KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future
Contributions of the African American
An African sojourner’s perspective Chidi Chike Achebe MD, MPH
Dr. Chidi Achebe has a passionate intonate interest in African-American culture and contributions to the American experience. This was evident his discussions with me during an exclusive two-hour interview last Saturday in New York. Anyway this should not come as a surprise because the Harvard-trained medical doctor is the son of world-acclaimed novelist, Professor Chinua Achebe. This influence is clearly etched in Dr Achebe’s chronicle on enormous contributions of African-Americans to the United States (US) and the world in general.
Dr. Achebe is an Attending Physician in both Internal Medicine and Pediatrics in the Boston Massachusetts area Health Centers and Clinics. He received his medical education and obtained his M.D. degree from Dartmouth Medical School after earning a Bachelors degree from Bard College in Natural Sciences, History and Philosophy. He is currently completing post-graduate course work at the Harvard School of Public Health and expects a Master of Science in Public Health from that institution shortly. Dr Achebe’s previous articles on Health, Politics and the Environment have appeared in the Boston Globe and in The New York Times.
Despite his busy schedule, the art enthusiast took time to discuss some of the major historical and contemporary problems confronting African-Americans. He also spoke about the Black History Month celebrated each year in February.
Why do you have such a passionate interest in African-American culture?
I have always had a positive impression of the African American community. This was due to the fact that I had the immense privilege of meeting some of its most distinguished and exciting members throughout my life. My initial contact with the African American community came in the form of the children of Johnetta Cole who would later become the president of Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. She was a professor of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst where my family had relocated after the Nigerian Civil War in 1972.
What influenced your literary experience?
Providence placed me in an extremely rich literary and cultural environment. I was deeply influenced by my father’s genius through his literary and political writing and my mother’s brilliant academic mind. Very few people realize that Dad (Prof Achebe) also attended medical school although we can all be grateful that he took up calling- writing. So you see my interests in both the sciences – Medicine and the Arts as a consequence of this exposure.
The 1970s was an exciting time for blacks in America and for me. This was also the latter part of the Civil rights era. Slogans such as “I am black and proud” and “Black is beautiful” were heard everywhere. On the radio we heard the godfather of Soul himself James Brown incorporate these slogans into rhythm and song. Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” was probably the first politically charged song I ever heard. My mother would graduate from the University of Massachusetts with a PhD in 1975, the same year that Bill Cosby would earn his doctorate from the same department. At their graduation, even as a child, I recognized the famous entertainer from “Fat Albert” - the cartoon show he had on TV for children. The names of Johnetta Cole and Cosby would be intertwined 20 years later when it was announced that he and his wife Camille Cosby were making a historic donation of $20 million to Spelman College. Small world! Traveling with my Parents later in life, I had the immense pleasure of meeting everyone from James Baldwin, Max Roach, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee to Toni Morrison and Oprah Winfrey. This opportunity only solidified my positive impression of black America. I would later be concerned that this positive impression was not shared by all my fellow Nigerians in America. This chronicle is my humble attempt at ‘filling the divide’.
Are you stepping into your father’s shoes?
Not exactly because I am more of an essayist than a writer. My sister Mrs. Chinelo Ejueyitchie is the writer. She has written a number of novels. She probably fits more into that writing mold.
What was your personal experience while working on this book?
My research on the achievements of African Americans illustrates the pain they have endured to get where they are, despite the fact that much more needs to be done. Every member of the ‘rainbow colored human family” who comes to America, owes a great debt to the African American for access to schools, ‘the privilege’ to drink from public water fountains, use public restrooms, hold a job, eat in restaurants, and on and on. Without their sacrifices, I would not have attended Harvard, nor gained access to Medical School here in the States. Blacks like Martin Luther King died to make it possible for me.
But what is the future of African-Americans in this country?
I believe that the key to African-American economic success lies in educational opportunity. Affirmative action needs to be in place for another 25 years at the very least in order to have a “level playing field” in American society. Africans and African Americans should work more closely together for their mutual benefit. Several of the CEOs of the largest companies in the World – Fannie Mae, Merrill Lynch, Time Warner, and American Express are now African American. Therein lies avenues for investment in Nigeria. Before this is possible we must strive to understand each other. By doing this we transcend the shackles of historical dispossession, resentment and bigotry and open up greater avenues for co-operation in the future.
