th anniversary seven years ago and continue to gather historical documents that fill in some of the blanks about this monumental event. Since the mid-1990s, the African American History Alliance of Louisiana has done a great job of expanding our understanding of this revolt and other pieces of Black history by offering annual observances and programs honoring these ancestral freedom fighters. The Louisiana Museum of African American History has continued to carry on that very important mission.

One of my biggest regrets is that I was never able to go to the Chalmette Cemetery with Buffalo Soldier historian Hiram Cooke before his passing. I had expressed an interest in visiting the gravesites of some of the Buffalo Soldiers who were laid to rest there. Understanding the history of the Buffalo Soldiers is particularly important in New Orleans where several units were formed.

Here in the Crescent City, Black history is a living, breathing entity that allows us to commune with our ancestors. There are certain parts of the city where one can get a very strong sense of a spiritual connection with our forebears and what life must have been like for them.

But often the material history of Africans in antebellum New Orleans has been hidden from the light of day by the descendants of Europeans who lived here and profited greatly from the free labor enslaved Africans provided.

Every time we visit the African American Resource Center in the main branch of the New Orleans Public Library or the Amistad Research Center on the Tulane University campus, we seize an opportunity to fill in some of the missing pieces of the African Maafa puzzle. And children who see us get excited about reading and researching our history grow up to become adults who share that hunger for knowledge and history.

I agree with writer Evan Narcisse’s contention that Black History Month is as great a time as any for African America to talk about some things that too often are left unsaid.

Let’s use that time to talk about reparations, relationships between dark- and light-skinned Blacks in the 21st century, relationships between U.S. Blacks and continental Africans, affirmative action, class divisions in African America, the challenges facing HBCUs and misogyny among Black males.

Let’s talk about why so many Black children have a difficult time in school, illiteracy in communities of color, the impact of AIDS on African America and Black identity issues. Let’s use the time to challenge and encourage young people to perform community service, learn more about environmental racism, find solutions to homelessness and to develop strategies that increase support for Black businesses.

Let’s take Black children on tours of HBCUs and share our own college experiences with them. Let’s challenge our children to write down family stories about how their parents and grandparents met and fell in love. Challenge them to tell their own stories and share their early experiences. Let’s give them a reason to feel that they’re part of something that’s bigger than they are and a reason to hold their heads up high.

It dawned on me several years ago that any celebration of Black History Month should revolve around studying each family’s unique history as well as African America’s collective heritage.

To that end, I have taken on the challenge of creating a family scrapbook with photos and stories about my grandparents, parents, siblings and extended family members.

I am inspired every time I look into the eyes of my paternal grandfather, Edmund W. Lewis, who was born in Jamaica on December 25, 1875 and migrated to Panama to secure work as a laborer on the Panama Canal project. My brother Eric passed along a photo of him many years ago that captured his piercing eyes and defiant spirit. Whenever I get tired or discouraged, all I have to do is look into those eyes and I am ready for battle.

I was actually encouraged to do so by the late Alex Haley, author of Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, who I met as an undergraduate in college. During his presentation, Haley encouraged every member of the audience to take it upon himself to gather his or her family history.

He talked about how as a child he often sat at the feet of his grandmother and other family members who passed down stories that dated back centuries. It was then that he received the inspiration to chronicle his family’s history and present it to the world.

One of the lasting lessons from Alex Haley’s life is that is you never know how your discussions of family history will impact younger family members. Children are naturally intrigued by compelling stories and every family has in its history the stuff movies and dreams are made of.

Children who are trying to find their way can be inspired to strive harder in school and in their personal development by family stories of darker days and how their ancestors overcame adversity.

It’s important that we do more during Black History Month than simply memorize the names, dates and contributions of Black inventors and trailblazers. We need to know the stories behind the history, what obstacles our ancestors faced and how they overcame them.

Black History Month is an excellent opportunity for members of the community to come together to discuss how far we’ve come and the battles that lie ahead.

However, if we only get together during the month of February to talk about Black history and culture we are missing the point of Carter G. Woodson. It’s a time for us to pause and reflect on the ties that bind us, as well as a time for Africans in America to celebrate that which is uniquely ours.

It’s important to remember that no one can tell us how to best utilize or celebrate Black History Month. That’s entirely up to us, no matter how others view the month of February or how they plan to use the annual observance.

People who are free don’t have to sit around and wait on someone else to tell them when and how to celebrate who they are and how far they’ve come.

As you celebrate Black History Month this year, I respectfully ask that you pause to celebrate you. Celebrate the African in you and the wisdom that teaches the sons and daughters of the Motherland to utter “I am because we are.” Celebrate African beauty, strength, resilience, courage, creativity and the long line of kings, queens, Pharaohs, chiefs, businessmen, healers, seers, holy men, warriors, wordsmiths, dancers, singers, musicians, everyday people and griots that make up the rich tapestry of our collective heritage.

The hopes, dreams, prayers, sacrifices and struggles of our ancestors culminate in each of us. By remembering and honoring the greatness in them, we pay tribute to ourselves and the awesome legacy we are a part of. Hotep.

This article originally published in the February 19, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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