Thursday, February 2, 2012

Turning Black History into Black Reality

Turning Black History
into Black Reality

Rodney D. Coates*

Over the past few days the net has been flooded with the rediscovery of a letter written by a former slave, Jourdan Anderson, to his former master. It seems that the now emancipated Anderson was being asked to return to work as a slave. Jourdan’s response, filled with both angst and frustrations, was nevertheless filled with grace and power. As I read that letter, I was both humbled and empowered. Here was a man who had not only endured but survived and overcame one of the most brutal of American institutions –slavery. But, rather than being broken Mr. Anderson was emboldened, rather than being scared he was strategic, and rather than becoming bitter he became better. Jourdan Anderson was a man who deeply reflected upon the pain of slavery, but did not become consumed with it. He did not spend his time either worrying about his former master or it seems with revenge. As a consequence, while Jordan might have been victimized by slavery, he was not a victim of it. No, he adapted, grew, and finally escaped the cruelest of human situations and he did it and remained sane, whole, and determined. As I think of Black History Month, it is the Jourdan Anderson’s that bring me both joy but also inspiration. And it is this type of celebration that allows us to turn Black History into Black Reality.

For all too long, many have taken this celebration as a static, almost dismal period where the staid past is regurgitated, remonstrated, and remembered. But such celebrations rarely lead to any progressive challenges, positive affirmations, or potent rediscoveries. The problem is not the celebration, but the substance of our attention. History, if it is to be of any use, must be more than informative but transformative. It must be more then reflexive but critically reflective. For it is only through a critically reflective dialogue with the past, can we design effective solutions for the present. The past, offering a blueprint of survival and achievement, provides pathways for success and excellence in the world we now live in today. Therefore, it is with joy and anticipation that I read the letter of Jourdan Anderson, as well as Harriet Jacobs “Incidents in the life of an Slave Girl”. Again Jacobs, as was the case with Anderson, does not spend time bemoaning her plight as a slave but articulating her struggle to free her daughters yet enslaved. Harriet Jacobs life was spent preaching the gospel of freedom, love of family and success. In later life, she became one of America’s first champions for a livable wage but unfortunately the value of black labor then, was undervalued, and underappreciated. Her response was not, however to accept this situation but to decry it by declaring ““Don’t believe the stories so often repeated that the negroes are not willing to work. They are generally more than willing to work, if they can get anything for it,”
From entrepreneurs –such as Madame C.J. Walker – to inventors –such as Benjamin Banneker, from actors to activist, from rock stars to astronauts –black genius, ingenuity, and determination has forged a path that has not only made history but has made America what it is today. So rather than dwell on these accomplishments as static, historical oddities –I shall explore them as clues into the mystery of life, as answers to unanswered questions, and as indicators of the possibilities of a new black reality.

*Note: Rodney D. Coates is professor of sociology and gerontology at Miami Unviersity. He can be reached at

Rodney D. Coates* born in East St. Louis, Ill., received his B.A. from Southern Illinois University, a M.A. in sociology and anthropology from the University of Illinois, a second M.A. and Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago. He holds the rank of professor in the Department of Sociology and Gerontology, for 15 years Directed the Black World Studies Program at Miami University. Dr. Coates specializes in the study of race and ethnic relations, inequality, critical race theory, and social justice. Coates serves on the editorial boards of the American Sociological Review; Social Forces; and Race, Class and Gender. He is also on the executive boards of the Southern Sociological Society and Sociologists without Borders. Dr. Coates is the immediate past chair of the Section of Race and Ethnic Minorities of the American Sociological Association, and has served in similar capacities for the Southern Sociological Society. He has published dozens of articles; several edited books, and frequently writes on issues of race and ethnicity, education and public policy, civil rights and social justice. His 2004 edited book Race and Ethnicity: Across time, space and discipline won the Choice award from the American Library Association. This past summer Coates received the Joseph Himes Career Award in Scholarship and Activism from the Association of Black Sociologists. He is currently finalizing an edited volume on /Covert Racism/ for Oxford University Press.
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