Black Lives

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“The hardest part is seeing all these parents with their children.”

Gloria folded her arms and nodded. “Yes, but there is no other way. The children have to know.”

My eyes scanned the crowd, looking over a veritable sea of African Americans of all ages and sizes. In front of a large display of a man being lynched, a mother clutched her son tightly. I saw her place her hand over his eyes initially as if to shield him, then she slowly took it away and leaned down to explain why this had happened. I heard two ten year old boys near her debating whether or not the man in that photo had escaped his noose. A bit earlier, I had heard a boy of 12 brag to his teacher that “My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was a slave who fought in the Revolutionary War!” Although he had a few too many ‘greats’ tacked on, I was both thrilled and saddened that he knows his family heritage. I watched a mother hold hands with her two daughters, one on each side, reading a display about a black woman who was raped by policemen, men who were later acquitted of the crime, and wondered how she felt.

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I looked back at Gloria. “I was never sure I wanted children,” she said. “And then I had my daughter, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. She changed my whole life. And I learned that I couldn’t raise a black daughter without her knowing her history. Thing is, you can’t hide from history, and you can’t make the mistake of not teaching it.”

I nod, sullen. “I’m a dad, too. I try to teach my sons the things they need to know. I taught them about Martin Luther King, and they just can’t understand why another man would try to kill someone who stood for something so good.”

“I know. But our children go on to do amazing things. We teach them right, we raise them right, and then they surprise us.” A proud look came over Gloria’s face. “My daughter, she works in the White House now. That’s why I’m here in D.C. from my home in Atlanta, to attend some events with her. Just the other day, I got to meet President Obama, and let me tell you, he was the nicest man.”

“He has surely been our finest president.” We shared a smile.

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And that had been the very best part of being in this museum, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. It had been an hours-long wait to get in. A large crowd of us had been lead into the deep basement level, where we learned about black history in the Americas from 1400 on. Beautiful and stirring displays, with perfect music and ambience and light and shadow, showed peaceful industrious families in African villages being kidnapped and forced on to slave ships. Those who survived the journeys were then owned for life, whipped and raped and beaten and killed and worked, for generations. Displays told stories of poets and statesmen, soldiers and teachers and martyrs throughout the sordid and violent history, through the Civil War and into freedom, through poverty and segregation, through the fight for Civil Rights to mass imprisonment. A woman on the ground floor had told me it would take a full 22 hours to go through the entire museum, reading everything. I had been here for 3, and my brain and heart were in a spiral. Yet at the top, I got to see black families standing in front of pictures of the Obamas, in a massive hall lined with black celebrities and powerful figures from history. I could feel the pride emanating there.

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I confided in Gloria a bit, as her friends stood near her. “I can understand all of this, but only on my own level. I am a gay father to two sons. They are amazing and wonderful and individual, but they are growing up with a gay dad. It sets my family apart, gives us difficulties. My own family doesn’t always understand me, and I’ve faced discrimination. But my skin is white. I could never understand what it is like in this country to face all of this. And I cant imagine how it feels now that Trump has been elected. To go from seeing the first black couple in the White House to seeing a candidate endorsed by the KKK.”

Gloria put a hand on my arm, less to console me and more to get my attention. “Look. You understand more than you think you do. People are people and should be treated as people. It’s 2016 and this museum is just now getting built. It should have been here years ago.”

My eyes lit up. “I can’t believe it is as close to the Washington Monument and the White House as it is!”

She kept on topic. “As far as Trump’s election goes, I fully believe that everything happens for a reason. We are going to learn the lessons we need to learn, and we are going to keep on going on, because what else can we do? We have to, and that is just the way it is.”

I nodded in agreement, but I couldn’t help but think of how different this place would be in a few weeks. Now it felt celebratory. Would it be like this after the White House was staffed with nearly all white millionaires? I sighed.

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The line shifted forward. I was glad it had moved slowly, because I wouldn’t have met Gloria otherwise. We finally entered the room where Emmett Till’s coffin was on display, with no body inside it. Emmett had been 13 when he had allegedly whistled at a white woman. A group of white men had kidnapped him and savagely beaten him before tossing his mutilated body in a river, where it was later found. Emmett’s mother, Mamie, had allowed the bloated body to be put on display for the public to witness the atrocity. The murderers were put on trial and all exonerated in the courtroom. Being here now, feeling this now, 1955 didn’t feel all that long ago. I could still feel the outrage.