Excerpts from Dr. Achebe’s chronicle:
An African sojourner’s perspective
Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson along with other African American and white scholars of the Association for the study of Negro life and History developed the idea for a Negro History Week in 1926. By the 1970s, this celebration of African American heritage had expanded to include the entire month of February. Known today as Black History Month, it has become a time set aside to learn about the Black Experience and to celebrate the many achievements and contributions of African Americans.
The African American Century
The cultural influence of the United States is evident throughout the world. Its presence is everywhere- on television, in the movies, emanating from boom boxes, heard in colloquial speech, in fashion and on your dinner table. This pervasive presence, for good or ill, has often prompted many sociologists to deem this cultural domination “the genesis of a universal culture”. What has been passed off, as ‘American’ culture is often and almost completely African American music, dance, literature, speech, food, and fashion. Indeed, perhaps no other minority group in the world, save the Jewish people, may lay claim to having influenced the planet so completely, so positively, and in so many ways in the last century as African Americans. From Jazz, Rock, Hip-Hop and Rap to dance, sports, literature, science, and politics, the African American has reshaped, re-invented, re-interpreted and re-invigorated our world.
Science for Societal Advancement
From the horseshoe, cigarette holder, ashtray and dustpan to the most sophisticated technology used in computers and rocket science, African American scientific ingenuity has indelibly altered our way of life. The inescapable daily commuting experience for billions around the world involves gridlock, negotiating potholes on the roads and dashing to catch the next subway train. It is impossible to imagine this essential part of world civilization without the work of Richard Flemon Neblett, an African American, who determined the composition of gasoline and motor fuel. Subways and trolleys run smoothly today as a result of the innovations of Granville Woods. Garrett Morgan, another African American, designed the modern traffic light, which has become a permanent feature of the urban landscape. Other African American contributions to the automobile include the automatic gearshift, traffic signal for cars and the hydraulic shock absorber. The visual ecstasy that accompanies images of NASA’s shuttle blast off ceremonies is due in part to the masterful inventions of the African American - Adolphus Samms. His brilliant discoveries that include the Rocket engine pump feed system, the multiple stage rocket and the Rocket motor fuel feed apparatus continue to make the journey to the last frontier, space, possible. Patricia Cowing’s work at NASA made it possible for astronauts, 14 of whom such as Michael Neufeld and Mae Jemison are African American, to avoid the debilitating side effects of motion sickness in space. Another African American, William Harwell invented the Attachment for the shuttle arm, which is a device used to capture satellites. Today’s hand held computers came into existence as a result of the work of a team of scientists headed by Donna Auguste. Another brilliant black scientist Mark Dean developed Network systems for connecting PCs to scanners and printers. Other impressive African American contributions to ‘high science’ include Donald J. Cotton’s Capillary liquid fuel nuclear reactor, William Child’s Curtis’s Airborne moving-target indicating radar system, Paul E. Williams’s helicopter design and Clarence Gregg’s early design of the machine gun. In medicine, life-saving surgeries are possible as a result the work of the physician and Surgeon Charles Drew, who helped develop the modern Blood Bank. Other major contributions came from Phil Brooks who invented the disposable syringe, and George Edward Alcorn whose work on the Imaging X-ray spectrometer revolutionized Radiology. The kitchen table is often the focal point for meals and social gatherings. Its modern configuration in most homes all over the world is the result of the imagination of the African American, Henry A. Jackson, in the late 1800s. Meals prepared and served on this essential piece of furniture, are possible because of the wonders of mechanized agriculture. The work of black scientists such as Francis J. Wood, who invented the potato digger, Dawn E. Francis’s novel organic fertilizer production methods, and George Washington Carver, aided this revolution. Carver’s myriad of inventions involving peanuts (peanut butter etc); soybeans and potatoes revived the agricultural sector in the South. For dessert, we have Augustus Jackson to thank for the modern method of manufacturing, (not discovering) ice cream, and the multiple ice cream recipes he developed around 1832.
