man000951. Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers, 1890-1996. MS-01082. Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada. http://n2t.net/ark:/62930/d1br8qw6t
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A long time ago on a continent far away, there lived a people called Africans. They were not all the same even though they all had the same origins and that origin, as with all of mankind, was in Africa--East Africa— at a place called Olduvai Gorge.
For thousands of years they lived in the places where they lived and they adapted to the conditions they found at those places. They fulfilled their needs, as did the people who settled in other portions of the world, as best as they could. There were many things they did without but they did not know that they did without them because they did not know those things existed.
Within their cultural groups they developed their own languages, diets, modes of dress, social orders and cosmic views. All of those things were necessary and their necessity was manifested in their close adherence to those cultural components.
After a period of time neighboring groups began to carry on trade with one another--in all directions. For this trade to occur each had to be able to communicate with the other and as the spheres of trade grew it became necessary to learn still more languages. As far as occupations outside the group, for the longest time, that of trader was the only choice.
Old traders never die—that is—they never die until they would have taught their craft to the young—the future traders. In such an ordinary setting as that, the first informal schools were begun. Certainly they were on a small scale but, using the basic definition of education, whenever teaching and learning takes place an educational environment exists.
It was through the trade that the ways of other groups were learned. How different illnesses were treated, the laws of other places, the values attached to commodities in other regions and even which gods from one group to the other were compatible. In places like Cairo, Timbuctu and Benin
medicine schools, law schools and other colleges were founded. To be
sure, none of these places were as complex as such places are today but
for the times they were indeed unique.
As with other parts of the world, two to three thousand years ago,
Africans relied heavily upon their religious beliefs. Their old gods
were both animate and inanimate and most practiced one form or another of
polytheism--the belief in many gods. There were some who believed that the
gods were found in the forces of nature; wind, fire, and; rain and they
worshipped those forces. Religion, like all other things, were not the
same thing for all people in all places. However, as different people
living in those different places came in contact with each other there
were borrowings back and forth and those borrowings brought about changes
in the religious configurations of cultural groups and civilizations.
When the period of American slavery got underway and many of the
young, the strong and the brave of Africa were uprooted and brought to
the Americas, unlike what some would have us believe, they were not
stripped of all that was African. To be sure, major components of their
cultures were obliterated. They were intermixed with so many different
groups that there was extreme difficulty in communicating among themselves.
Their familiar garb was taken away as were their social orders. The food,
that which there was, which they were forced to eat was alien to them.
The one component which could not be taken away, in spite of the cultural
and psychological shock they experienced both upon their departure from
Africa and their arrival to the Americas had to do with that which was in
their minds and hearts. They remembered the old ways, the beliefs and
their experiences. It was those memories which helped them cope with their
new conditions and surroundings. Sometimes the only thing which one has
to lean on is one's beliefs--quiet, solitary and strong.
My grandmother used to sing me to sleep when I was just a child. No, I don't remember it personally but I do recall seeing her do it with other children. I also remember, as I proceeded through my adolescence and beyond seeing other women doing the same with their children or other women doing the same with other mothers' children. The singing was always there. The songs that they sang and the humming that they did bore great similarities. You've heard the singing too. Even today whenever I - witness such a sight I feel something of a swelling in my chest. Many times, without my realizing it, I stand and watch the swaying which accompany such songs and I am treated to a visit to my own past.
The songs grew out of our past--a past that is at once glorious, filled with hardship, strength, resiliency, courage and the will to triumph. I have heard those songs in all parts of this country. The lyrics may vary from place to place but the tunes have been the same.
Those tunes grew out of slavery and the African legacy. They were part of the process of the continuous evolution of culture. They reflected the realities of the present, the memories of the past and the aspirations of the future. Sometimes those songs would be a combination of all three and the ease with which the singer glided out of one and into the other was nothing less than a recognition that there is indeed a harmony between each of the diminsions of the space/time continuum.
Such thoughts as these are not things of which one sits and ponder but they do become entangled in one's mind and without your being aware. They course through the memories of the ages—those based on your own experiences and also the collective memories passed down from one generation to the next going back far into the recesses of the past--Mother Africa.