A quote from Mamie Till on the wall brought me to tears. “Two months ago I had a nice AnAn ouapartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to the Negroes in the South I said, ‘That’s their business, not mine.’ Now I know how wrong I was.”

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An hour later, I walked away from the museum, after hours inside, contemplative and deeply moved. Images of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass and Bayard Rustin and Harriet Tubman and Barack Obama and Shirley Chisholm and Martin Luther King and Crispus Attucks and, most of all, Gloria, ran through my head. I thought of the real American history, and legacy, and the present, and the future.

I looked at the gorgeous architecture of the museum behind me. And then I looked at the placement of my feet on the ground beneath me. And then I looked up at the skyline ahead.

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Poisoned Peas: Strange Facts about Washington

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32 things you didn’t know about George Washington:

  1. George Washington received an unanimous 69 electoral votes for the office of president.
  2. He was not inaugurated until 1789, several years after the Declaration of Independence was signed.
  3. The colonies initially wanted to elect him King before creating the office of president.
  4. He did not get along with his vice president, John Adams, and gave him only minor duties. This trend has continued with vice presidents right up until modern history.
  5. George was 6 feet, 2 inches tall, much taller than the average at the time.
  6. George was a 4th generation American settler, in that his great-grandparents had settled here.
  7. While pregnant with George, his mother, Mary Ball, saw a young woman violently killed by a lightning strike while sitting at a dinner table.
  8. Remember that cherry tree story? “I can not tell a lie?” Never happened. Made up by a future biographer.
  9. George’s father, Augustine, died when George was 11. He also saw siblings die and had a house burn down.
  10. In his will, Augustine left George a plot of land and ten slaves. George owned slaves his entire life and saw them as a sign of wealth and prosperity.
  11. George worked as a land surveyor in his youth before becoming a military man.
  12. At age 16, George was swimming nude. Two teenage girls stole his clothes as a prank, but he was not amused and had them arrested. One girl blamed the other, who received the full punishment, 15 lashes on her bare back.
  13. As a young man, George contracted small pox, which left his face covered in pockmark scars his entire life.
  14. In the military, in one battle, four bullets went through George’s coat without hitting his flesh. He later said, “I have heard the bullets whistle and there is something charming in the sound.”
  15. Martha Dandridge (who grew up on a plantation) married Daniel Custis (two decades her senion) and had four children, though two died as children. Custis made a fortune before he died young, then Martha married George Washington, who inherited all of Daniel’s lands, riches, and slaves, starting him off wealthy (over 17,000 acres of land and 300 slaves).
  16. George never had biological children. He raised his two step-children, and later helped raise his grandchildren, adopting some as his own. George may have been infertile.
  17. George once wrote, “I have always considered marriage as the most interesting event of one’s life, the foundation of happiness or misery.”
  18. George was often known for being cruel to his slaves, keeping them in shacks with dirt floors and buying no clothes for the children, though this was common practice at the time. Toward the end of his life, his heart softened and he worked to keep his slave’s families together, not dividing by selling.
  19. During the War, Thomas Hickey once tried to kill George by poisoning his peas, but the housekeeper grew suspicious and instead fed the peas to the chickens. The chickens died, and Hickey was hanged.
  20. As a military leader, George often wished he was a soldier instead. He once said, “I beg it should be remembered by every gentleman in the room, that I do this day declare, with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.”
  21. George’s stepson, Jacky Custis, died at age 28 of dysentry, leaving behind four young children. George adopted the younger two. His stepdaughter, Patsy, died as a teenager.
  22. After their victory in the War, George’s men went to taunt the British, but he stopped them, saying “It is sufficient for us that we witness their humiliation. Posterity will huzza for us.”
  23. After the war ended, George repaid his salary and expenses to the colonies without being asked, a sum totally $50,000. He was always exacting in paying and collecting debts.
  24. George had several farms, one called Muddy Hole, and a favorite nephew named Bushrod. In his will, he left Bushrod a famous cane that belonged to Ben Franklin.
  25. George posed for many paintings and sculptures during his life, holding still for hours at a time. He once said, “I am now altogether at their beck, and sit like patience on a monument whilst they are delineating the lines on my face.”
  26. George suffered from toothaches beginning in his 20s, and had all his teeth removed over the years. He eventually wore a set of false teeth, made out of a mix of hippopotamus tusks, gold, and human teeth.
  27. George and Martha had a dog named Frisk and a parrot named Snipe.
  28. A few years before his death, George had a large tumor in his leg that had to be cut out without painkillers. He was bedridden for six weeks.
  29. In 1791, George and Martha briefly moved to Philadelphia with 8 of their slaves. At the time, a law had been passed that any slaves who remained in the city for 6 months were automatically set free. George had the slaves sent back to Virginia just before the time limit was up to keep his property.
  30. In his final will, George stated that all his slaves should be set free after both he and Martha died.
  31. George died in 1799 at the age of 67. Martha died 2.5 years later in 1802 at the age of 70.
  32. In France, Napolean said of George’s death, “This great man has fought against tyranny. He established the liberty of his country. His memory will always be dear to the French people.