Thomas Edison’s invention of the incandescent bulb in 1879 brought the ‘miracle of light’ to the world. His earliest bulbs fitted with a platinum filament were hampered by their ‘short half-life’. Lewis Latimer, his African American colleague, invented an electric lamp that utilized a longer lasting, inexpensive carbon filament. This discovery enhanced the commercial viability of Edison’s invention. Later, Latimer would oversee installation of carbon filament electric lighting systems in cities as diverse and large as London, England, Montreal in Canada, and New York City and Philadelphia in the United States. Lewis Latimer is also credited with the scientific drawings and design for the patent submitted by Alexander Graham Bell for his invention - the telephone.
A literature with moral urgency
The rich, extensive and diverse field known as African American literature bears what scholars have termed “ the burden of a moral urgency.” Like all literature, it explores a myriad of universal themes. As a body of work, it is particularly novel in its treatment and dissection of the power of oppression and the ramifications for both the oppressor and the dispossessed. It showcases an intimacy with a history of struggle, is informed by suffering and morality, celebrates love and passion, and illuminates with honesty and moral urgency, life in a world torn by social, racial and political strife. The field has its ancient roots in Negro Spirituals slave preachers wrote as early as the 17th century. Encompassing several genres, it includes the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Jayne Cortez, Michael Harper, Rita Dove, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez and Maya Angelou. The literary canon also contains the Slave Narratives and Abolitionist work of Frederick Douglas, autobiography by Booker T. Washington and Maya Angelou, and the socio-political and historical masterpieces of W. E .B. Dubois. Included also are the plays of Lorraine Hansberry, Ntozake Shange, and August Wilson; as well as the glorious prose of James Weldon Johnson, Richard Wright, Zora Neal Hurston, Alex Haley, James Baldwin, John Edgar Wideman, Terry McMillan, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. In 1993 the Swedish academy awarded Toni Morrison the Nobel Prize in Literature. Gail Caldwell of The Boston Globe at the time reported that she was recognized for “visionary force and poetic import” of her six novels, which include "Song of Solomon” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Beloved.” The Academy further praised the then 62-year-old professor of humanities at Princeton for the "epic power” of her fiction, for its "unerring ear for dialogue and richly expressive depictions of black America.”
African Americans have played a prodigious role in crafting the world’s music since their arrival in the Americas in the 1600s. Virtually every form of popular music contains elements of African American and hence African rhythms and melodies. Like the fictional Pied Piper, the African American has mesmerized, hypnotized and excited us all with his/her compositions and watched proudly as feet tap the ground, hips sway sensually and rhythmically at night, feet dance and voices rise in accompaniment to his/her beat.
The earliest forms of African American music were born out of the pain and anguish of slavery. Know as Negro Spirituals, these songs with religious underpinnings, were composed by brilliant artists such as William Dawson and Harry Thacker Burleigh. Exemplified by classics such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Deep River,” they would enjoy a resurgent popularity at the turn of the 20th century, spread to the world through the vocal talents of great singers like Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson.
Negro Spirituals would later give birth to the Blues, a form of black music that emanated from the river delta region of the Deep South. As an artistic form, it would influence Jazz music and its great practitioners such as Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. By the mid 1920s, Bessie Smith would emerge as the ‘the Queen of the Blues’ along with other classic blues singers such as Mamie Smith and Ethel Waters. Bessie Smith and later, in the thirties, Billie Holiday, would produce recordings that sold in the millions. The 1930s would also see the egress of the ‘boogie-woogie’, a blues-influenced style of piano music. Today, at the helm of a blues revival of sorts can be found names such as B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins as well as white artists such Eric Clapton.