As I sat here tonight and watched and listened, I found myself being overjoyed. In my attempt to conjure up something to express my feelings, I am reminded of a story told to me by a friend who was born and raised across the river in Mississippi and who attended college at Jackson State University. These are his words. He said:
"The athletic banquet of my junior year in college was something I'll never forget. It started to rain just as the banquet got underway and there was thunder and lightening. The President of the University, the Vice President, Deans, Student Body President and other dignitaries and faculty members and members of the coaching staffs of the different teams delivered short talks complementing the teams on their accomplishments. As they did so, the storm raging outside grew worse. The rain pelted the windows, the thunder shook the building and the lightening caused sporadic dimming of the lights. The wind could be heard roaring and there was obviously some concern on the part of the attendees. At that time of year we were right on the cutting edge of the beginning of tornado season and many of us had seen the destruction tornadoes bring. The speakers came and went and there was an urgency in their voices. Finally it was time for the football coach to make his remarks. I think he had been saved for last because the football team had had such a magnificent season. He was a tall man 6'5" or so and about 250 pounds. He had a deep, gravily bass voice and when he spoke, you listened. His remarks were filled with metaphors of the storm and nature, he said; 'If I had every drop of rain that has ever fallen, every blade of grass that ever grew--If I had ever grain of sand on all the beaches and in all of the deserts of the world, every tree there ever was; If I had every leaf that has ever fallen and every bird that ever took to wing (right at this point there was a bolt of lightening and a clap of thunder and the coach gazed off through a window and raised his left hand toward the sky). If I could reach into the heavens and
yank down a bolt of lightening--! still would not be able to tell you
HOW MUCH I LOVE MY BOYS!!'"
Ladies and gentlemen, if I had all of those things I still would not be able to tell you how happy I am to be here tonight--here in this edifice which has historically been the central institution for both the religious and secular needs of our communities.
Reverend Johnson, members of the Board of Deacons (acknowledge all of whoever else is there), ladies and gentlemen...
Charles Dickens said it best when he wrote in A Tale of Two Cities that these are "the best of times and the worst of times." The times today are truly that. The world, the nation, our state, community, and families are being rended at the seams in every direction and we are about to come undone.
Hardly a single day passes when we are not reminded of the deteriorating conditions in which we find ourselves. Across the board, for the past quarter century or more the family--the single most important institution in any society--has been on the decline. There are many who wish to blame this deterioration on the arrival of the woman to the workplace. Whether that is so is debatable. I'm reminded that for well over a century, with black : families where job opportunities have been so limited and salaries so low that both partners were required to work just to eke out the barest of life's necessities, the family remained intact. Further, there is no accounting for those numerous family disruptions where the wife has in fact remained in the home. We must remember, however, that ours' was an extended family which went well beyond our blood relations.
There have been countless television specials and documentaries on the subject of the impact of the single-parent home on children. We're seeing increases in school dropout rates, decreases in the numbers of our youth attending and graduating from college and going on to the professional schools, increases in the numbers of our young men with street gang involvement and participation in drug related activities. The reports of the numbers of young black men who are involved, in one way or another in the justice system is astounding. We are not seeing nearly as many increases in those things which are positive as we are those which are negative and damaging. There is, obviously, no simple solution to this dilemma.
Every agency of Federal, state and local governments have conducted their symposia and workshops in their attempts to find solution to these problems. Every aspect has been analyzed and recommendations submitted to the proper authorities and all with the same results--one more committee, more meetings of sub-committees and more reports written. All to no avail. I become increasingly convinced that the solutions are to be found elsewhere.
W.E.B. DuBois spoke of it many times; resting away the offensive." This is what we must do. By this I do not mean that we must become vigilantes and go out there and "take back our streets." We are not prepared to do that. We don't have the training to do that. We would be doing little more than placing ourselves in jeopardy were we to attempt such a thing. Even if we were to, it would be a never-ending battle because we will only be able to address the symptoms and not the causes. It is the causes which we must address and the causes are much more difficult to get at. Getting at those causes is not only much more difficult but it requires a much greater committment of our time and our effort and our patience and re-evaluation of our perceptions of what is and what is not
important. Those important things have always been there and they are there now. We've just misplaced them or have had them devalued and hidden away from us. We must go back and retrieve them.
The causes of the problems which confront us today run deep and they have been a long time in the making. This problem did not suddenly "just" happen.
