From Philly: a pulsating lesson in black history

February 27, 1994|By Traci A. Johnson | Traci A. Johnson,Sun Staff Writer

When the New Jack Scholars reached Western Maryland College to deliver a talk for African American History Month, the three Temple University doctoral students knew they were sharing the plight of the history about which they lecture -- they had been misrepresented.

"Every time you get a few black people who talk fast together someone thinks it's rap," said Greg Kimathi Carr. "But we don't rap, or sing. None of that. We just talk."

The Scholars didn't need the microphones or speakers Tuesday for their lecture to about 80 people gathered to hear what had been promoted by the Scholars' Connecticut agents as a "black history in music" program.

But even without music, the talk had a pulsating beat and smooth, refreshing rhythm as each of the lecturers in turn discussed "Africans in America, or 'African-Americans' as you like to call yourselves, but y'all constantly dancing on that hyphen."

"Our history is a very rich history," said Mr. Carr, 28, a law school graduate who is seeking a doctorate in African American Studies at Temple. "The last 400 or 500 years weren't so hot, but we had a wonderful history before that."

The scholars relaxed in front of the room, stared into the mostly black crowd and called the lecture more of a family gathering.

"This [is] a black college, right?" Troy Allen asked, and the audience roared in appreciative laughter. They knew that the presence of about 70 black folk in one room surpassed the African-American representation -- roughly 50 -- in the college.

There were a few whites in the audience as well. Some of the black youths in attendance were brought from the Bowling Brook Boys Home.

And in this setting, the three doctoral students, former DJs of a black history radio program in Ohio, told stories, recounted history, documented sources, and used jokes and laughter to make the sometimes painful anecdotes less bitter.

Much of their tag-team discussion focused on understanding and accepting the influence of African culture on history and blacks in America.

"Black wasn't always at the bottom of the totem pole," Mr. Allen said. "Yeah, you know what they say about why Black History Month is in February . . . but that's not it."

Mr. Allen reminded the crowd that "black" does not always have a negative connotation. A judge's robe and a graduate's robe -- both symbols of wisdom and achievement -- are black. On Valentine's Day, you get chocolates.

"And the epitome of handsome was always called tall, dark and handsome -- that's you, black man!" he shouted to the youths from Bowling Brook, who applauded.

The scholars described achievements claimed by other cultures that had roots in Africa, such as Greco-Roman architecture. They talked about Pythagoras and other classical scholars who journeyed to Africa to learn from the people there.

"Today we have people who have cultural arrogance," said Valethia Watkins, 28, who graduated from law school with Mr. Carr. "They feel like they are doing everything and we have done nothing."

It is of this history that Africans in America should learn and be proud instead of "devaluing things that make us African as a way of fitting into this culture," such as comparing hair textures, enunciation of words and skin color.

"A lot of us are running around, like Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley on the basketball court in the Olympics with 'USA' splashed across their chest, shedding a tear of pride when getting a gold medal," Mr. Carr said.

"We're trying so hard to be American that it is making us crazy."

Mr. Carr's rapid-fire barbs stung everybody from such highly respected sports figures as Michael Jordan to frequently lampooned rap artist Shabba Ranks.

"Y'all talk about Shabba," he said, "but the only difference between you and Shabba Ranks is the white tip of a crooked white finger pointed at you during the slave trade, and somebody saying, 'Send that nigger to Jamaica and send that one to Georgia.' "

Mr. Allen addressed the stereotypes about Africa and Africans that have fueled derogatory comments about blacks for years.

"There are so many false things floating around about Africa and Africans," Mr. Allen said. "Take for example this thing about us being in the jungle, in the trees, as cannibals. Only in the minds of Europeans."

Even gang mentality -- which Mr. Carr sees as a result of Africans becoming frustrated because they cannot succeed in a system inherently indifferent to them -- is reminiscent of African culture.

"You see the brothers working for the group. It's never for self. That's the way it has always been in Africa," he said. "You'll hear them saying things like, 'Oh, no. They stepped to my boy. Time to posse up.'

"And they remember their pasts, their friends, just like the old ways. Before someone takes a swig of a 40 [ounce bottle of malt liquor], they pour some of it on the ground. Who taught them that?

"We've been pouring libation for thousands of years. We pour the libation and say the name of our ancestors so they are never forgotten."

Each of the Scholars emphasized the importance not only of learning history thus far untold, but of using the information to uplift the spirit and unite the race.

"It is important for us to realize our connectedness," said Ms. Watkins. "It's because we don't have that connectedness that it is easy to divide us.

"It's important to our history for us to know that we were doing something before slavery. As the generation who will be learning this, maybe for the first time, we are the people who will have to remember."

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