Jazz music has often been referred to as America’s classical music. Its genesis can be traced back to the late 1800's. Musicologists attest to the fact that it is the only musical form to have completely originated in the United States. One of the remarkable distinctive traits of the genuine jazz musician is his/her ability to improvise- creating new music on cue, spontaneously or on demand. As an art form, it is a conglomeration and synthesis of several influences including African rhythms, the Blues, as well as European and American musical band traditions and instruments. The home of the first notable Jazz musicians was New Orleans, Louisiana. The Trumpeter Louis Armstrong lived there, as did pianist Jelly Roll Morton and saxophonist Sidney Bechet. Other cities such as Chicago and New York became Jazz hubs with the evolution of ‘the Jazz club tradition’. White artists such as Benny Goodman, saxophonists Frankie Trumbauer and Bud Freeman would become some of the major practitioners of “Chicago Style jazz”. In New York, African Americans Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Fats Waller, and Teddy Wilson would emerge as the most celebrated artists of the art form. Together, these musicians would be responsible for the “Swing era of jazz’ – a time when big bands dominated the jazz music arena. Out of this milieu would emerge iconical vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nat "King" Cole, Carmen McRae, and Sarah Vaughan. In the 1940s, the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Charlie Parker, pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and drummers Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, created ‘bebop or bop’ - a new style of jazz in great divergence from the music of the big bands. The modern jazz era has produced several great artists such as Cannonball Adderly, George Benson, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, John A. Lewis, Wynton Marsalis, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis. Davis is arguably the greatest and most influential of American jazz trumpeters and bandleaders. His distinctive, provocative, spacious style coalesces a raspy, almost melancholic tone that is gloriously interpreted by a lyrical trumpet. His work continues to inspire jazz devotees and practitioners alike all over the globe, over a decade after his death.
The archetypal “rebel music” of youth, Rock music also referred to as ‘Rock and Roll’ in its earlier incarnation, continues to be one of the most accessible, translatable and transformable of the world’s musical genres. From its very beginnings, it served as dance and party music that appealed to the younger demographic alienating the old. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino are widely regarded as the progenitors of this music. Of this group, Chuck Berry, a St. Louis Blues artist, who would become a major influence on later rock performers such as Elvis, Buddy Holly, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, was the first of the great rock songwriters. In 1955, he stormed the music scene with the classic "Maybellene". Ike Turner, Etta James, Wilson Pickett, Muddy Waters, Booker T. Jones, Otis Reading, Bo Diddly, Buddy Miles, George Clinton, Jimi Hendrix, Vernon Reid and Living Color, and Lenny Kravitz are examples of African Americans that continued the Rock tradition.
This genre grew out of a fusion of several other musical forms such as Rhythm and Blues, Funk and Gospel. Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding would be some of its earliest celebrities. Later, Motown records would become its most elegiac symbol. A young African American music executive called Berry Gordy, Jr., founded the Tamla-Motown label in the early 1960s. Parlaying an impressive dossier of songwriters and producers such as the legendary trio Holland-Dozier-Holland, musicians such as the “Funk Brothers”, he would nurture this independent label into what many consider the most important and influential label in the history of the music industry. Some of recorded music icons that this label produced include the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, the Marvelettes, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Vandellas, Mary Wells, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Junior Walker and the All-stars, and the Jackson 5. In the 1970s, songwriters and producers from Philadelphia such as Gene Mcfadden, John Whitehead, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff developed a unique soul music sound that would be known as the ‘the Sound of Philadelphia’. Notable artists from this music family include the O'Jays, the Spinners, the Stylistics, the Delfonics, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass, and the 3 degrees. Today, Alicia Keys, Beyonce, and R. Kelly continue to celebrate their soul music inheritance.
