"Most Of My Heroes Don't Appear On No Stamps"
If you're tired of hearing about racism, it might be because you never experience it. You have no reason to complain because it doesn't affect you personally. Many white Americans live in communities with very few minorities. The only people of color they encounter are either in passing, at the grocery store or on television. Some may live their entire lives and not once consider what America looks and feels like to a person of color.
I hope to be proven wrong, but I believe we, as Americans, will not see an end to racism in our lifetime. Maybe someday in the distant future our great-great-great grandchildren will live in a society where racism is as rare as smallpox, but I fear that's just a dream. Why? because we are a nostalgic nation. We love to celebrate our history and commemorate those in the past who helped shape the nation we live in today. We say things like, "Never Forget." We are taught in schools to honor men who fought in the revolutionary war in the 1770s. We love to look to the past. We say things like "Make America Great Again," without ever specifying what time-period "again" actually refers to. Maybe we don't know exactly when. Perhaps we just like the idea that hindsight is 20/20, yet the future is uncertain. Or maybe we don't like the direction in which our future is headed, so we feel as though our best days are behind us. Whatever the case, we seem to have a tendency to keep one eye on the past and therein lies the reason we will never see eye-to-eye about race-relations in America. We'll never agree on who our heroes are and who they ought to be.
I remember, as early as kindergarten, learning about George Washington, our first president. I was told that he was the Father of our country. There was a picture of him on the wall in our kindergarten class. We used to sing a song that I still recall to this day, "There's something about George Washington you should know; he was our very first president many years ago". Year-after-year, we were taught about the "Father of our country". I remember stories about his honesty and integrity. There was a story about Washington chopping down a cherry tree and when his father confronted him and asked who was responsible, a young George Washington responded, " I cannot tell a lie. I did it." My teachers spoke about him with such reverence and admiration. Little did I know we were being prepped. We were being told exactly how we should feel about George Washington. It wasn't until Middle school, at age 13, that I learned that the nation's founding father was a slaveholder. Not only did Washington own 123 slaves, when he married his wife Martha, she already owned nearly 200 slaves. I later learned that 11 other US presidents were also slave owners. All of this knowledge was bestowed upon me during the same time our 7th grade English class was watching "Roots". I wouldn't go as far as to say I was traumatized, but I did find it disturbing.
Let's rewind back to kindergarten. There was another song I remember singing about Abraham Lincoln; "Abraham Lincoln, kind and good is honored and loved by many. To help us remember this president, we put his face on our penny." All throughout elementary school, we learned about Abraham Lincoln. What made him a great man, according to my teachers - was the fact that he "freed the slaves." My young adolescent mind began to wander. If Lincoln is praised for having freed the slaves, does that mean that slavery was bad? And if so, why are we taught to admire Washington when he actually owned slaves? How can we admire both men when one man is praised for ending the evil institution that the other participated in and benefited from?
It wasn't until years later that I finally figured it out. The reason some people can reconcile admiring a man who held slaves while, at the same time, acknowledging the fact that slavery was bad is because those people don't really see slavery as that bad. They see it as bad, but not bad enough to disqualify a man from being considered a hero. To those of us who are descendants of slaves, we are still very uncomfortable with the fact that we can't really have a history that we can be proud of. We have a history that we are ashamed to have endured. Many of us would love to brag about our heroic forefathers, but the truth is: our forefathers were considered nothing more than the property of some other man. That other man was free to rape our forefathers wives, sisters and mothers with absolutely no consequences. Our forefathers had to see their children being sold to strangers and they were powerless to stop it. There is no dignity in our history. It's just a dark, gloomy, sad few centuries we wish we didn't have to own as a part of our story; and the beginning of our story as Americans.
If you can idolize a man who actually owned, bought and sold human beings, it's a clear indication that you don't really see those actions as deal-breakers. To you, it's no big deal. To me, it's not an offense that could be dismissed as a minor character-flaw. It's not like a fender-bender. George Washington didn't accidentally bump into me with his shopping cart at Whole Foods. He didn't inadvertently step on my buckled shoe. He owned my ancestors. It's a big deal. A very big deal. We are, in fact, a nostalgic nation and the fact that we can't celebrate the same history is one of the reasons we will most-likely never see eye to eye on issues such as race-relations.
