tagged with: Black History Month
Amanda Gorman
Attribution: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from Washington D.C, United States, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To me, one of the most crippling experiences of African American slavery was the fact that slaves were denied the privilege of learning to read and write.

Of course, if you were a slave, being worked almost to death, beaten for no good reason, and deprived of what we would consider basic necessities, learning to read and write would be the furthest thing on your mind.

But such was the law at that time. If you were a slave in the United States, literacy was beyond your reach. In Slavery and The Making of America: The Slave Experience, the article description states, “Fearing that black literacy would prove a threat to the slave system — which relied on slaves’ dependence on masters — whites in many colonies instituted laws forbidding slaves to learn to read or write and making it a crime for others to teach them.”

This doesn’t mean that slaves were never taught to read. Some slave owners allowed or taught their slaves to learn to read for the purpose of religious instruction. However, learning to write was considered off limits. It would “threaten the social order,” according to another article.


Slavery and The Making of America: The Slave Experience cites an excerpt from the South Carolina Act of 1740, which states in part, “Whereas, the having slaves taught to write, or suffering them to be employed in writing, may be attended with great inconveniences; Be it enacted, that all and every person and persons whatsoever, who shall hereafter teach or cause any slave or slaves to be taught to write, or shall use or employ any slave as a scribe, in any manner of writing whatsoever, hereafter taught to write, every such person or persons shall, for every such offense, forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds, current money. “

If only the framers of those laws could have seen into the future, they would have scrapped them before the ink dried on the page. Because today, descendants of slaves are among the most prolific and sought-after writers in libraries and bookstores across America.

One slave who did receive reading and writing instruction from her masters was Phillis Wheatley, who, it was revealed, published her first poem “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” at the age of 13. By the time she was 18, she had gathered a collection of 28 poems, for which she, with the help of her mistress Mrs. Wheatley, sought subscriptions in Boston newspapers.

However, this effort proved futile, and on May 8, 1771, Wheatley and Nathaniel, the Wheatley’s son, sailed for London, where Phillis was welcomed by several dignitaries, including Benjamin Franklin. Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), became the first volume of poetry by an African American published in modern times.

Today, other names have followed the trail blazed by Phillis Wheatley: Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Gwendolyn Brooks, and many others.

This post will not be complete without mentioning the latest poet to join the ranks of illustrious African American poets. Many of us had not heard of Amanda Gorman until she recited her captivating poem, The Hill We Climb at Joe Biden’s inauguration, making her the youngest inaugural poet in US history. She will no doubt go on to cross many rivers and climb many hills, forever keeping her name etched in the annals of African American literature.

Reading poetry can be inspiring, stimulating, and soothing at the same time. It can speak to your heart in ways that prose may not always do. For Black History month, will you take the time to delve into some of these treasures that can enrich your life? If you look at the related posts below, you would find a couple that, I hope, will whet your appetite for more. When you do, please drop me a line and tell me what you read and what you think about them.

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Kobe Bryant, Lakers shooting guard, stands ready to shoot a free throw during Tuesday night’s pre-season game against the Golden State Warriors. Bryant was essential in bringing together a large point gap late in the second quarter, after the Warriors took the early lead.

Every year during Black History month, I pay tribute to a black author, living or dead, who has made a significant impact on the literary world. But this year, I’m opening the month with a post about a basketball star–Kobe Bryant.

I feel led to do this, not because I’m a basketball fan–although I do like to watch the Miami Heats, since they are in my neck of the woods– but because Kobe’s untimely passing has so stunned the world that I could not help but join in mourning the loss of this amazing young man. All I knew of Kobe Bryant was he was one of the world’s greatest basketball players. But what touched me about him so much was his devotion to his family.

As fate would have it, Kobe and his thirteen-year-old daughter perished together in that horrible helicopter crash that also claimed the lives of seven other people. Images of Kobe and his daughter taken before the crash showed him hugging her close. I imagined him hugging her even tighter as the helicopter went down.
What a loss; to his family, to the sport and to the world.

I began this post by saying I usually write about black authors during Black History month. Well, it so happens that the multi-talented, multi-lingual Gold medalist and Oscar winner was also an author.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Kobe published the book The Mamba Mentality: How I Play. I think this book will make a fitting birthday present for my grandson who, I believe, will one day be a NBA star. Will Jayden be as great as Kobe or Shaq or LeBron or any of the other players he looks up to? Only time will tell. But I do hope he will emulate Kobe’s dedication not just to the game, but to his family and his community.

This quote from Kobe gives us a glimpse into the man’s character and the secret to his success. It has inspired me and I daresay it will inspire all who read it: “If you’re afraid to fail, then you’re probably going to fail.”

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Langston Hughes photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936.

As you all know, February is Black History month, the time when we celebrate the achievements of black folk here in America. As I researched on Google for an author to feature this week, I came across Langston Hughes, famous playwright, novelist, poet and social activist. Of course, I’d read many of his poems (who hasn’t?) but never knew that  I shared the same birth date – Feb. 1 – as this illustrious scribe.

Born of mixed heritage – his paternal great-grandfathers were of European descent, while his maternal great-grandmothers were African American – Hughes took pride in his African-American identity and stressed this in his work.

While in high school in Cleveland, Ohio, Hughes wrote for the school newspaper, edited the yearbook and began to write short stories, poetry and dramatic plays. He wrote his first piece of jazz poetry — a literary art form in which the poet responds and writes about jazz — “When Sue Wears Red” while still in high school.

Hughes’ first book of poetry “The Weary Blues” (1926) features the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which became a signature poem. In 1930, he won the Harmon Gold Medal for Literature for his first novel, Not Without Laughter. Hughes went on to write many short stories, novels, essays, works for children, autobiographies, plays, and later formed a theater troupe in Los Angeles.

Although a major influence during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Hughes was highly critical of other Renaissance men such as W.E.B Du Bois and others who, he felt, were too accommodating of eurocentric values and culture. In addition to his literary prowess, Hughes racial consciousness inspired and united black writers not only in America but around the globe.  He had a major influence on writers  such as Jacques Roumain, Nicolás Guillén, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Aimé Césaire.  Hughes was greatly admired by young black writers whom he discovered and helped by introducing them to the publishing world. One such example is Alice Walker author of The Color Purple.

Reading and writing about this great man is like searching through an encyclopedia, trying to extract the most significant facts about his life and not knowing where to begin. The task is the same when it comes to his poems. However, I selected a few lines from The Negro Mother which is very touching to me and which, I believe, is so pertinent to these times.

 

Sometimes, the road was hot with the sun,
But I had to keep on till my work was done:
I had to keep on! No stopping for me –
I was the seed of the coming Free.
I nourished the dream that nothing could smother
Deep in my breast – the Negro mother.

You can read more of Langston Hughes’s work on PoemHunter.com

 

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Toni Morrison speaking at "A Tribute to C...

Image via Wikipedia

I could not let Black History month go out without writing something about Toni Morrison, recipient of many distinguished literary awards and the first black woman to win a Nobel prize in  Literature.  Her real name is Chloe Anthony Wofford, but she changed it to Toni to coincide with her middle name since many people could not pronounce her first name correctly. Toni was an excellent student who loved to read and in first grade she was the only black student who could read.

Toni graduated from Howard University in Washington, DC with a bachelor’s degree in English before moving to Cornell University, New York where she graduated with a master’s degree. Toni’s first job was as a teacher in Texas University. She was later offered a job as an editor with Random House where she edited the works of prominent figures like Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis and Andrew Young.  (more…)