In the late 1970s, first in New York City and then later in other urban areas such as Chicago and Los Angeles, a revolutionary new musical form surfaced among gifted African American teenagers. Known as Rap music - talking in rhyme to the rhythm of a beat- it grew out of, and became an integral component of an urban sub culture called “Hip-Hop’. Rap experts define Hip Hop as “a culture - a way of life- for a society of people who identify, love, and cherish rap, ‘street clothes’, break dancing, DJing, and graffiti” Existing initially below the radar screen of American popular culture, “Hip Hop” would garner millions of fans and later dominate and redefine the ‘essence of cool’ throughout the world. Its cultural “crossover’ success was also due in part to the popularity of television shows like BET's ‘Rap City’ and ‘Yo! MTV Raps’and several ‘urban’ Hollywood movies of the 1980s. The pioneers of this art form include Grand Master Flash, Kurtis Blow, the Sugarhill Gang, Afrika Bambaataa and Run DMC.The first classic rap anthem was 1979’s “Rapper's Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang. This was quickly followed by “The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow in 1980, and a myriad of other hits by various artists in the mid 1980s. Some of these classics include Afrika Bambaataa -- "Planet Rock," "Funk You," "Renegades Of Funk"; Whodini -- "Friends"; UTFO -- "Roxanne, Roxanne"; LL Cool J -- "Rock The Bells," "I Can't Live Without My Radio," "I Need Love"; Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock -- "It Takes Two", and many others. Initially preoccupied with enhancing and generating the dance and party spirit, rap quickly evolved, examining more closely the social, economic and political aspects of ‘inner city urban blight’. Songs by Grandmaster Flash and the furious five – “The Message” in 1982 and by Public Enemy - "Don't Believe the Hype," exemplify this trend. A controversial sub-genre known as ‘gangsta rap’ that forcefully and confidently revels in the outlaw aspects of urban life replete with violent, often misogynistic lyrics and gunplay emerged in the 1980s. This musical form quickly became the fastest selling and profitable component of the music industry. Popular rappers of this medium include Tupac Shakur, N.W.A. (Niggas With Attitude), and Snoop Dogg. The discography of popular Rap and Hip Hop music includes the work of Hammer, Kool Moe Dee, Dr. Dre, Queen Latifa, Naughty by Nautre, Slick Rick, Cypress Hill, Arrested Development, Warren G, P. Diddy, Outkast, Biggie, DMX, Ja Rule, Mos Def, 50 Cent, Foxy Brown, Lil Kim, Ludacris, K.O.R.E., Chingy, Fat Joe, Ludacris, Redman, Butch Cassidy, Jwells, Eve, Missy Elliott, Kurupt, Cormega, Cuban Link, Khujo Ghoodie and Killa Priest among others.
The dance of the ancestors
‘Thanks to Black rhythm, no people today dance the way their grandparents danced’ -- Leopold Senghor
On the slave plantations, an extension of the African ethnic dance aesthetic merged with European dance forms to create a variety of new dance styles in the Americas. Dance served several purposes for the early African American. It helped to preserve a connection to the cultural traditions of Africa, as a form of communication during slave revolts, and as part of religious ceremonies and entertainment. A disturbing early trend saw the foisting of these poorly understood plantation dance traditions onto the stage as Minstrel productions. These shows displayed for the amusement of its audiences, caricatures of black talent. Happily, by the 1950s, these shows would become culturally and politically off audiences, caricatures of black talent. Happily, by the 1950s, these shows would become culturally and politically offensive to the sensibilities of its mainly white audiences. In the first four decades of the 20th century, African American tap dancing burst onto the scene weaving elements of African, English and Irish-influenced shuffle, clogging and jigs into the repertoire. Later, Tap dancing would be showcased in Hollywood movies and attain respectability and popularity throughout the world. Black dancers such as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, The Nicholas brothers, Sammy Davis Jr., Vance Holmes, Gregory Hines and Savion Glover are some of the best of this art form. In the early 1900s, the Cakewalk, would become the first dance created by Blacks to be widely copied by the white population. Other black-influenced dance trends that would be emulated the world over include the Charleston, the Lindy Hop, the Jitterbug, the Chicken, the Watutsi, the Mashed potato, the Twist, the Bump, the Robot, Break dancing and Popping, Back sliding, the Moonwalk, the Helicopter, the Electric slide, Headslide, the Shake, and the Worm. Several African Americans have made immeasurable contributions to dance over the years. Some of the legends include the dance-anthropologists Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus, The Lester Horton Dance Theater, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Donald McKayle, Debbie Allen, Talley Beatty, Garth Fagan, Bill T. Jones, Michael Peters, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Michael Jackson and Joel Hall.