The history of black people in this country can easily be divided into two primary categories; slavery and freedom. No time in our history, including now, can be described as worse than the period of slavery which lasted from the midway point of the Seventeenth Century to just beyond the midway point of the Nineteenth Century. For over two hundred years we not only were slaves but every attempt was made to dehumanize us--to make us merely chattel. We were bought and sold and our families were split time and time again. Under such circumstances as those one might imagine we would have withered up and disappeared and leave no indication that we ever were. Quite the contrary. We were strengthened by the ordeal in much the same way heated steel is strengthened when it is beaten.
Among those things which helped maintain and sustain us during those terrible times was the eclectic religions which we developed on the plantations. Those religions were compositions of both the old gods of Africa and the new gods of the European. The latter component might vary from plantation to plantation but the former became the thread which wove its way throughout America's "peculiar institution." There was something else. The folkways and the mores of the ancient tribes of Africa were taught to the young. The combination of the religious beliefs that conditions were going to get better--either here or in the hereafter-- and the knowledge that once upon a time in a land far away things h'§g?in
fact been better gave cause to fight the good fight with the firm belief that soon our day would come.
Religion. Education. These have been and are the twin beacons of our survival. They have brought peace of mind and spirit. When either or both are ignored what is left is confusion, anxiety and discontent. Religion helps us understand and participate in the spiritual world where those things which are not fully understandable and those things which are un-unstandable are accepted on faith alone. Education allows for a better understanding of the secular world where those things of the spiritual world are put to the test. Life without either may be lived. Life with only one of the two may be full. Life with both is complete.
Where are we today and where are we going? How did we get to this juncture and what must we do to change directions so that we might once again become our own friend? Is there a role for religion and education in pulling us out of the morass in which we find ourselves?
We're in trouble and we're going every which way. We got in this perdictament because we abandoned our responsibility to ourselves and, in our naivete, placed our destinies in the hands of those who had and have little committment to assisting us in becoming the best that we can be. We must find out about ourselves--find out that we have always gotten up one more time than we've been knocked down. We must know our history and not just that part which has to do with slavery. We must know about who we were before we allowed ourselves to be defined by others. We must take back the pride in ourselves we once had. We muct cease being a greater threat to each other than the klan ever was. To accomplish these things will require the combined efforts of religion and education—the spirit and the mind.
To win this battle for our future we must join the forces of education and religion. We've seen that commercial on television which reminds us that once upon a time it was against the law to teach negroes to read or write. Long before that restrition was placed on us it was illegal for negroes/slaves to be involved in religious activities.
Dating far back to the early years of the history of black peoples' presence in this country, religious and educational involvement on their part was taboo. The intensity of our interest was so great that we found ways to overcome those obstacles. In the middle of the night, down in the hollows our ancestors went and prayed and sang and established and maintained a relationship with GodB They sang songs which we've come to know as spirituals and those songs told of the work, the beatings and deprivations they suffered;
"Dere's no rain to wet you,
0, yes, I want to go home.
Dere's no sun to burn you,
0, yes, I want to go home;
0, push along, believers,
0, yes, I want to go home.
Dere's no hard trials,
0, yes, I want to go home, Dere's no whip a-crackin'.
0, yes, I want to go home,
My brudder on de waysi de,
0, yes, I want to go home.
0, push along, my brudder,
0, yes, I want to go home,
Where dere's no stomy weather,
0, yes, I want to go home, Dere's no tribulation,
0, yes, I want to go home.
They sang about how sometimes life was so cruel that all they could do
was pray for death and salvation;
"I know moon-rise, I know star-rise Lay dis body down.
I walk in de moonlight, I walk in de starlight, To lay dis body down.
I'll walk in de graveyard, I'll walk through de graveyard, To lay did body down.
I'll lie in de grave and stretch out my arms; Lay dis body down.
I go to de judgment in de evenin' of de day, When I lay dis body down;
And my soul and your soul will meet in de day When I lay dis body down."
When they sang and they prayed they did so with great fervor and conviction. Their's was not an easy faith to maintain. It took very special people to stand fast as they were being knocked back and forth for years and years. Life was tough but so were they.