I later learned that Lincoln didn't free the slaves because he was morally opposed to slavery. Instead, he did so as a military action in an attempt to cripple the confederates and preserve the union. Damn, Lincoln! I was just about to hang your picture in my office, but now I'm crushed. Does anybody need change for a 5? Oh, wait..Never mind.
I remember back in 1989 when I first saw the music video for "Fight The Power" by Public Enemy. The group's frontman, Chuck D said a line in the third verse that really made me think. After calling out Elvis Presley and John Wayne, calling them racists, He went on to say, "Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps." I can't quite articulate what those words meant to me, but they did indeed resonate immensely. I thought that was such a courageous and insightful thing to say. Well, actually, I was about 11 years old at the time, so I doubt I would've used words like "insightful", but looking back, that's how I must've felt. It just spoke volumes. Later on that year, I was at a family cook-out and I saw a distant relative who was probably mid-30s to early 40s wearing a t-shirt that read, "Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps." It had pictures of postage stamps with famous black faces like Marcus Garvey, Huey P. Newton, Harriet Tubman, etc. I was so impressed for two reasons. 1: this older man was wearing this shirt that contained a line from a rap song, which I thought was weird because most older folks back then shunned this fairly new artform called "hip-hop." 2. I was proud to see that there were other people who felt this way and, for the fact that such a brutally honest and emotionally impactful lyric had found it's way onto t-shirts.
That's what it's like living in America. Today there are people arguing and fighting over whether or not statues of confederate soldiers should be removed from public property. Personally, I have no stake in that argument because I'm torn. I do feel it is another one of many painful reminders that we do live in a white supremacist country and many people are offended by statues that were erected during the Jim Crow era (long after the civil war) to honor men who fought to maintain slavery. On the other hand, I feel as though people have a right to honor those men for whatever reason. It is a part of our history and I don't feel it's my place to tell anyone who their heroes ought to be, which brings me to my next point.
I'm sure many of you who are reading this are saying in your minds, "Slavery was a long time ago. No one alive today was ever a slave and no one alive today ever owned slaves." I totally understand where you're coming from, but try to understand that we're not having a conversation about whether or not anybody today was a slave or owned slaves. We're talking about whether or not slavery can be considered an evil institution in hindsight and if so, Am I, as a black man, allowed to point out the evils of slavery and those who perpetuated it whenever the topic comes up in conversation? Furthermore, am I allowed to respect people like Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in which he took the lives of several slaveholders and their families? And if you can revere your heroes and I can respect and admire mine, how long will it be before a conversation about American history turns into an argument about race-relations in which racial slurs are uttered and friendships are severed?
I have several white friends, many of whom, I consider family members. I sometimes wonder what conversation will lead to the end of our friendship. I can respect people with opposing viewpoints, but can my friends do the same? If ever we find ourselves in the midst of a debate about American history and they bring up one of their heroes, If I tell them how I feel about said hero, will the phone calls began to occur less frequently? Will I offend them to the point where they decide they'd rather not continue our friendship? Not only are our heroes different, but my heroes stood in direct opposition to your heroes. Just think about that for a second. The people I admire most are the ones who stood up to, and challenged, the people you admire most.
Take John Brown for example. John Brown is regarded as the first American domestic terrorist. Some consider him a maniac. I disagree. I like to think of John Brown as a hero. Of course he was a murderer and religious zealot, but a hero nonetheless. He hated slavery and considered it the greatest sin of the nation. In 1859 he led a raid on the federal armory at Harper Ferry, Va. Brown, along with 21 other men, including his own sons - raided the federal arsenal. His goal was to try to seize the federal armory, which consisted of 100,000 muskets and rifles, and turn the weapons over to local slaves and assist in their fight for liberation. Brown was a white man who could've easily played along and enjoyed the privileges and benefits of owning slaves himself. Instead, he felt slavery was evil and wanted to arm slaves and help them take violent action against their owners. The word "selfless" comes to mind. Brown's plan was foiled, two of his sons were killed in the raid and Brown was captured and hanged.