Blacks in Cinema
African Americans first appeared in silent films in the1890s. The prevalent images of these actors were often derogatory. By the turn of the century more blacks were found in films as ‘Domestics’. In the 1930s, independent black casts emerged in Holly wood. That decade, Hattie McDaniel would become the first African American actor to win and Academy award - Best Supporting Actress- for her performance as a ‘Mammy’ in Gone with the Wind. The 1940s and 1950s saw Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis jr., James Earl Jones and Harry Belafonte regularly on the American sound stage and in more positive roles. However, it would take the arrival of Sidney Poitier on celluloid in the 1950s, to bring complete dignity and class to the African American male on film. Considered the finest African American Actor of the 20th century, Sidney Poitier would be the first black man to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for ‘Lilies of the Field’ in 1963. After that he seized the Hollywood spotlight, and by 1967 had starred in the top 3 biggest box-office hits of the year. In the early 1970s, a new film genre known as ‘Blaxploitation films’- low-budget action movies aimed at black audiences emerged. The controversial ghetto epic Sweetback's Baadasssss Song in 1971, Superfly (1972), Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974) and Friday Foster (1975) have become the classics of this category. Over the past 20 years, African American have made steady, albeit slow gains in Hollywood. Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, Wesley Snipes, Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Cuba Gooding Jr., Will Smith, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Eddie Murphy, Angela Bassett, Chris Tucker, Halle Berry, Jada Pinkett Smith, Blair Underwood and Queen Latifa are the current crop of the black Hollywood elite. Of this group Denzel Washington would win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, for Glory (1989), and Best Actor nod for Training Day (2002); Goldberg would receive the Best Supporting Actress Academy award for Ghost and Halle Berry would garner Oscar gold for Monster's Ball in 2002. Black film Directors such as Spike Lee, John Singleton, Robert Townsend, Keenen Ivory Wayans have been part of the vanguard of cutting edge movie making in recent years.
Perhaps there is no single area where African Americans have dominated the world as in the arena of Sports. From Jesse Owens’ four gold medal sweep during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, through the ‘glory days’ of Muhammad Ali to the Williams sisters and Tiger Woods today, their success has often been painful and hard won.
In 1951, Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1962 he became the first Black man inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame. African American Baseball players have been following the path he blazed to greatness ever since. Henry "Hank" Aaron was the first player to reach the incredible milestone of 3,000 hits and “put away’ 500 home runs. Reggie Jackson, Ken Griffey Jr., Rickey Henderson, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa (Hispanic), are blacks that have continued to dominate the sport in recent years.
Althea Gibson is remembered as the first African American player to visibly succeed in Tennis in the 1950s. In 1956 she became the first Black person to win the French championships. 1957 would witness even greater laurels for her as she won two of the world's most prestigious tournaments, Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals. A year later she would repeat this milestone. A decade after Althea Gibson’s successes, Arthur Ashe became the first African American man to win the U.S. Open. A quarter century would pass before a major black presence would be felt in Tennis. The emergence of the Williams sisters Serena and Venus, as pros at age 14 and 15, would make the wait very much worth it. With 13 grand slam titles between them including doubles, Olympic gold medals and all 5 grand slam titles, the Williams sisters are already chiseling their place into Tennis history. Over the last decade, the duo has consistently been ranked in the top 10 of the best tennis players in the world.
Charles Sifford broke into the PGA in the 1950s and later won the Hartford Open in 1967 and the Los Angeles open in 1969. Lee Elder won 4 PGA titles and in 1975 became the first black man to play in the prestigious Masters. The Phenomenal Tiger Woods made history as the youngest ‘Black’ player on the PGA Tour. As an amateur, he captured 3 victories - an all time record. His string of successes as a professional is equally astounding. In 1997, Tiger won the Masters in his first attempt as a professional and then went on to win 3 grand slam events in 2000 alone. Such prowess and dominance has earned him comparisons to Golf greats such as Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Today many believe that Tiger has no equal on the PGA Tour.
In 1937, Joe Louis, the legendary "Brown Bomber” won the world heavyweight title. Apart from an incongruous period during the career of the great white world-boxing champion Rocky Marciano, African American Boxers have dominated the sport. Over the past 50 years, they have produced a remarkable legacy of world boxing superstars such as Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Sugar Ray Robinson. Of the star gallery, Muhammed Ali is widely considered the greatest boxer of all time and arguably the 20th century’s greatest athlete.
Chuck Cooper, Nat Clifton, and Earl Lloyd made history during the 1950-1951 season, when they became the first African American players in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Since then, scores of African American basketball superstars have dominated the game. Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Wilt "the Stilt" Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius "Dr. J" Erving, Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Michael Jordan are just a few of these legends. Michael Jordan is perhaps the greatest basketball player to have walked the earth. Apart from incredible acrobatic skills on the court that led the Bulls to three straight championships, Jordan has ‘won the regular-season MVP five times and the Finals MVP each time that he's won the title (six)’. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Alonzo Mourning, Chris Webber, Antoine Walker, Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash and Dujuane Wagner are some of the current crop of NBA superstars to watch.
