Every year for the past several, I have become the point person for the Black History Month celebration at my church. It is not a position I’ve ever sought, but it has obviously sought me. I had called a meeting of potentially interested parties in early December, so that I might offload some of the responsibility. But I was so sick, not only did I not go to church, I had forgotten that I had called the meeting until after the fact. Opportunity missed; so it goes.
At the end of the first adult education hour, which featured a guest speaker, I recommended that people view Slavery by Another Name, a new PBS documentary based on Douglas A. Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, narrated by Laurence Fishburne (pictured) before the following session. Some folks did watch, and it is interesting to note that it was a piece of American history that most in the room were oblivious to. My wife and I had seen the film at an advanced showing at UAlbany a couple weeks earlier.
From a description of the book:
Tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible ‘debts,’ prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries and farm plantations. Thousands of other African Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude.
As it turns out prison officials in Alabama have “banned inmate Mark Melvin from reading” the book, as they, “says attorney Bryan Stevenson, felt it was ‘too provocative, they didn’t like the title, they didn’t like the idea that the title conveyed.’”
Stevenson made some cogent points as he filed suit. “America struggles with ‘denialism,’ i.e., a refusal to face its grim past of racial crimes and human rights violations. ‘Other countries that have tried to recover from severe human rights problems that have lasted for decades…have always recognized that you have to commit yourself to truth and reconciliation: South Africa, Rwanda. In the United States we never did that. We had legal reforms that were imposed on some populations against their will and then we just carried on.’…
“Stevenson feels it’s ‘just a matter of time’ before the nation begins to minimize ‘what segregation really was,’ like a black version of Holocaust denial. That’s already happening. In 2010, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour claimed integration in his state was ‘a very pleasant experience.’ Actually, integration in his state was marked by, among other atrocities, a firebombing, a fatal riot, the assassination of Medgar Evers, and the murders of three voting rights workers.
“The only effective weapon against such lies is to learn the truth and tell it, shout it in the face of untruth, equivocation and denial. Bear witness.”
I also addressed issues of popular culture. I wanted to show a TEDx video by Jay Smooth, but it proved to be too technologically daunting. So I suggested that people look at his …Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race, and its predecessor, on my Times Union blog. Ah, a good use for it.