A love song to America

"The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it ... History is literally present in all that we do."

“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it … History is literally present in all that we do.”  James Baldwin — 8/2/1924 to 12/1/1987

It’s after 7 a.m. on Saturday May 23 when my sister Judith and I travel with my niece Leigh, from her home in Olney, Maryland. We are on our way to witness the celebratory opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), that documents my ancestors’ struggle to Freedom. The words of James Baldwin, one of our most prolific Black writers of the 20th Century are engraved inside the museum, capturing the essence of the African American experience. His words and those of other men and women Black writers are spoken by Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith during a poetry slam that thrilled everyone of us.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture

The National Museum of African American History and Culture

David Adyaye of Ghanain-British heritage, is the 50 year-old architect and lead designer of the museum.

Three depictions of Yoruba crowns

Three depictions of Yoruba crowns

In an interview published in the September 26, 2016 edition of “The Last Magazine”, he describes his   concept ” … to express history that began with enslavement and moved, slowly towards freedom.” It was a Yoruba sculpture that embraced  his vision  of “… a two-tiered, crown-like structure … open to the sky, riddled with sunlight.”

Sketches of African Americans--male and female--whose Black lives once mattered, now gone.

Sketches of African Americans–male and female–whose Black lives once mattered, now gone.

It’s near 8:30 when we arrive in DC and walk the several blocks along 17th Street before entering into the public viewing area. Hawkers are setting up on the sidewalks to sell their wares of T-shirts, buttons, caps and even sketches of Black Lives lost, from Trayvon Martin to Terence Crutcher. Now inside the Mall’s expansive grounds we scope out a spot, plant our feet and for the next 4 hours don’t move until its over. The crowds of mostly African Americans also include Caucasians and Asians. Numerous people are wearing African garb while elsewhere Black Lives Matter T-shirts and logos from colleges and universities near and far cover the backs of others.

The FREEDOM SOUNDS program of music and poetry share the day with remarks from Smithsonian Museum representatives including founding director Lonnie G. Bunch III, Civil Rights icon Congressman John Lewis, prominent entertainers and former President George W. Bush who signed the legislation to build this museum. When President Obama reaches the podium everybody stands and shouts and cell phone cameras rise in the air. Lots of love is given to the most popular President in decades.

Our President. I will sure miss him. His remarks were a love song for Americans.

Our President. I will miss him. His remarks were a love song for America

“This is the place to understand how protest and love of country don’t merely coexist but inform each other…hopefully this museum can help us talk to each other … listen to each other … see each other. Black and White and Latino and Native American and Asian America.” from remarks by President Barack Obama

"... on a stone worn down by the tragedy of over a thousand feet ..."

“… on a stone worn down by the tragedy of over a thousand feet …” President Obama

In the belly of the museum, 70 feet below ground is the somber chronicle that begins in the 15th Century when Europeans invade the Motherland. Then the diaspora across the sea from Africa to countries around the globe. The Colonial America experience of the plantation with beatings and family separations are enhanced by a collection of valuable artifacts in displays of photographs, yellowed letters and shackles authenticating the treatment of human beings as if they were livestock.

As we journey upward through the different levels we see the rising of the African American: The Civil rights Act–the movement toward the push for equality. We are treated to the accomplishments of Blacks in the arts, entertainment, athletics, government and education.

John Carlos and Tommy Edwards on the medal stand at the 1964 Olympic Games

John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the medal stand at the 1964 Olympic Games

dsc_2908At its highest level, the vision of David Adyaye is realized. Light flows throughout rooms where paintings and sculptures by African American artists fill each of the galleries.

It is a powerful experience and I encourage every race, color or creed, the young and old, and the rich and poor to visit this museum. Timed entries to the museum are booked through January 2017 but there may still  be  some available open slots. Go to their website at NMAAHC.SI.EDU.

I’m returning next year for a second visit. One visit is not enough.

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Much still lost

During the past two years I’ve spoken to audiences large and small about the painful journey my African ancestors began in 1619 when they were first snatched from the Motherland.  They survived the Atlantic crossing, slavery and flights to Freedom. With the passing of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865, my ancestors were granted citizenship. Or so they believed.

Although the 13th Amendment granted “Freedom” many of my ancestors chose to stay in their cabins on the plantation. It offered shelter and the opportunity for them to seek extra income in nearby towns or villages. This decision often resulted in their arrest for “loitering” and then jail. Slavery was abolished but chain gangs were born. Plantations that “lost” their field labor were now able to get it back. For free.

