Friday, February 25, 2011
Black to the Future – Black History Month by Patricia Haley
I am honoured to be introducing you to my friend Patricia A. Haley, a public speaking consultant, topical writer, and self professed music and movie buff. Like all of my guests this month from the US, Patricia and I met at the Black Writers Reunion and Conference in Tampa, in 2008. I attended one of her workshops titled S.P.E.A.K., a powerful and challenging interactive session she delivered which gave participants vital tips on how to be the deadliest public speaker on the circuit. I have since attended her workshops twice more. Why? Because, Patricia is a passionate professional who completely owns a space when she is speaking in it, and therefore commands attention. It is hard not to respect such a presence.
Aside from her speaking skills, Patricia has the capacity to articulate and contextualise in writing, the significant issues – such as Black History Month – that many of us need to understand fully. And that is why I am grateful she has offered the last of the BHM posts for us here. I was in Manhattan Beach, California last June, I didn’t know its true history until today. Until we know the ‘real’ history of the areas we live in, we visit, we have exotic dreams about, then we are in-fact, just dreaming.
I’m sure there is much that you will read for the first time below, and please, take up Patricia’s challenge and let us know what you have learned from the BHM posts here by: Bryan-Keyth Wilson, Sherrice Thomas, Dawn McCoy, Bonita Penn-Lee and Nakia Laushaul.
When you’re done reading here, pop on over the Patricia’s website and read more about this extraordinary woman from Southern California, who is working on her first non-fiction book.
Patricia on being grateful in Black History Month:
From the ashes of being stifled for years, decades and centuries, arose Black History month. This significant period of the year has morphed through numerous transformations - from Negro History Week (1926), to Black History Week (1970’s), and up to its current evolution, Black History Month. Ultimately the objective remained the same: Smothered histories, suppressed stories, and suffocated legends, represented and acknowledged, so that others can see who and what we are – a bold, brilliant people who have contributed significantly to their society, their nation.
Historically, there are the standard people that you hear of that are national heroes: Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, and President Barack Obama. However, there are situations, people, and events, which, although sight unseen in the bigger scheme, leave indelible footprints in the hearts of minds of those that have followed the lantern lit by those who blazed the trail.
I am grateful for:
1. Isaac Burns Murphy (1861-1896): The Kentucky Derby is to horse racing what the World Cup is to soccer. Lush, lavish and exhilarating, it garners a sophisticated group of beings, who understand that breeding, coupled with the right jockey, can lead to legendary races. So began the legend of Isaac Murphy. The son of freed slaves, Isaac had a natural affinity for horse racing. Legend has it that many former slaves, as a way of fending for themselves after the Emancipation Proclamation, pursued occupations as horse breeders/trainers and the like, as that was one of their duties while being enslaved. In any case, horses were what Isaac loved, and he soon became an apprentice jockey, training under a black trainer, Eli Jordan. Isaac Murphy flourished. He eventually won 44 percent of his races, a feat that is still unmatched to this day. One of the key components to his racing prowess was the tenderness he displayed toward his horses. Not one to punish and whip them into submission (no doubt due to the historical brutality of the whip), he was known to talk to them in a persuasively, seemingly willing them to take it to the next level. At his peak, he commanded 10-12k per year as a professional jockey. To put into perspective what that meant economically during this period (1875-1895), the average American white man’s annual salary, was 1K. What he did for horse racing cannot be ignored or denied: Isaac Murphy was the first person inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Isaac Murphy, a true American legend.
2. The Tulsa Race Riots, 1921: Tulsa, Oklahoma, early 1900’s. Any one in America would toss this city into the same mix as Mom and apple pie. Yet, Tulsa’s roots lie in an equal parts proud and chilling era during a time where we dominated the city, particularly North Tulsa, so much so that Tulsa, Oklahoma was known as the Black Wall Street. A beautiful representation of a true chocolate city, it was one of the most prestigious areas in the country. From the simple corner shop owner to the influential doctor, the black dollar was recycled, powerful, and influential during a period in other regions, blacks were struggling under the boot of the Jim Crow segregation laws. Not in Northern Tulsa. And everyone took notice – blacks as well as whites. So much so that on June 1, 1921, an unprovoked air assault upon the city of Tulsa occurred, bombed as if we were prisoners of war and enemies of the state, for no other reason than to suffocate the growth and development of a community that understood the value of education, cooperation, and recycling the dollar among the community. Attributed to the Ku Klux Klan, there has never been anyone prosecuted for what is called the Black Holocaust. In the aftermath – what was left (or wasn’t left for that matter) was a haunting skeleton with no likeness to its former glory. Three thousand people dead, hundreds of businesses scorched to the ground - leaving a community devastated, disillusioned, and destitute.
Tulsa was no more. Although this is not mentioned in history books it has been carried forward the way our history always has been through undying oral tradition. I am eternally grateful that such a community existed, and thrived, and through its survivors lives on with a power that cannot be torched by the hatred of mankind.
