Connections in History: Episode IV
Black History Month isn't relegated to the shortest month of the year, as some have claimed. The problem is our misinterpretation that it is the only time of year to celebrate Black History. Instead, it should be seen as a launching point. The month is meant for reflection. What we learn is intended to be carried forward throughout the year to create a more comprehensive history.
Black vs. African-American
Before continuing, I want to explain the use of "Black" versus African-American throughout this piece. I was empathetic about how to make this choice. I first chose the word "black" because it is in the title, Black History Month.
Some refer to Black History Month as African-American History Month. However, worldwide Black History Month is also observed outside of the United States. Canada, United Kingdom, and the Netherlands all formally recognize it as well.
Keith Mayes is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota and an expert on African-American History, specializing in race and perception topics. He has suggested that both "African-American" and "Black" can be used interchangeably. He believes some Black individuals consider the term African-American to limiting. Feeling it does not accurately reflect their unique heritage.
For these reasons, I've used "black" over "African-American." Not to offend or to debate, but to acknowledge the use of language. As a white male, I often steer away from topics involving race. However, diversity and representation are vital to me. I want to be part of the conversation, even if it means getting things wrong. We cannot learn if we do not try— and if we try with honesty and integrity, isn't that better than silence?
Areas of Exploration
In my life, I've always been most influenced by Music, Art, and Film. Victor Wooten is arguably one of the greatest bass players ever, winning countless awards. He reinvigorated my love of the instrument and a deeper connection with my own creativity and approach to life.
His approach to the instrument is so much more than technical. One unorthodox aspect of his playing is influenced by his interest in "tracking." He spent 10 years studying with Tom Brown Jr. Learning the ancient art of tracking, awareness, and survival. Ultimately, combining his love of music, spirituality, and his passion for "tracking" to unearth a unique sound wholly of himself.
Artists such as Haitian-Puerto Rican artist Jean-Michael Basquiat entranced me in the '80s. He told stories through his work that I didn't always understand. But I couldn't turn away. He made me want to understand.
"Hollywood Africans by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s: Photo by Wally Gobetz
Today I can get equally lost in the fascinating silhouettes of modern-day artist Kara Walker. Another NYC artist, her works explore race, gender, sexuality, and violence through silhouetted figures. Their art and many others' creations have made me stop and take deeper notice of the world around me. That's what great art does; it moves us; to think, feel, and perhaps take action.
When he faced down the racist Chief Gillespie in The Heat of the Night, Sidney Portier's passionate voice and intense eyes introduced me to racism. Though, I didn't recognize it at the time. I only saw an outstanding performance. Made more powerful when you know how close the two actors were off-screen.
Gillespie, played by Rod Steiger, taunts him with a racial slur, asking about his name. In response, Mr. Portier responds, "They call me Mr. Tibbs!"
His delivery of the line was so powerful that it became the sequel film's title. It also elevated Mr. Portier unmistakably to front and center on the film's poster. In contrast, The Heat of the Night poster relied on the more traditional noir style typical of the day.
Movie Poster For Sale: Screen Shot from ebay
Coloradons Making a Difference Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
My love of musicals, artists, and actors spans continents. I could continue to merely list examples of influence. But instead, I've chosen to focus closer to home. Turning to my backyard of Colorado.
Mayor Wellington Webb
Former Mayor Wellington Webb and his Wife Wilma: Photo by Jeffrey Beall, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Many in Colorado know that Mayor Wellington Webb was the first black Mayor of Denver. Lesser known is that he followed in the footsteps of John T Gunnel 100 years earlier. Mr. Gunnel was the first African-American to hold a seat on the Colorado Legislature.
100 years later, in 1991, unknown candidate Webb went on a so-called "Sneaker Campaign" — going door to door to introduce himself as a relatively unknown candidate. He remained in office for 12 years. He is remembered for many accomplishments, including a 40% decrease in crime, the new Denver International Airport, and a new African-American Research Library.
Madam C.J. Walker
By Scurlock Studio (Washington, D.C.) (photographers). - Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History : Archives Center. P.O. Box 37012 , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61548583
Madam Walker was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political and social activist. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, she is credited with being the first female millionaire in US history. Based out of Denver, she established the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis in 1910. It was known as a premier source of African-American cosmetics and hair care products.
Photo of James Beckwourth: By Unknown: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2693866
Black Explorers James Beckwourth was a premier explorer, huntsman, and trader. He was of mixed race and born into slavery in Virginia. After being freed by his slave-owning white father, Mr. Beckwourth headed west. He has been celebrated as a role model during the 1960's Civil Rights Movement. Like Madam Walker, he has also been memorialized in several books.
Founder of Colorado Blackpackers: Patricia Cameron. Photo Permission Granted.
Last but not least is Patricia Cameron. She is the executive director and Founder of Colorado Blackpackers. I first became aware of Patricia through her writing from the Colorado Trail. She traveled her 7-week, nearly 500-mile journey as one of the only black hikers on the trail.
She brings her love of hiking to the world — strongly encouraging other hikers of color to hit the trail. Through her work at the foundation, she and her team help provide gear, outdoor excursions, and outdoor education for free or subsidized costs. They also connect participants with volunteer opportunities, internships, jobs, and post-secondary education resources to create a pipeline from outdoor recreation to outdoor industry careers. (Shared from the foundation's website). In February, Colorado Blackpackers helped sponsor several people to participate in an all-expenses-paid skiing experience at Colorado's A-Basin.
Through Patricia's work in the community, I learned about Black Outside. A group dedicated to (Re)connecting black youth to the outdoors. Also, I discovered their partner group Slim Pickins Outfitters. The nation's first Black-owned outdoor gear shop. She encouraged others to donate when the shop was down on its luck. Helping them to exceed their GoFund Me Goals.
Learn, Discover and Expand Your Knowledge
I again think back on Mr. Portier's line, "They call me Mr. Tibbs." I was relatively young when I first saw the film. I didn't know the importance of the line until I was much older. I've come to understand it, for it was and is — a battle cry for respect.
There is so much more to learn from Black History Month. It's more than facts, dates, and interesting stories. It's a window into the past and, at times, our roles in that past. Spend a moment learning about Black History this February. Then carry that knowledge forward, and take action throughout the year to be part of creating tomorrow's History.