In the late 1950s, pro football fans would agree that Jim Brown was destined to join the Hall of fame as one of the all time greatest offensive men in NFL history. His trailblazing, however, started as early as the 1950s when he was one of the first blacks in the league. Later "Mean Joe" Greene, Orenthal James (O.J.) Simpson, Earl Campbell, Walter Payton, Art Monk, Reggie White, Jerry Rice, Dallas Cowboys running back Emmett Smith and Deion Sanders among several others would make fame and fortune, and hit Super bowl gold as Americas favorite football players. In 1989, the incomparable Bo Jackson became the first athlete named to play in the all-star game of two major sports, football and baseball, pleasantly bewildering a world with his sheer, magnificent, African American talent.
Politics for Social Justice
The successes of African Americans in a myriad of fields enumerated above could not have occurred without the sacrifices and dedication of its political leadership. Their struggle to attain social, political and economic freedom for African Americans and hence all American citizens, is a long, painful, albeit powerful chronicle. The journey towards emancipation from slavery takes up the initial energies of both black and white Abolitionists in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their efforts culminate, eventually, in Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation, January 1, 1863, freeing the slaves of the former southern confederacy . Later, the 13th Amendment to the constitution in 1865 would guarantee freedom to all African Americans. During the period knownd economic prosperity. ‘During Reconstruction, southern states elect 14 African Americans to Congress, 2 African American senators, 6 African American Lt. Governors, and thousands of African Americans in more minor political positions: alderman, mayor, sheriff, justice of the peace.’ Resistance to the successes of the reconstruction era in the south would mark the next hundred years. The Ku Klux Klan, established by Confederate Army veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee around 1865, became a symbol of this backlash and often-conducted cross burnings and lynching of African Americans. The great Northern Migration by blacks began as a consequence of resurgent discrimination. Despite these shortcomings, African Americans and their white allies continued to fight for equality and justice with persistent rigor.
Organized Civil rights Movement
The turn of the Century saw the burgeoning of organized civil rights organizations. Foremost African American intellectual W.E.B. Dubois, along with other African American and white scholars formed the NAACP -National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – in 1909.Their overall objective to use the legal system to address civil rights abuses of African Americans would achieve legendary success. A watershed legal victory came in the form of the 1954 Supreme Court ruling on the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. The court in a unanimous vote, agreed with NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall and his team of lawyers that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. This ruling set the stage for large-scale desegregation of schools throughout the United States. It is a huge legal victory for Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP and catapults both him and the organization into national and international celebrity. In the coming years Marshall would be appointed by President Johnson to the Supreme court as its first African American justice. In 1956, Rosa Parks instigated a yearlong Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Her pivotal civil disobedient action of refusing to give up her seat for a white bus rider and go to the back of the bus, galvanized the American Civil Rights Movement. The reverberations of her action would be felt all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, which ruled, later that year, that segregated seating on buses was unconstitutional. The success of the Montgomery bus boycott inspired its young leader, Martin Luther King, a student of Mahatma Ghandi’s non-violent philosophy, to write Stride Toward Freedom. Published in 1958, the book is a seminal text on the non-violent strategies that produced monumental social change. It would later become highly influential, serving as a template for students of nonviolent resistance through civil disobedience - marches, protests, boycotts and rallies - across the globe. Martin Luther King would evolve into perhaps the principal leader of the American Civil Rights Movement. Some schools of thought believe Malcolm X to be his political peer and ideological colleague although both men had differing philosophies. MLK’s persistent organized challenges to segregation and racial discrimination throughout the 1950s and 1960s would be instrumental in convincing many a white American to support and become active in the cause of civil rights. In the following years, the world would watch him lead the historic march on Washington D.C. in 1963, and listen to his “I have a dream speech”. It would cheer as he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and then collectively hold its breath in horror at the news of his murder at the hands of James Earl Ray, an escaped convict, on April 