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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that time in 1872 when a feminist and an escaped slave ran for president

In 1872, a woman ran for President of the United States with an escaped slave as her running mate.

Victoria Clafin suffered abuse at the hands of her father as a child.  He was a con man who pulled his daughter out of school when she was 11, and he was run out of town shortly after when he burned down his own home and tried to collect the insurance money.

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery in his grandmother’s shack. Though he never knew his father, it was believed that his owner had fathered him biologically, but because of his black skin, Frederick would be property rather than an heir. As a child, he witnessed slaves being whipped, interrogated, worked to death, sold, and murdered.

At age 14, Victoria met and soon married Canning Woodhull, a doctor twice her age, and she had two children, a son and a daughter, Byron and Zula Maude. Canning liked alcohol and women a bit too much, and Victoria divorced him. Though she later took a second husband, she later advocated for free love, the idea of having sex as the heart dictates, not strictly confined to marriage or commitment. She kept Canning’s late name, Woodhull. She saw a society where women either belonged to a man in marriage, or were ostracized for being divorced, and she loudly proclaimed that women should be given the right to own their own bodies and choices. She was jailed for speaking too loudly.

Frederick was sold to a new master, and the man’s kind wife taught him to read, but when his master found out, the lessons stopped, as it was believed that an educated slave was a dangerous one. Frederick taught himself to read after that, through guile and dedication, and he fell in love with the New Testament. He began teaching other slaves to read in Sunday School. At 16, he was given to another new master, who beat and whipped him regularly, promising to break him.

Victoria and her sister, Tennessee, opened their own stockbroking firm in 1870, and were hailed as “the Queens of Finance” as they coached their clients toward riches. Victoria used her money to start her own newspaper, which she ran for six years. Its primary purpose was spreading the message of feminism, and it advocated for legalization of prostitution, sex education, women’s suffrage, women’s right to choice, and spirituality, and it even printed Karl Marx’s Communism Manifesto. Victoria used her influence to expose a church leader’s marital affairs, a man who had advocated for monogamy and marriage over the pulpit.

In 1837, Frederick met a free black woman, Anna Murray, and fell in love. It took several months, but he ran away, risking his life, and escaped into the north to be free. He took Anna as his wife and they remained married for 44 years, and had five children. Frederick became a preacher, an abolitionist, and an author. His first book, about his time in slavery, became an international bestseller, and Frederick began traveling the world to speak about his experiences; he was still subjected to violence and hatred at times. He spoke loudly against the hypocrisy of Christianity in the South, Bible-reading men who prayed and paid tithes and then beat and raped and sold and killed their slaves under the protections of religion. He started a newspaper and began giving speeches, like one called “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” He also advocated for women’s rights, and stayed very politically active through the Civil War.

Deciding to run for president, Victoria stood before Congress and argued eloquently that since all citizens were equal, women already had the right to vote. She ran on the ticket of the newly formed Equal Rights Party, and Frederick Douglass, through no initiative of his own, was voted as her running mate for Vice President. Ulysses S. Grant was elected president in 1872. Women would receive the right to vote approximately 50 years later, and the Civil Rights Movement would take place closer to 100 years later.

After the death of his wife Anna, Frederick took a second wife, Helen Pitts, a white feminist nearly 20 years younger than him, a union which caused much public scandal. He died in his late 70s, fighting for equal rights for others until his last breath. Before his death, he made peace with his original owner, the man believed to be his father.

Victoria lived into her 80s and lived overseas for a time, taking a third husband in England. She remained much quieter in her later years.

A black man, Barack Obama, was first elected president in 2008, and a woman, Hillary Clinton, was first put on a presidential ticket in 2016. Gender and race equality remain ever-present issues in today’s politics. But it was 1872 when a black man and a woman first teamed up, unwittingly, to run the country. We are long overdue.

 

 

 

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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