I think the fact that a man would risk his life to help those who could not help themselves speaks volumes. He went out of his way to challenge the system and stand up for the oppressed even though he, himself, was not one of the oppressed. That man, in my opinion, is a true hero, but I'm sure he won't receive any praise for trying to help dismantle white supremacy from those who benefit from it. It's just the little guys, who stand up against social justice, that truly appreciate the efforts of John Brown and his small militia.
Let's fast-forward a century. Today, Martin Luther King is considered, by many, a hero. People like to talk about how effective he was as a leader and how he fought to overcome injustice, but no one wants to talk about who he was fighting. Who was he fighting? Many of them are your parents and grandparents. Your heroes. Why was it necessary for him to fight for civil rights? Why wasn't it as simple as politely asking for equal rights? Why wasn't one speech or one march enough? It's because some of your own parents and grandparents were utterly opposed to having black people enjoy the same privileges given to white Americans. Some of your elders, many of whom are still alive today, were spitting, throwing rocks, and beating those people who marched with Dr. King. It's interesting how we can consider MLK a "good guy" today, while at the same time, not consider his opponents the "bad guys."
Take former FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover for example: Hoover was FBI director during the time MLK was leading the civil rights movement. He referred to King as "the most notorious liar in the country." Hoover had FBI agents following King, wire-tapping his home and had paid informants infiltrating King's camp. Hoover had a program called "co-intel pro" (counter-intelligence program). This program's main objective was to discredit, disrupt and/or neutralize "black militant groups" he saw as a threat. The cointelpro documents were stolen from an FBI office in 1972 and revealed to the public. It was later revealed that Hoover discovered that MLK was having extramarital affairs and used this information to try to blackmail King. He threatened to expose King unless he agreed to commit suicide. You can't make this stuff up. Hoover was against the rise of a "black messiah" and any black man that had too much influence was seen as a threat in Hoover's eyes.
King was just one of many people Hoover targeted. Fred Hampton, for example was a 21-year-old community organizer and chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. He is most famous for having organized a "rainbow coalition" of black, hispanic, chinese, and caucasian street gangs to unite against police brutality and social injustice. He was murdered by police officers in 1969 with the help of an FBI informant. The details of his death are disturbing enough to smack the patriotism out of any flag-waving American. That is, if said American were brave enough to do the research.
Hoover and his cointelpro program were responsible for countless arrests and murders, yet Hoover's name adorns the FBI headquarters to this day. The J. Edgar Hoover building is where our country's FBI agents meet and conduct business on a daily basis. Seems to me this naming of the building was done in honor of Hoover as a way to commemorate the former FBI director. It's almost as though he's seen as a "hero." It begs the question; How can we call MLK a hero and at the same time call Hoover, a man who was in direct opposition to King a hero as well? Much like Washington, Hoover is a man whose bad deeds, in my opinion, far outweigh the good. I don't care if he rescued a hundred kittens from house fires every day of his life. The fact that he felt that people fighting against social injustices were a threat simply because they happened to be black makes me feel like he was an evil man and is therefore condemned to the wrong side of history. Those individuals who spat on and assaulted MLK are also on the wrong side of history. I admire those who stood up against situations and circumstances that were wrong and I can't just give a pass to the wrong-doers simply because it's popular and socially acceptable to do so.
Hoover's influence was widespread. There were many people who criticized Dr. King. They used to call him Martin Luther Coon. He was attacked several times, not just verbally, but physically as well. Back then he was widely considered a trouble-maker. The same was said about Muhammad Ali when he took his stance against the Vietnam War and refused to enlist in the military, thus costing him his heavyweight title and landing him behind bars. Today, in hindsight, these men are heroes for having taken the very stance for which they were criticized a few decades ago.
Yes, slavery was long ago and no one alive today has experienced it, but injustice still persists and I will always admire those who have the courage to stand up and challenge it. Today we don't have slaves on the auction block. There are no muskets stored at Harpers Ferry. There are no fugitive slave laws in effect. We don't have an underground railroad. However, we do have Colin Kaepernick. I'll let you guess where I stand on that particular issue. All I ask is that you consider this: What do you think they'll be saying about Kaepernick 50 years from now? Perhaps it'll all make sense when you receive a letter in the mail and up in the right-hand corner, you find a Colin Kaepernick postage stamp.
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