In April 1989, following the sexual assault of a white woman in New York City’s Central Park, five young Black and Hispanic youth were convicted for this heinous crime despite inconsistencies in DNA evidence. In the process of weathering the media storm and pressure from local authorities, Salaam claims he had a “spiritual awakening” that was being shaped by the hands of God. About six months into his bid, Salaam was debating if he was doing time or if time was doing him, when an officer approached him and asked, “Who are you?”. After giving the officer his full name, the officer replied, “I know that. You’re not supposed to be here. Who are you?”. This moment changed his entire trajectory because Salaam realized he was born with a purpose. As a result, Salaam earned a college degree while in prison and suggested this accomplishment means he could do anything. He argues that many in the public eye were looking at him with hatred because they saw his future self, an educated Black man fighting for racial and criminal justice.
After serving nearly seven years for a crime he did not commit, a confession and DNA match from Matias Reyes in 2002 allowed the release and exoneration of Salaam as well as Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise. Aside from Salaam and Wise’s acquaintanceship, the Exonerated Five did not know each other. Due to police profiling, they were rounded up by NYPD, interrogated, and pressured to confess to false narratives about one another, thus having to fight individually for themselves as well as their families. The Exonerated Five never discussed these events among each other because they assumed everyone had the same experience. However, upon a pre-release screening of When They See Us, which Salaam claimed was a “traumatic experience”, the Exonerated Five had the opportunity to process the series of events that would bind them together forever.
Although, the story does not end here. As fate would have it, then future U.S. President Donald Trump actively participated in promoting the execution of the Exonerated Five through an ad in local newspapers. Furthermore, Salaam’s claim that President Trump is responsible for “cosigning folks in Charlottesville” suggests our current cultural, social, and political environment encourages racial and criminal injustice. In response, echoing Carter G. Woodson’s treatise “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” Salaam exclaimed that history is trained and taught into a people. As a result, people of color, namely Black Americans, can become so destroyed by a system that they don’t want to participate. Although, Salaam said such a position suggests, “Non-participation is participation.” Thus, we, ourselves, are the answer.
This brings us to how we, particularly white folks who have orchestrated institutions to disadvantage people of color, can be the change we want to see. As Salaam suggests, “The system is working the way it was designed.” Thus, systemic issues disproportionately affecting people of color, such as police profiling, generational poverty, underfunded schools, and weakened voting rights, must immediately be addressed and reformed. Eradicating these injustices will unlikely be in in our lifetime, although current efforts by Black Lives Matter, Innocence Project, The Sentencing Project, and Woke Vote, among many others, shine a light on what we have, and can, accomplish.
February is Black History Month. For the next few posts, I will review books by Black women who provide insight into the Black experience.
Zora Neale Hurston (ZNH) was a cultural anthropologist. With her very being, Hurston occupied a space of protest of the normative within the field of anthropology as she traversed through society and academia as a Black woman from the South. The intersectionality of her life may remain lost on some; however, it is essential to understanding her as an ethnographer, folklorist, and local colorist. She studied under Franz Boas alongside Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, but there is often an exclusion of her work. When listing the cohort of the generations of anthropologists or ethnographers, ZNH is often not among those listed, as the categories for her work are The Harlem Renaissance, folklore, or African American literature. To Boas, ZNH was an anthropologist who, through the application of anthropological methods and techniques, gave insight into Black life in a way no White person could do. In this way, she achieves “racial vindication” and qualitative results through the application of anthropological methods like observation and participation, unstructured interviews, and ethnographic data collection.
Barracoonis the oral history of Cudjo Lewis—or Oluale Kossola–the only living African “cargo” of the slave ship, Clotilda. Kossola was not born into enslavement. He was sold and captured from Dahomey (presently Benin) and brought to Mobile Bay in Alabama. His testimony offers a completely new perspective and firsthand account of colonization. Hurston first reveals insight into her reflexive research on Kossola’s life and story in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. “One thing impressed me strongly…The white people had held my people in slavery here in America. But the inescapable fact that stuck in my craw, was: my people had sold me and the white people bought me. That did away with the folklore I had been brought up on. It was a sobering thought” (164-8). Employing her trademark of writing phonetically, ZNH allows Kossola to tell his story in his language and style, rarely interrupting his stream of consciousness. This methodology would later become known as emic ethnography. Spending three months in one-on-one interviews solely with Kossola, a Yoruba by birth and a resident of Affriky town, she learns about his life in Africa, his survival of the Middle Passage and enslavement, and his life as a ‘free’ man.