250 years later the prison industrial complex as we now know it flourishes. According to the 2016 Pennsylvania League of Women Voters Criminal Justice Study, statistics of 2010 noted that 40% of the incarcerated in prison are African American–this while we are only 13% of the nation’s population. Not much has changed since then.

Now comes presidential nominee Donald Trump, pandering to my Brothers and Sisters to vote for him. He’s a huckster selling snake oil out of the back of a horse drawn wagon. “What have you got to lose?”, so he says.

You can’t lose what you’ve never completely gained.

Unarmed Black men continue to be targets for death by law enforcement. It’s obvious that Trump is clueless about the thousands of African Americans whose Right to Vote was denied or stolen: Redistricting, photo voter ID and limited polling sites are at the top of  crushing my people’s Right To Vote. And don’t get me started about the African Americans who were denied housing in Trump buildings in 1963 after the Civil Rights Law was passed.

Today one media outlet stated that polling now reported 30% of my people are planning to vote for him!

African American Museum, Washington DC

African American Museum, Washington DC

This weekend in Washington, DC the African American Museum will formally open. I will be there along with some of my relatives, who like me embrace our African ancestral roots.

To those 30% bamboozled by the lies spewing out of Trump’s mouth, I hope you will visit this building that embodies our pain, our struggles and our spirit.

Souls of September 11

Seward Johnson Center Hamilton, New Jersey

Seward Johnson Center Hamilton, New Jersey

In August, Starz Cable programmed two films about the World Trade Center that brought memories of where I was when the Towers were destroyed.

The 2008 documentary–Man on Wire–brought to the screen Phillippe Petit’s journey of his determination to walk on a wire between the roofs of the two World Trade Towers. The film received 45 awards, one being a 2009 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

The second film was The Walk, a 2015 docudrama starring Joseph Gordon Levitt as Petit, retelling the wire walker’s life story that began when he was a young street juggler in Paris. After Petit reads an article in a French newspaper about construction of the two towers, he is determined to attach a wire between the roofs and walk from one building to the other. His dream came to fruition on August 7, 1974.

Shortly after 8:30 on the morning of September 11, I’m driving along the Doylestown Bypass for an appointment with my broker. I’m running late and amused while listening to the morning sports talk radio guys joke about some athlete’s faux pas.  Suddenly one says, “Oh–we just got a bulletin that a plane crashed into one of the towers at the World Trade Center in New York City.”

Right then I’m asking myself, How does a “… plane … crash” into a World Trade Center building?

Now in the conference room surrounded by documents and with a television newscaster’s words drifting from the next office, it’s confirmed that two jets crashed into each of the World Trade Towers. The broker returns to the conference room and tells us, “They just hit the Pentagon.”

The third attack is aborted over the skies of Somerset County in western Pennsylvania . This time  passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 learn that something tragic has happened in New York City and Washington DC.  They overpower the hijackers and the jet drops and crashes onto a field, stopping a destruction that was aimed at our Heart of Democracy.

For the next few weeks like many other Americans I sit in front of my television, mesmerized by the images on the screen. People begin gathering at sites near the destroyed Towers posting pictures and messages for their lost loved ones. There are faces upon faces of photos of people who were in those two buildings and are now missing or possibly dead. Media coverage of interviews with relatives, friends or coworkers describe the lives of the missing–where they lived, who they married, their families and where they worked inside the Towers.

The number of Twin Tower deaths eventually reaches 2,606 with an additional 343 firefighters, 37 Port Authority Police Officers, 23 Police Officers, and 2 Paramedics. All total, nearly 3,000 people died from the three airline hijackings; in the World Trade Towers; and inside the Pentagon.  Among that number are 18 Bucks County residents who are memorialized at The Garden of Remembrance, located at 1950 Woodside Road in Yardley. Their website announces this year’s annual ceremony to happen this Sunday, September 11.

Seward Johnson Center Hamilton, New jersey

Seward Johnson Center
Hamilton, New jersey

The history of the two Towers reaches back decades. The first tenants moved into the North Tower during December 1970. In September 1971, tenants began moving into the South Tower. Once described as “two filing cabinets” said offhandedly by  a character  in The Walk, after Petit’s unbelievable feat two other characters tell him, “You have given The Towers Soul.” Another says, “They’re different now, because you walked up there.”

There’ve been many films on our small and large screens with images of the Towers, either with the sun bouncing off the gleaming walls or lights peeking out at us from the night sky. Whenever the Towers briefly appear in films, the words spoken by the characters in The Walk are absolute:  They are truly “different”. Just a few weeks ago I watched a Hollywood film that flashed the buildings’ images on my television screen. And once more, it was like discovering a photo of a long lost friend: The souls of September 11. Always remembered.