Friday, July 3, 2020

Black Americana and Historical Perspective

The brothers Johnson

This was originally posted by me in defense of Black History Month several years ago at DaTechGuy Blog's old site. It is the third of a three-part series.

I'm revisiting the topic in the wake of reports that the NFL plans to play Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing -- colloquially known among black Americans roughly my age (58) and older as the "Black National Anthem" -- before the actual National Anthem, beginning this coming season. [See update at end.]

Just so that we are clear: I am against the NFL's decision. When you get to the end of this post, you'll discover what, exactly, I am defending.

As an aside, one wonders how long the NFL's decision will stand after somebody discovers the overt Christianity and love for the USA in the lyrics of Lift.

Many persons believe that the history of black Americans is worthless -- a belief which stems from three factors:
1) that much of widely-known African history and the history of Americans who are black consists of victimization: litany of failures, slavery, oppression, colonialism and perceived lack of innovation,
2) that some black Americans use the American history of slavery and oppression to induce white guilt, and
3) that some black Americans use the same as an excuse for personal failure.
But if it is important that we know the history of our country’s founding and the important political, military, religious and social movements which have shaped this nation’s character — this nation’s people — then the well-informed citizen cannot escape this category of that history; to attempt to do so would be to separate black Americans from the rest of our countrymen once again.
Example: [In 2008], there was much ado about the hymn Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, colloquially known since the 1940s as the Negro or Black National Anthem. Many who had not known of the song, its origin, its significance or its informal role among black Americans, misinterpreted it as some sort of repudiation of whiteness and/or of America-as-founded (a notion which has been exacerbated by actual repudiators of whiteness). But the merest bit of investigation into these areas and the deployment of some historical perspective reveal that  John  Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson composed the song as an anthem to God and to a nation which contemporaneously excluded black Americans.
But like any other tool — books and banners, for example — songs can be used for good, neutral, and evil purposes. That fact is separate from the intrinsic good, neutrality or evil of a specified tool, but without necessary the information — without history — the truth gets lost and the tool become a bludgeon, and that is what happened to Lift.
At the beginning of former Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s annual State of the City address in 2008 (a prelude to the Democratic National Convention of that year), there was a major brouhaha regarding the song when a singer named Rene Marie sang it in place of the Star-Spangled Banner, rather than in the usual order which the song is rendered, after The National Anthem.
At two separate blogs — Hot Air and Breitbart, I provided background on the song. The hosts were cordial and willing to receive new information. The commenters, however, were a different story.  I was attacked by some commenters at both sites, but I didn’t take the ignorance and blatant racial slurs personally from the Breitbart commenters since I rarely comment there.
With the Hot Air commenters, however, the situation was very painful, since I was a regular commenter there and both Ed Morrissey and Allahpundit occasionally featured posts from my blogs.  There were no racial slurs, but being called a liar by people who “know” me was shocking.
The most shocking thing about the two episodes, however, was that so few of the commenters had even heard of the song — a song about which I can’t recall not knowing.
I’ve had a number of years to think about this and I’ve come to this conclusion: most of us — meaning most Americans — like to celebrate the good parts of our country’s history, but we often ignore the parts which might make us uncomfortable or cause us to reach uncomfortable conclusions about other Americans.
And most people don’t want to be guilt-tripped … especially for the actions of others. So it is that much of black American history is ignored by other Americans, especially white ones. But this type of knowledge gap has allowed the originally apolitical song to be used by all manner of political opportunists, all Leftist in nature.
Well, if you are afraid of being guilt-tripped, then I don’t know what to tell you, because anyone with a strong sense of self and strong attachment to truth can refuse inappropriate guilty feelings. And that same devotion to truth should make such people hungry for both the good and uncomplimentary history of a group people who are the most American of Americans.
“What would happen if there was a White History Month?”
This often-deployed rhetorical response to Black History Month always betrays a lack of historical perspective and an ability to be guilt-tripped. (If someone wanted to create a White History Month why should they care what anyone else thinks?) I would applaud any individual who actually made an attempt to create such a cultural totem. Why?
Because, my fellow Americans who are white: your history is my history…and mine, yours. Let’s all act like it.

*Sources say that the NFL will play the hymn as specified during the opening week only. I'm still against it.
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Anonymous said...

I gave up defending black history month when people said something about "white history month." People just don't get it, and I felt like I was hitting my head against a wall.

Black Americans have a unique history. White Americans are made up up of a huge swath of ethnicities that don't have a shared history. I'm Irish and Jewish. And my history is VERY different from the White Americans who were on the Mayflower.

My mom was a librarian at a school with a large number of Black students. Black history month drove her nuts. Not its exsistance, but the way it was presented. Kids would ask her why Black History Month was February when Martin Luther King Jr. was born in January. Teachers lazily just gave an assignment to write about a black hero, and all the kids wanted to write about Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, or Martin Luther King. Then they came to her library where she steered then towards people like Madame CJ Walker, General Benjamin Davis, Sojourner Truth, Mary MacLeod Bethune, Ralph Bunche...

I learned more about black Americans in my rural lily white school than most people younger than me. I did learn about the horrible stuff: Tulsa Riots, Emmett Till, NY Draft Riots, Rosewood...

And the heroes:Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Booker T Washington, George Washington Carver, Charles Richard Drew, Ralph Bunche...

It amazes me how little people younger than me know, and how little people who grew up in major Metropolitanb or who went to fancy schools.

I love reading your work, thinking you're amazingly intelligent, and genuinely value your insight and opinions.

baldilocks said...

Thanks, Anonymous. Fascinating story.

And don't forget about Carter G. Woodson.

Anonymous said...

I didn't list even half of the black Americans I learned about from either my librarian mom, or in my little rural school. The list goes on much, much, much longer than the people I named.

Anonymous said...

BTW, Mary McLeod Bethune and Madam CJ Walker are two of my biggest heroines.

HarrisonBergeron said...

Thank you for this. David Barton & Wallbuilders ( have much good information to support it.