Oluale Kossola was a man to many, but to others, he was an exploit of their contrabanded flesh: “’the black ivory,’ ‘the coin of Africa,’ had no market value.” He and the other enslaved were “Africa’s ambassadors to the New World,” sold as “brisk trade” by the King of Dahomey (5-9). Although she refers to him by his American name, Cudjo, throughout the book, ZNH makes a point to state that upon her initial reunification with him, “I hailed him by his African name as I walked up to the steps of his porch.” As his eyes filled with joyful tears, he exclaimed,
“Oh Lor’, I know it you call my name. Nobody don’t callee me my name from cross de water but you. You always callee me Kossula, jus’ lak I in de Affica soil” (17).
By the time ZNH sits down with Cudjo, he is the only one left and finds himself surprised and moved that someone would want to learn about his life. Hurston writes that she told him that she wanted to know all about him, to which he responded:
“Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in the Afficky soil some day and callee my name and somebody dere say, ‘Yeah, I know Kossula.’ I want you everywhere you go to tell everybody whut Cudjo say, and how come I in Americky soil since de 1859 and never see my people no mo’. I can’t talkee plain, you unnerstand me, but I calls it word by word for you so it won’t be too crooked for you. My name, is not Cudjo Lewis. It Kossula. When I gittee in Americky soil, Mr. Jim Meaher he try callee my name, but it too long, you unnerstand me, so I say, ‘Well, I yo’ property?’ He say, ‘Yeah.’ Den I say, ‘You callee me Cudjo. Dat do.’ But in Affricky soil my mama she name me Kossula” (19-20).
Kossola’s narrative differs from the account of Olaudah Equiano and the former slave narratives of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Booker T. Washington. Additionally, it is unlike the ethnographic work of Eatonville, Florida as written about in Mules and Menand her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Scholars Natalie S. Robertson and Sylviane A. Diouf provide extensive supportive evidence about the 1927-28 anthropological research of ZNH, the Clotilda and the establishment of Africa town in Alabama in their respective books, The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown, USA and Dreams of Africa in Alabama. Although both books preceded Barracoon’s 2018 publication, they build upon the foundation laid and the way paved for by ZNH, even mentioning current residents of Africatown who met her during the visit. Robertson accurately identifies Kossula as a griot or native African storyteller, trusted to keep and share the stories of tribes over generations. There is “genius that is contained in oral tradition as chroniclers of phenomena and as vehicles for education in Africa…without dependency on written records. Because Cudjo hailed from West Africans who are masters of the spoken word, it was not difficult for him, even as a nonagenarian, to recall the circumstances that led to his capture and forced migration to Alabama” (9). As Diouf points out, slave and former slave narratives reveal what life was like during and after enslavement but the narrative of Clotilda survivors like Kossola “represents a unique group of people who grew up free, spent the majority of their years in bondage during the Civil War, and soon became free again.” Their perspectives also reveal the parts of African culture that adapted, sustained them and continued to unify them (4).
In her signature way, ZNH accomplishes several things with this book. First, she continually restores the humanity that enslavement and separation from Africa stripped away. With the one action of calling him by his African name, she imparted both his personal and cultural identity. By transcribing his narrative in his dialect, she maintains his character and dignity. Second, she allows Kossula to tell his story. Oral history and narrations are cultural and personal heritage. Kossula was the last survivor of the Clotilda; therefore, if ZNH had not traveled to Africatown when she did, this one-of-a-kind perspective might not have been told. Third, she does not gloss over or shy away from the brutality of colonization and the dehumanization that comes with the financial trading of human beings and comes to identify with him. As echoed in Dust Tracks, “Truth is a letter from courage” (31). Regardless of her role as an anthropologist and observer, she finds herself drawn in and experiencing his pain, tragedy, and joy. It is for these reasons that Boas concluded that the work of ZNH contributed to the “knowledge of the true inner life of the Negro” because she was not only a student of history but could “enter into the homely life of the southern Negro as one of them and was fully accepted” (xiii-xiv).
Hurston could have selected any group of people to study, anywhere in the U.S. or world, yet, she chose to return home and study the people she knew and the town she loved. In doing this, ZNH gave value and voice to the “inferior”—people who shared the same skin color and occupied the same category of within the social construction. She reflexively offers a distinct perspective on Blackness because she was Black and studied Black people to know herself more and to debunk the myths and stereotypes about who Black people were, how they arrived here, how they live and continue to live.