3. Paul Robeson (1898-1976) : Denzel Washington, eat your heart out. The quintessential “man’s man”, Paul Robeson was a star athlete at Rutgers University where he also excelled as a scholar being named Valedictorian of the 1919 class. But he didn’t stop there. Paul earned his law degree from Columbia University. Where then he could have easily transitioned into a legal career, he then ventured into the entertainment profession. Adding singing and acting to his resume, the brilliance and richness that both his acting and singing abilities showcased, Paul Robeson, with his unmistakable baritone voice gratefully preserved through audio and film, unofficially officially became a national black hero. He was our first recordable representation of a well rounded, strong, powerful, authoritative man – a desperately needed figure during a time when black men were emasculated, brutalized, and disempowered. A multi lingual person, he became a spokesperson for civil and human rights, and after a period of time, became a voice of reason for a people that neither had the platform or the celebrity to speak on many issues. Although eventually many of his political ties caused him to be blacklisted and mired in controversy for several years, Paul Robeson played a polarizing part in the history of human treatment for underprivileged people. His actions both on and off the screen deserve a place in the historical development of who we are, culturally, academically, socially and politically. A revolutionary figure, he is underrated, and underrepresented in who we are as a nation and as a people.
4. Bruce’s Beach – Manhattan Beach, California: Southern California, turn of the century, early 1920, where people went for all purpose weather, farming communities, and yes, the Pacific Ocean. Yet, it was no different from other areas of the country, where some or all of specific areas were designated as white only. This included Manhattan Beach, California, a beach community flanked by a pitch perfect breeze, panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean, and ideal distance from a developing city named Los Angeles. In Manhattan Beach, as with everywhere else, beaches were off limits for the black community – except for a two block area that was designated for Blacks, who represented a large portion of the developing labor population in Southern California. In any case they wanted just as we all do – an opportunity to play hard after working just as hard. Who were these newly minted Californians? They came from different states – Louisiana, Detroit, Chicago, and yes, maybe even a few from Tulsa. After toiling in factories, homes, and in fields, blacks were looking for a place to have a good time – and spend their hard earned money. Enter Charles and Willa Bruce, entrepreneurs who capitalized on the basic need that most people want – entertainment rightly earned after a grueling work week. Their resort, nestled within the confines of said two block restricted area, aptly titled ‘Bruce’s Beach, became a playground of sorts. Word traveled fast. At Bruce’s beach, you had numerous options, including lavish dining, dancing, outdoor sports, and other activities. More important, it was a place where people of color could come without fear of reprisal. The good life – the American Negro had finally arrived. But for the white community of Manhattan Beach, CA- it was time for them to leave. Although the two block radius was designated for blacks to enjoy the beaches, the power, popularity, and polarization of Bruce’s Beach was too much for the people of Manhattan Beach. The beaches were roped off, people who were patrons were antagonized, and tragically, politically, and racially, the beach resort, crafted so carefully, elegantly, by the Bruce’s was destined to be doomed. As in all things racially scorched, the safe haven life support was being yanked. The executioner: Eminent domain. As such, Charles and Emma Bruce’s resort (and property) was seized, and the Bruce’s were left with nothing. Eventually, the park that now resides around the areas of the resort was renamed “Bruce’s Beach’. But alas, this was dedicated in 2007; nearly a century after the community was drowned by the hatred of those who believed that the American dream was painted white. I am grateful for Charles and Emma Bruce for sparking the fire that cannot be drenched even now, and for being our footstool – even amidst brutality, for generations to come.
5. Authors: Visibility does not equal less/more talent than others. For all the author/titles seen in bookstores, e-books, Facebook/twitter links, and even displayed graciously so on this blog, there are many authors who have toiled before us, with equal passion and desire, whose opportunities were lost amidst an invisible glass ceiling, talent drowned out because of the lack of resources, envy, by publishers, agents, and even their fellow peers. And there are others that write for the sheer passion of exhilaration, not profit, for profit before passion doesn’t equal fulfillment. These are the ones that you cheer on, knowing that there is room for all of us to write and every book promoted, published, and produced, is another mental chapter in your vision of what to do – and certainly on some occasions, what not to do. We didn’t come to gently knock on the door that we call the written word – we came to kick the door down. The inspiration can be ignored, but never denied. An unwrapped gift can never be utilized, but when opened, cannot be harnessed or restrained. Until you are in the wonderful terrible matrix of writing, you cannot understand: The moment where you have the meltdown where you believe the book will never be finished; the secret desire to hug and strangle your editor at the same time, the first moment you cradle your first edition baby in your arms, and the moment that your book goes live – nerves, joy, delirium, and panic, all equal parts. And that is when you know that you were born to do this.
You did not come upon this blog post by accident. It is by design that you read this. What can you get out of what we have written for this month Special Edition of ‘I Am Grateful’? There is no wrong answer. The answer is what is right for you. So tell me. The pen is waiting.