In 2015, the Chicago Urban League honored journalist Isabel Wilkerson. Her book “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of the Great Migration” is joyful and heartbreaking as it tells the story of how African Americans moved North from the South, often feeling racial and economic violence.
It’s nothing short of a masterpiece.
In her acceptance speech, Wilkerson encouraged grandparents to share their stories with their grandchildren. She emphasized the importance of documenting family history and not losing the tales of migration.
When family stories aren’t shared, a new narrative emerges. Not to mention how history books omit so much of the black existence and resistance. And a crop of supposed pithy T-shirts doesn’t help. At best they’re narcissistic (“I am my ancestors wildest dreams”) and at worst ahistorical (“Dear Racism, I am not my grandparents. Sincerely, These Hands.”)
“These hands” is a current slang expression that basically means “I fight back.”
The latter message posits that younger folk are bolder and better than their grandparents who turned the proverbial other cheek. But did they ever see Southern cops turn fire hoses and sic dogs on black people during the Civil Rights Movement? What do they know about people being lynched simply for living?
Even if their ancestors weren’t “movement” people, they were humans who endured much more than we will ever know about racism and Jim Crow. Across the country, schoolchildren will do milquetoast Black History Month reports about a tired seamstress who didn’t give up her seat on the bus. They won’t learn the radical story of Rosa Parks.
Last year, I read “The Blood of Emmett Till” by Timothy B. Tyson. The book reexamines the murder of the black Chicago teen in Mississippi in 1955 by racist white men. What struck me was the consistent resistance of black Mississippians.
They faced backlash post Brown v. Board of Education and Dixiecrats flouting states’ rights.
There was a white judge who — before the murder of Emmett Till — predicted the killing of a “glib young Negro” from Chicago. There were citizens’ councils, formed by so-called highbrow, respectable white men who disavowed the Ku Klux Klan — but who were indeed a mob protecting segregation.
Newspapers published the names of black residents who signed petitions to vote. If whites saw your name, you caught hell and could lose your job. So would your family members.
Insurance companies canceled policies. Bullets flew through windows.
People were beaten yet they continued to campaign for voter registration.
According to Tyson, one pastor who received constant death threats finally was killed by two dozen bullets when his car was shot up. A cotton farmer was killed when he risked everything to help bring the vote to black Mississippians. Dozens of people stood nearby as he was shot in the heart and mouth.
During the trial of the men who killed Till, black witnesses fled to Chicago after testifying.
I thought about those “catch these hands” T-shirts as I read Tyson’s book. What nerve to print and wear such a message.
Arrianna M. Planey, a doctorate candidate in geography at the University of Illinois-Champaign, agrees. She thinks about her own maternal grandparents, who were the first black people to own property in Pike County, Miss. They faced white citizen councils and night riders — white men who surveilled black people after dark.
“One memory I have is my grandfather tending the farm and he would tell us stories,” Planey said. “I remember watching my grandmother shell peas and tell stories about their life in Mississippi.”
They told of black men banding together to stop night riders, of black families banding together in defense.
“It’s so disrespectful to not acknowledge that history,” Planey said of the “these hands” T-shirts. “[Black people] fought so that we could be born.”
When I was about nine years old, my parents gave me a tape recorder with a microphone for Christmas. A prescient gift for a future career in radio. My father instructed me to sit down with my grandfather and record our family history.
It pains me to say that part of the tape was recorded over and then lost. I didn’t fully understand the assignment at the time but I do remember hearing about the Moores in Nashville. My grandfather left the South because of the racial violence he witnessed.
This Black History Month, I encourage elders to talk to younger folk — and not look down on them. Every generation wants to make its mark and generational head-butting is making everyone dizzy.
Our elders possess so much wisdom. Their acts of resistance, big and small, need an audience.
Natalie Moore is a reporter for WBEZ.org
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