When I was a precocious little boy growing up Detroit, my parents, both educators, would take me to Motown’s only Black-owned book store, Vaughn’s Books, almost every Saturday morning.
It was a time well before the invention of notepads, lap top computers, cell phones, Kindle or the Internet which as we all know now dominate the scene. If you wanted to learn something, you had to read a book. Yes, your “fingers had to do the walking.”
And so, I meandered down the aisles like a veritable “Pied Piper” on a quest to understand more about who I was, from whence my ancestors had come and how Blacks had contributed in so many significant ways in the shaping of America – this so-called “land of the free and home of the brave.”
Of course, I would also soon come to the knowledge that such a promise only extended to those with blond hair, blue eyes and white skin. Their story was diametrically different from the story of my people.
As I grew older, I looked for more challenging tomes, eventually coming upon an historical piece now considered a classic in the telling of the story of Black Americans from their roots in Africa to their lives in contemporary America, “”Before the Mayflower,” written by Lerone Bennett, Jr., first published in 1962.
Bennett, a student at Morehouse College and a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi, worked as a reporter for several Black newspapers, The Mississippi Enterprise and the Atlanta Daily World, before becoming the first senior editor of Ebony magazine.
I recall sitting down with his book, pen and highlighter in hand, and taking a fascinating journey where I uncovered, through his amazing scholarship, the origins of the great empires of western Africa, the harrowing tale of the transatlantic journey across the ocean to slavery in the U.S., the Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era and the turbulent decades of the modern day Civil Rights Movement.
But there was much more. I would meet men and women, seminal figures in the Black struggle for freedom, like Richard Allen, Prince Hall, Phillis Wheatley, John B. Russwurm, Frederick Douglass, Daisy Bates, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Joseph E. Lowery, Patricia Harris and Martin Luther King, Jr., just to name a few.
Now, with the long-awaited opening of the multimillion dollar National Museum of African American History & Culture on the National Mall upon us, stirring profiles of my “heroes and sheroes,” along with artifacts, exhibits and other pieces of history will be presented utilizing today’s highly interactive technology.
I can’t wait to take my two grandsons, Jordon and Jackson, to the museum where I can share my perspectives as we travel through history – our history – and gain a new insight into the sacrifices, contributions and diligence of men, women and children whose forefathers once lived in freedom on the continent of Africa – our Mother Land.
But I will always have books to share so that my two “young warriors” will be able to go back and retrace that history whenever they get the urge.
There’s a saying which tells us that if we don’t learn from our history, we are doomed to repeat it. More than anything else, I guess that’s why this museum means so much to me. Maybe, just maybe, as all Americans come face to face with the truth – the truth about prejudice, human subjugation, man’s inhumanity to man – and how some their lives in order to destroy the shackles that bound them, we’ll find a way to overcome firmly entrenched attitudes, beliefs and falsely-written history that have long separated Blacks and whites in these United States of America.
Who could have known that we would realize such a moment as this – the opening of this amazing museum and the truths it will reveal for generations to come – from the sorrowful journey of a handful of unwitting Africans whisked away from their homes in 1619 and brought to a place where they would be ridiculed, demeaned and enslaved – a place that would ironically later welcome others who longed for freedom.
This is our history – this is our song. And still “we rise.”