In 2019, one of our prophets, Mr. Spike Lee, reminded me that the first persons of my color to experience bondage in this country arrived at the same time the colonizers did in 1619. Although this revelation was not new news to me, it was refreshing to see an entertainer make a connection between slavery, equality, and justice. Meanwhile, I’ve pondered over and over why it had taken one of my idols 33 years to receive the coveted Oscar-the gold standard of excellence in film. I’ve tried my best to overlook the racist ideologies that made this a fact, but I was unsuccessful. It is no secret that people of color represent an ever decreasing minority percentage of owners, executives, and producer/publishers who make final decisions upon which narratives are supported and promoted. Whenever a new narrative featuring a person of color is released, I find myself challenging my students to question the sources, to probe the lenses for bias prior to declaring a story’s authenticity. More often than it is admitted, narratives of marginalized people come tainted with overt objectification at worst and gross oversimplification at best. Since that fretful moment in history 400 years to 2019, African Americans have experienced joy, pain, love, and incredible amounts of loss. Yet, Spike Lee has been a consistent, steadfast voice of reason who has sought to shed brilliant light on these realities for an entire career through film. Many filmmakers and mainstream storytellers have failed to deliver such consistency. I was just happy that he received his flowers while he was alive!
That was 2019, and before I knew it, 2020 came in and revealed some of the ugliest truths I’d ever seen. In reflecting on the most popular stories from news media outlets today, I find it increasingly difficult to remain hopeful, and I can only imagine what my students are experiencing. Nevertheless, every so often, there comes a moment of supernatural inspiration- a moment where wormholes of midnight meaning mining uncovers communal gems of undervalued wisdom. Currently, in November 2022, students from one of my courses are studying African American Literature as it relates to the earlier Civil Rights movements and the differing ideological theories of attaining equity during the turn of the century. Although these are some of the same courses I’ve taught in previous semesters, I feel I learn something new each year. For instance, Black history month began in 1926, and most of the people we celebrate today weren’t even born before then! As I prepared for my class, I reviewed a passage by Maya Angelou, entitled “Graduation”. The word alone helped me contextualize my emotions. There is this universal sense, albeit false, that we as Americans have graduated from racism and bigotry. In this particular passage by Maya Angelou, she recalls how a powerful guest speaker (of European-American ancestry) reminded the students that they had made it through the throngs of grade school, and now as 8th grade graduates, they could aspire to be the best baseball players and track stars from Arkansas. Someone would be in need of a janitor or a field hand, and if some ironing needed to be done, they had the skills to crisp a mean collar! Dr. Angelou was devastated back in 1940 when her future was read to her over the podium. Instead of reflecting on the man’s meanness, she recalled this instance of blatant racism through lenses of achievement. She made a magnificent parallel to the monumental accomplishments of other African Americans who had faced similar circumstances. Given that the Black History Week creation would have only been about 14 years old, she still could have drawn inspiration from at least 311 years of triumph in the face of injustice-victory in the face of victimhood-freedom in the face of enslavement.
Likewise, as I read through her biography and reflected on her accomplishments, her story paralleled the same stories she recalled as inspiration. On the surface, her anecdote revealed some hidden gems about George Washington carver. It taught me all about what George Washington Carver and so many countless others went through in order to become great. Mr. Carver was a bootblack, a lowly job in both the metaphorical and physical sense, yet somehow he had the foresight to become someone of great merit! Born a slave, kidnapped during the Civil War, and returned right back to bandage, his former ‘owners’ became his benefactors. They offered the young Carver an education, and that story alone could provide for an interesting inquiry on allyship vs savior complex! However, although he was gifted an opportunity for education, his meteoric rise to symbolic hero could have easily fallen short. He could have been unremembered as a mediocre casualty of sisyphism. Rejected by his first collegiate application because of racism, he could have easily returned to a life of, what we would consider, complacency. In the wake of that initial rejection, he applied to another school, and the rest is a history rich enough for you to explore independently! In the shadow of this amazing accomplishment, one must remain weary of the sneaky attack of heroic individualism, and only credit Carver for HIS efforts and HIS accomplishment.
To survive is protest. To withstand years of bigotry, remaining morally equipped to rear children and inspire one’s neighbors with brotherly, agape love-even for those whose lavish lives were artificially laden with the luxury of free labor- that’s revolutionary! This pathway to enlightenment has been carved of communal craters, equally important, although non-identical in size or depth. So, even if this individual had done nothing of public grandeur at all, his private contributions to his friends, family, and faithful mentees were successes in their own measure. His greatness will always be a function his steadfastness, his earnestness, and his honesty-all qualities that he would pass along to the next generation of graduates such as Mrs. Angelou, who graduated from 8th grade merely two years prior to Dr. Carver transitioning from this earthly realm. These are the lessons that weave our lives together. We build upon the platforms we’ve inherited from our ancestors. We cry together. We try together…And more often than what is depicted in popular media, we triumph together!
I imagine that the athletes and service employees encompassed all that was visible for Maya to aspire to become. Perhaps the history lessons of others filled in the gaps for her. Those narratives published, promoted, and proliferated through oral and written history became apart of the mythical ethos of resiliency-the same resiliency Mr. Lee has showcased for decades. (books, media, etc.) In 2006, I brought a group of my peers to see, yes see, and listen to the magnificent stories that Maya Angelou possessed. Hearing those anecdotes firsthand gave me such joy, it opened my mind to even more possibilities that visionaries like Mr. Lee had already inspired inside of me. But, what about in 2022? Are service workers, athletes, and entertainers the gold standard for the next generation of people of color. As I reflected, I slowly drifted off to sleep.
-I lapsed into this vivid dream. I saw a box, and inside of that box was a caption. I looked closely at the caption:
7 Black Boys Were Caught on Camera.
I found myself waiting on the calamity of the verb….on camera saying, doing, being, acting Instead, they were caught on camera exuding…. EXCELLENCE It blew my mind not that they were doing the right things, But the fact that so little of this narrative is ever scene. The man who posted the film encouraged them to keep pushing….to keep using their good Friday to do good things. Instead of turning UP, they were turning open a textbook. They were ingesting knowledge as the designated substance, not stimulants, sedatives, or opiates. They were operatives of optimism and they celebrated substantive masculinity. We are not poison, we are not toxic, even if the world has dumped their waist in our backyards. Even if the remnants of hatred, greed, and bigotry seeped into our water systems like Flint, Michigan.
I woke up startled from this singular thought: Why is it that the exceptions are so few, and it seems so far between? Perhaps it is a matter of perception. We do not live in vacuums now, and neither did our foremothers. I’ve committed a life dedicated to shed light-hope onto the current generation by enlightening us all in the way the good Dr. enlightened me. If YOU CAN SEE GREATNESS, YOU CAN BE GREATNESS. Be it a celebration of our exceptional icons as well as regular black folk like myself, the Pandemic has forced us to discover new and innovative ways to inform ourselves of the joyous triumphs of others. These are not random acts, but are inspired directly or indirectly by the greatness of our peers and ancestors. We give Spike his flowers because he spent a lifetime sharing authentic narratives with dignity, akin to creating arrangements of human experiences. These leaves of grass, physical and digital pages of inspiration are flowers. They remind us that we are able to attain success despite the realities of racism and bigotry. We still have obtained graduate degrees in resiliency. There is work to do, and I am looking to see-both physically and metaphorically, who, among us will help carry the torch. Thank you for stopping bye to smell the roses.