Man in a monkey cage

The sign read:

The African Pigmy, “Ota Benga.”

Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches.
Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the
Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Cen-
tral Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Ex-
hibited each afternoon during September

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On September 8, 1906, the Bronx Zoo in New York City added a new exhibit, a small coffee-skinned African man named Ota Benga. Placed with the monkeys, the man had an open cage to sleep in. Delighted visitors came by the thousands, the tens of thousands, bringing their friends and children to see the African man. Many of the spectators believed him to be some sub-species of man, somewhere on the evolutionary scale between monkeys and human children. And the spectators didn’t just want to see the man, they wanted him to perform. They wanted to see him hunt, play with the orangutan, dance and climb trees. If he hid, they threw rocks against his cage to draw him out. If he sat, they yelled racial slurs and insults to spark him into action, something their children could clap over and tell their friends about later. “Dance, monkey, dance,” they seemed to yell as an adult man sat behind bars, listening to their unfamiliar foreign words, yet their intent all too easy to understand.

Word spread quickly, throughout the country and then internationally: the Americans had an African man on exhibit with monkeys. New York had been a free state long before the Civil War, seeing African American citizens as deserving of equality and equal rights. And now, decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, a man was in a cage.

It took them time to figure out what had happened, and language barriers, direct lies, poor record-keeping, and time have kept many of the details hidden.

The man who came to be known as Ota Benga grew up in the Congo, then under Belgian rule. Under harsh sanctions from the Belgian people, the Congolese tribes were exploited and forced into labor. Samuel Verner, who had served as a Christian missionary in the Congo previously, and who had also spent time in a mental institution, was sent to the Congo to acquire willing men to be brought to America to be put on display at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. Benga was among them.

A bizarre series of events led to Benga being placed in the Museum of Natural History before he was placed on exhibit at the zoo, exploited and stared at.

Verner told story after story, each contradicting the others, in an effort to make himself sound heroic. He told how he had rescued Benga from slave traders, how Benga trusted only him, how Benga had asked to come to America and be placed on display. Yet in truth, Verner was a swindler and a liar. Not only had he fathered children with women while he was in Africa, he had racked up debts and exploited money. And Benga was not the first Congolese boy he had brought to the United States.

I learned about Benga only recently, when I chose a book about him at random off of a shelf. I read ravenously, devouring the words and images of this story that I had never heard before, these forgotten horrific moments of American history.

How could this have possibly happened, I wondered, in a country that is founded on Christian principles, equality of all men, and dignity of each person. And then I recalled the very founding of our country, a mix of declaring liberty from foreign powers while asserting our foreign power over the Native Americans with violence and blood; a mixture of welcoming foreigners, while building the country on the backs of foreign slaves.

The violent opposition of it all makes my head spin. We who consider ourselves the great democracy, founded on the principles of free speech and choice and religion, the greatest country in the world with equality and opportunity for all, priding ourselves on the American dream, yet we have entire presidential campaigns running on premises of refuting gay marriage, opposing women’s health care options, restricting immigration by building walls, and banning religious groups.

Ota Benga was a small man, but he was not a child nor did he have limited intellect. He had filed his teeth to fine points not because he was a cannibal or a savage, but because that was a custom among his tribe, a rite of passage for men. He communed with the monkeys in the exhibit not because he considered himself one of them, but because they were his only solace and support as the white Americans jeered.

After Benga was released from the zoo, he was taken in by an educated group of black Americans who gave him companionship and work and taught him the language. Benga lived among these citizens, whose ancestors had been forced from their homes to be slaves, belonging and yet not belonging; they had history in America, he was a refugee. It is believed Benga had lost a wife and children in the Congo, a result of cruel white men, before coming to America. He lived in relative isolation here for years, using an American-ized version of his name, Otto Bingo.

Until, in 1916, Benga found a gun and shot himself through the heart, a poetically tragic end to his story.

As I finish this story, and reflect, I’m left to wonder how we, as an evolving society of Americans… how much have we really changed?

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