February is Black History Month. This blog series seeks to challenge the narrative of Black criminality, inferiority, and violence by presenting a counter-narrative that explores the ethic of nonviolence as a method for the acknowledgment of existence, rejection of exodus, and expression of identity for Blacks.
Nonviolence is a demonstration of Black identity. It is an identity, which under the weight of oppression, falls silent while waiting for the proper moment for a revolutionary uprising. Nonviolence is a philosophy that emerges from a personal ethic–an ethic cemented in the tactical decision not to resort to violence. For Mahatma Gandhi during the Salt March and India’s quest for independence from Britain, and Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement in 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, in conjunction with Freedom Rides and sit-ins, a nonviolent ethic which spawned movements, revolutionizing the people and nations where they took place. The validation of brute force occurs when police meet with a perceived or actual violent response.
“…Anyone in his right mind knows that this will not happen in the United States. In a violent racial situation, the power structure has the local police, the state troopers, the national guard, and finally the army to call on, all of which are predominately white… Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It leaves society in a monologue rather than a dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”
However, when nonviolence is the position of choice, the revelation of brutality and personification of the law is unjust and excessive.
In his book, Why We Can’t Wait, King describes why 1963 proved the perfect timing for nonviolent revolution in pursuit of the freedoms and rights awarded by the Constitution. He points to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 guaranteeing Americans of African descent were entitled to receive the same rights as Americans of European descent as citizens of this country. Rights garnered to them as creations of God, who made all men equal, yet the law and the nature of exacting justice on behalf of Blacks continued to fail 100 years later. The struggle of Black Americans under the burden of denial that rendered a deafening and paralyzing silence had finally become too heavy. The process of attaining acknowledgment as an individual and as a race would come only as a means of constructing an unanticipated identity: nonviolent.
Mark Kurlansky claims although there is no exact word defining nonviolence, its existence is evident throughout history:
“Nonviolence is not the same thing as pacifism…. Pacifism is treated almost as a psychological condition. It is a state of mind. Pacifism is passive; but nonviolence is active. Pacifism is harmless and therefore easier to accept than nonviolence, which is dangerous. When Jesus Christ said that a victim should turn the other cheek, he was preaching pacifism. But when he said that an enemy should be won over through the power of love, he was preaching nonviolence. Nonviolence, exactly like violence, is a means of persuasion, a technique for political activism, a recipe for prevailing. It requires a great deal more imagination to devise nonviolent means…while there is often a moral argument for nonviolence, the core of the belief is political: that nonviolence is more effective than violence, that violence does not work” (6).
Many whites, whether European or American, consistently viewed Blacks as inferior. The arrival of Anglo-Saxons and other Europeans on the shores of Africa, island nations, and America speak to the savagery of conquest and the brutality inflicted upon the colonized by the colonizer. To the colonizer, the colonized would become identifiable in terms of animals: savage and barbarian. Classification and ranking based upon physicality and skin tone defined the interactions of the colonized with the colonizer. The terms of existence, foundation, and implementation for the “other” assumed classification.
White superiority is the product of the social construction of race. The “globality”, a term coined by Charles Mills, of white superiority manifests in cultural racism and cultural theft. For du Bois, the overarching reach of white supremacy is fourfold:
It oppresses. The tentacles of white supremacy affect everything: “history”, interpersonal relationships, politics, justice, and economics—creating systematic and systemic oppression.
It symbolizes the gain achieved due to the exploitation of nonwhites, more specifically blacks.
It hinges on false ideals and narratives of black inferiority. The underlying and overarching theme of Black inferiority remains the domestic narrative (in the US). This mischaracterization cultivates a culture wherein Whites exists in an environment perpetuated by rumors, innuendos, accusations, and fear. The replication of this “self-fulfilling prophecy” of black criminality inevitably demands for whites to see Blacks as a criminal at every turn.
White supremacy consumes every civic and social contribution made by nonwhites, namely blacks, as a method of continually undermining the cultural and social identity, as well as expunge the existence.