4, 1968. It is an ironic tribute and testament to his importance, that as the word of the death of this man of non-violence spread, riots erupted in 168 cities across the United States. The ultimate sacrifice of King and several other political activists has yielded innumerable benefits for black America. Their triumph has been slow in arriving and steep economic hurdles still need to be scaled, as any drive through the blighted, inner city neighborhoods will attest to. There is good news to report: According to the World Bank, the annual income of African Americans is $678 billion, which would make it the 9th largest economy in the world (in GNP terms). African Americans control $646 billion in purchasing power, a figure that has increased 81 percent over the past 15 years. From Madam CJ Walker whose hair care products including the ‘hot comb’ made her the first African American millionaire, to Kenneth Chenault, Chairman and CEO of American Express, and Oprah Winfrey the billionaire Talk Show Host, African Americans have succeeded handsomely in the entrepreneurial arena. Other African American Wall Street Titans include Richard D. Parsons, CEO of Time Warner, John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jet magazines, Fannie Mae CEO Franklin Raines and Stan O’Neal, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Merrill Lynch. Over the past quarter century, the number of African American households in the United States increased by nearly 50 percent. According to the Joint Center for political and economic studies, there are over 9000 black elected officials representing various hamlets, towns, cities, districts, counties and states all across the country. The third most powerful man in the world – the secretary of State Colin L. Powell – is an African American. Now the ancestors would be proud indeed!
The African/African American Trepidation
In 1980, the African Literature Association invited James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe to open their annual conference in Gainesville, Florida with a public conversation. The two men had never met despite different forms of correspondence over the years. In the course of the discussion, James Baldwin pointed to Achebe in front of a huge audience packed into an auditorium of the University of Florida and said: “This is a brother I have not seen in 400 years.”…. And the theatre went wild with applause. But then his face and manner changed. As the applause died down, Baldwin then said, ‘Twas not intended that he and I should ever meet.” It became so quiet-as if cool water had been poured on everyone’s head. Through out his life, Baldwin tackled with courage and honesty, the trepidation he felt about Africa, slavery and its legacy. ‘In his anguished tribute to Richard Wright, he describes it as the Negro problem and the fearful conundrum of Africa, and in Stranger in the village he delves even deeper into this anxiety’. Like Baldwin, several other African Americans such as W.E.B. Dubois, Chancellor Williams, Kwame Toure, Louis H. Sullivan etc. have made bold gestures towards Africa and Africans. African political, cultural and economic leaders such as Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, L. Senghor, Obafemi Awolowo and Jomo Kenyatta in kind, have also reached over the Atlantic divide to embrace their African American brethren. The Pan African congresses from 1919-1945 and The Leon H. Sullivan Memorial African Economic Summit for instance, are splendid examples of this dedicated effort on both sides. Today, however, deep wounds of ignorance, misunderstanding, distrust and fear still exist, inflicted on the African peoples by a painful history of dispossession, struggle and suffering. Africans and their African American relatives may very well not be aware of the great achievements of each others people. Some scholars believe that this limitation, coupled with the aforementioned factors, may perhaps begin to explain the uneasiness in the relationship between the two groups of blacks. The lack of confidence that one finds among blacks the world over may also have similar underpinnings. By striving to understand each other and heal these wounds, we teach the rest of the world what it truly means to transcend the shackles of historical dispossession, resentment and bigotry. This journey will require the involvement and goodwill of our white allies who also share with us the burden of this historical albatross. Together, achieving this lofty goal will set the stage for permanent racial and cultural healing and will pay the greatest homage to the ancestors, who paid with their lives, the greatest sacrifice of all to ensure our collective freedom.
This is indeed an enormous work. Can you site some of your major sources?
Yes. Here are some of my sources:
Elissa Haney: The History of Black History: www.infoplease.com/spot/bhmintrol.html
Chidi Achebe: Bard College Sociology Notes, 1989
Interview with 9 year old Chochi Ejueyitchie, 2004 Caldwell, Gail: Boston Globe: Morrison Awarded Nobel. Writer’s ‘Visionary Force’ Cited, Boston Globe, Friday, October 8, 1993, page
Interview with Michael Thelwell, Amherst, MA, 1988. Statement attributed to President Leopold Senghor.
Interview with Chinua Achebe, January 2004 (© Chinua Achebe Foundation, 2004)
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