Children, black and white, were allowed to play together on the plantation until they reached a certain age. During that time, the children of the plantation owners would have to interrupt their play for their daily tutoring. Black children were not allowed to participate in that activity. Many, however, managed to position themselves outside the doors or windows and evesdrop on the teaching and learning taking place inside. They learned bits and pieces and the more they did the more they craved. In spying through the doors and windows they learned something of arithmetic. They saw how writing was done and they learned a little bit of reading.
When they returned to the slave quarters they often shared what they had learned with others there. They didn't have books to practice the reading or slates to write on as did the plantation owners' children. They had to improvise. They drew numbers and words in the soft dirt of the ground and when an overseer or someone else would approach they would erase their etchings with their hands and feet. We've always had to
-11- improvise and we continue to have to do so.
Even then they realized the importance of the three R's. They got even more than that. In the evenings, after their meager supper, the slaves in the quarters would sit about and the older members told stories of days gone by. The children listened and they learned of their history before slavery. From those slaves who had been brought directly from Africa, those who had been born in slavery and in America learned of their ancentoral home. With that combination, their spiritual selves were fulfilled, their mental selves were enhanced and their sense of themselves were nurtured. All of this was done under the worse conditions imaginable. Who among us will say that today's awful conditions rival those of the past which we have faced and have weathered through—wiser, stronger and even more threatening? No one can.
Here we are today. Same country, similar conditions but a different time. The three R's are still necessary in order to make progress in the world of work--the marketplace. Spiritual uplift is still important in reminding us that we are not alone in the struggle and it is more important than ever that we know ourselves—our history.
A generation or so ago, there were still the old ones who told us young ones about ourselves without making it appear that they were teaching us. From them we gained insight, values and a moral code. They taught us that our word should mean something. They taught us to stand up for that which is right. They taught us to respect ourselves and others. They taught us how to be men and women after we got done with being boys and girls. They taught us these things and more not simply by taking us aside and talking to us, beating them into our heads. They taught us by the example they set. It was tough living up to those standards but, then, we were a tough people.
We are all aware of the economic blight which has struck our state. We are aware of the cutbacks to education and other social services. We are aware of the difficulty many of us have in simply making ends meet. We are further aware of the numerous temptations which daily entice our young people and even some of our adults. We know of the temptation to be seduced by the "get rich" quick schemes which abound. We are also fully aware that those things are not going to improve in the near future. WELL, WE CAN'T WAIT.
Somehow, we must get books and learn about our history. We must find those who are willing to teach us our history. We must take time each and every day and devote to finding out about ourselves. We we do this much, when we begin to feel better and more positive about ourselves the three K's will become much more appealing. We must get our elderly to once again, those who no longer do it, tell our young people about way back when. Our churches must continue or begin to teach us that we are all temples of the Holy Ghost. We must become as eager to speak to and treat others with respect as we are in demanding it. This is no time for cry babies. This is a time for toughness. All else must be put aside until we get this job done. There is no room for us to allow our own egos to intefere in this much bigger and more important undertaking. We have to all learn from each other because we all have something to teach.
The superentendent, the principals, the deans, counselors, staff and other school officials do not have all of the answers. Parents do not have all of the answers. The ministers and deacons and other church officials do not have all of the answers. But if we put our minds and hearts together toward a common cause—saving our children we will undoubtedly come closer to finding many of the answers to the problems
which plague us.
Our future is in our own hands and our hands are big enough, strong enough and tough enough to mold it. Do not listen to those who would suggest that all is lost. We've misplaced a few things but we can find them again. Success, after all, comes to those who are stouthearted enough not to ever lose sight of their goals.
I'm going to close with reading a short piece of poetry. It is one of my favorites. I don't know much about poetry but I do know what I like. This piece is called Midway and it was written by Naomi Long Madgett almost a quarter of a century ago just as we were on the verge.
I've come this far to freedom and I won't turn back.
I'm climbing to the highway from my old dirt track
I'm coming and I'm going
And I'm stretching and I'm growing
And I'll reap what I've been sowing or my skin's not black
I've prayed and slaved and waited and I've sung my song.
You've bled me and you've starved me but I've still grown strong.
You've lashed me and you've treed me And you've everything but freed me
But in time you'll know you need me and it won't be long.
I've seen the daylight breaking high above the bough.
I've found my destination and I've made my vow.
So whether you abhor me
Or deride me or ignore me.
Mighty mountains loom before me and I won't stop now.