In “The Negro Revolution—Why 1963?”, King asserts the Negro Revolution generated quietly as a response of more than “three hundred years of humiliation, abuse and deprivation”. European culture, history, and religion served as qualifiers in the distorted assertion that white and European descendants are civilized while nonwhites are ‘wild’ and ‘savage’; setting the stage for colonization and imperialism as precursors to slavery, racism, and white superiority. Colonizers portrayed the colonized as societies without and impervious to values. “He is, dare we say it, the enemy of values. In other worlds, absolute evil”. The notion of values for the colonized were lost on the colonizers, who customized their abuses and depravity like a trademark. The reduction of Blacks to “zoological terms” dehumanized the colonized; however, the colonized knew they were not animals, and upon the remembrance of their humanity, began to “sharpen their weapons to secure its victory”. Slavery and its dehumanizing conditions shaped the culture of Black resistance and a social identity embracing nonviolence.
Charles Henry (1981) insists changes in values spark revolutions, while Stephen Reicher (2004) argues human social action understood within the context of social interaction, is bound to the parameters of the mind and its processes. Violent revolutionaries like Nat Turner and John Brown dotted the Southern landscape of cotton fields but remain the exception rather than the rule. There is a temptation to classify almost every slave rebellion as violent or aggressive; yet, whether feigning sickness, breaking tools, learning to read in secret, or running away, nonviolent direct action was the weapon of choice for the enslaved person demanding freedom through acknowledgment.
Nonviolent direct action has been a method of resistance for Blacks for centuries, from cotton fields to Harlem and the Great Migration; 1963 was simply the moment when the resistance could no longer remain invisible to the world. For Reicher, the definition of Self is complicated by personal identity as a lone individual and by social identity as a member of a group. To shift from interpersonal behavior to intergroup behavior, an understanding of the seamless nature of the internal “pivot between the individual and the social” is necessary. Social identity requires social context for understanding, and social context has redefined the individual in social terms. Social identity addresses the ideological and structural features of the social world; any attempt to view a portion of whole apart from the whole will distort the perception of both the part and the process.
King questions the reasons for the consistent misery plaguing the Negro and responds “a submerged social group” will create an uprising because they are propelled by justice, lifted with swiftness, moved by determination, and unafraid of risk or scorn. They are a collective; no longer in isolation, aware they are stronger together than apart. He advocates for and presents a meta-analysis framework necessary for understanding individual social identity and behavior in conjunction with identity and behavior of the collective by introducing the concept of behavioral flexibility. Behavioral flexibility becomes identifiable in the cultural changes illuminated by segmentation and categorization through which humanity ascribes meaning, assigns assessment, and determines interaction with another. In short, behavioral flexibility is the basis of culture creation. This creation takes place at both the individual and collective levels.
Rabaka believes culture is the coalescence of collective thoughts and practices, yielding belief and values systems created for the development, enhancement, and sustenance of a people who share a past, present, and future. The goal of culture is to expand and contract through the engagement of individuals, seeking to make sense of the world as a means of altering it for the betterment of self and others. Culture, though created through flexible behavior, is rigid when utilized as a constraint for some. Constraint assumes an understanding about a misapplied identity. Flexible behavior can prove detrimental to a cultural system because human uniqueness provides for the creation of worlds, rather than simple adaption to worlds. It is here the will to counter the “culture of domination” materializes.
Black leaders employed various perspectives and strategies for dealing with the injustice of racism in America. Each differed from the nonviolent direct action of King. For Booker T. Washington, a leader during the Reconstruction Era and the rise of Jim Crow, Blacks simply needed to remain subservient to the degradation because eventually hard work will help us “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps”. W.E.B du Bois asserted the advancement of a few Blacks, “the talented tenth”, would carry the rest. Separation and journey back to Africa stood firm as the solution for Marcus Garvey, while for Malcolm X, internal separation, through force if necessary, would counter the need for equality with and dependence upon whites. King reminds us that the “elusive path to freedom…for a twice-burdened people” requires the presentation of their bodies–rather than fleeing or cowering under the disappointment—as freedom from the oppressor is “never voluntarily given”, it is demanded.
White supremacy is not only a global and social issue but also a political and personal one. The discourse surrounding white supremacy can no longer remain reduced to exposing racism. It must include the denial of human rights, specifically the deprivation of identity, the poverty of culture, and the theft of ideas. Additionally, the critical notion that white supremacy is a culture of structural and physical violence must become a part of this dialogue. An undoing of structural violence should become the mandate of all races, including whites. Those in power have a responsibility to collaborate with those who are not to dismantle structural violence. The creation of a new global culture is crucial to this process – one including an unwavering commitment to and enshrinement of nonviolent tactics to subvert the hegemony of power in the face of systemic injustice.
Barack Obama, in one of his last acts as president, signed a proclamation that designated the Birmingham Civil Rights District as a national monument. For those unaware, the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument includes the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, the A.G. Gaston Motel, Bethel Baptist Church, the Colored Masonic Temple, St. Paul United Methodist Church, portions of the 4th Avenue Business District, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. These locations are “hallowed grounds” for Birmingham because they serve as the epicenter American Civil Rights Movement. We speak of the history regarding these locations. Sixteenth Street Baptist Church stands as the site of a horrific bombing that claimed the lives of four black girls: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair. However, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was also—and still continues to serve as–a social center and lecture hall for education and social awareness; a headquarters for activism; and a platform for heralded visitors as it did in the past, for leaders like W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Ralph Bunche, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and most recently, Attorney General of the United States, Loretta Lynch who spoke her final message as a public servant. The Colored Masonic Temple, which beyond its beautiful architecture, sat as the centerpiece for lively Black owned businesses and a booming downtown social life. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and some of the movement’s top leaders strategized in room 30 of the A.G. Gaston Motel, which also became known as the “war room”. Additionally, in this room, Dr. King made the decision to submit himself to being jailed—resulting in a “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. To this day, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” serves as the most important written document of the civil rights era because of its tangible reproduced accounts in the fight for freedom and King’s response to the broad criticisms he has received from around the country. As you can imagine, I can write at considerable length about the historical facts and pieces of information I have picked up from the Birmingham Civil Rights District. However, the focus of this post is to address why this national monument is important.
The National Monument is a Mile Marker for Racial and Social Progress
What a society and its citizens choose to remember and create moments for, communicates a great deal about where their beliefs lie. At the same time, there is essential learning in understanding what a society chooses to forget. That said, I think that it is critical for each generation to understand the struggles and sacrifices many have endured to achieve equal rights because that cultural memory plays a role in the shaping of our collective identity. To this degree, we must accept the ugly truth that racism is embedded within our society and remnants of its power still resides within today’s social structure. In order for us to move forward in the solving of social problems, we must embrace this part of our history and understand how the intersections of race, class, privilege, gender, and so forth influences current issues. If not, then the politics of denial will continue to define teachings of American Civil Rights Movement into a one month a year curriculum composed of mainstream heroes that is not taught widely enough or comprehensively addressed at various school levels. Through the national monument, we as global citizens are pushed to think critically about our past. We are challenged to ask ourselves how can we move forward in the fight for equality and equity locally and globally. As important, we are reminded that the fight is not over.
This National Monument Preserves a “Balanced Realness” of African-American Culture
There is more to African-American culture than the mainstream depictions which tend to populate and reinforce negative stereotypes through mainstream media. The story of black people in Birmingham is one which highlights how individuals are able to rise from second class citizenship to obtain an education, contribute to society, maintain families, and overcome multiple challenges serves as a critical element of our American lineage. Through the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, we are afforded the opportunity to hear those stories; learn of all the heroes and their sacrifices; and to speak with some of those “living griots” who volunteer to share their own knowledge and experiences with the public. And, it is just not in the very people. As previously stated, this national monument is hallowed grounds because the location itself is a symbolic repository of African-American culture that has often been paved over, gone through urban renewal, gentrified, and left to stand as unidentified culture markers in major cities.
The National Monument Reinforces the Hope of Our Collective Community
The Birmingham Civil Rights District is not just Black history; it is American history. In a society that continues to diversify and splinter, it is crucial for us to be reminded that we are still one community. Together, we share a common heritage and history of hope and resilience through tough times. To me, the beauty of the civil rights movement is that when you reflect, there are continuous instances where multiple ethnic and cultural groups have decided to unite in the face of oppression. Today, we are facing with some unique challenges. There are segments of our population who are not only oppressed, but seeking refuge and allies to stand with them. As we look for answers, our national monument stands as a constant reminder that we are the change that we wish to see, and all we have to do is come together. In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”
In closing, the national monument is more than just a series of historical buildings and educational centers containing a collection of objects and documents. It is a powerful reminder of Birmingham’s culture and its impact on the larger American story. I am confident that as the fight for equality, equity and inclusion continues, we will find a way to find opportunity in the midst of life’s challenges because that is what we do. In the words of John Henrik Clarke, “What we have done before, we can do again.”
UAB is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer committed to fostering a diverse, equitable and family-friendly environment in which all faculty and staff can excel and achieve work/life balance irrespective of race, national origin, age, genetic or family medical history, gender, faith, gender identity and expression as well as sexual orientation. UAB also encourages applications from individuals with disabilities and veterans.