The history of a people is their humanity. History makes everyone human. If you take away the history of a people, you take away their humanity. You take away their humanness. When you take away their humanness and humanity, you take away any kindness, caring, love, compassion and feeling for those people. When you eliminate or erase a people’s history, you eliminate their humanity and treat them as though they are not human.
Mahmoud El Kati
As we begin the New Year of 2021, I want you to ask yourself what has been revealed to you in 2020? Have revelations unveiled the history and humanity of Black People. If not, what will you do in 2021 to make that happen.
Alvin Ailey created the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in 1958. The theater has spawned several decades and has brought the world an amazing composition of ballet/dance using African-American spirituals, song-sermons, gospel songs and holy blues. One of Ailey’s greatest compositions is Revelations and in this piece he “explores the places of deepest grief and holiest joy in the soul of Black people.” In Revelations, Ailey shares the history of Black people. He tells my story and makes us human. https://www.alvinailey.org/performances/repertory/revelations.
Ailey does not spend time in Revelations telling the story of what it means to be Black. Instead, he reveals the dance, the music and the love of a people through song, dance and ministry. He reveals the humanity of my people and blesses us with the beauty of our spirit, love and kinship. Imagine if Ailey never created this work or if no one ever saw it. No one would know the brilliance of Black people and no one would believe in their humanity.
Booker T. Washington and WEB Dubois are brilliant and eloquent pillars in American history. Imagine if no one revealed their brilliance or limited their history to just Black history. What if their ideas were never a part of history. Imagine if the words and works of Carter G. Woodson, Ida B. Wells, Roy Wilkins, Mary McLeod Bethune, Dorothy Height, the Harlem Renaissance, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker and others were never revealed, or better yet revealed as only a monolithic list of works that are of limited use. If this history was eliminated or suppressed there would be no history of a people and their humanity would be ignored.
Further imagine if the history or excellence of Black people was not only suppressed or ignored, but the African history of excellence that existed before 1619 was eliminated or ignored. Imagine if the only mention of the Continent of Africa (not a country) was as a source for slavery and ignored the political, economic and ecosystems of a nation. Imagine if the history and excellence of royal kings and queens was ignored or better yet viewed as a minuscule portion of world history. If all of these things happened, which they did, the history of a people would be eliminated and their humanity would not exist. These people would not be human in the eyes of the world.
The world wants to continue to problem solve for racial equity after the murder of George Floyd. Corporate America plans to implement social justice strategies, eliminate systemic racism, provide anti racism training, fund Black businesses, increase the number of Black board members and executive leaders, and much more. I think they want to accomplish all of this before the anniversary of George Floyd’s death – May 25, 2021. These are very ambitious goals and many seem attainable. However, if any changes will sustain a movement and not merely a moment, they must acknowledge and incorporate the history of Black people in the solution that brings forth their humanity. You must know who I am before you can claim to care about who I will become. You cannot be an ally at the table for change without knowing the impact of how your elimination of my history eliminated your respect for my humanity. I have to be viewed and treated as a human being for this change to be a movement.
Racial Equity Change
There have been many coalitions, partnerships, think tanks, courageous conversations, task forces and racial equity work groups formed since the murder of George Floyd. Many of these groups have made statements, developed strategies and promised to do better in 2021. Part of that change has to be grounded in learning history and grounding solutions in the foundation of that history. Here are a few suggestions for making that happen.
1. Allies have lined up to support social change in the Black community. Allies can be armed with money, ideas and strategies, however many are not aligned with the history of Black people. Many allies in Minnesota cannot tell you about some of the people named in this article. They cannot tell you about the philosophies of WEB Dubois and Booker T. Washington, they cannot tell you about the importance of the Harlem Renaissance or the economic vibrancy of Black Wall Street in Tulsa. My first suggestion is for allies supporting this work to learn the history of the Black people mentioned in this article and the history and experiences of those you seek to assist. Once you learn that history you can then see the humanity of a people and better partner for success.
2. Black Elders are a great asset to building a foundation for system change. Speaking with noted elders in your particular community and listening to their thoughts and ideas for change is a must. Many companies are hiring outside consultants and experts in anti-racism in order to find a magic bullet for change. These companies are also having people who were responsible for creating the problem of systemic racism solely trying to create the solution or merely relying upon a small group of employees who have been subjected to systemic racism (your ERGs) to solve the problem. In Minnesota, engaging elders like Mahmoud El Kati and Dr. Josie Johnson is a must for learning history, creating humanity and providing sustainable solutions. Companies must listen and learn history.
3. “We must align all of our solutions for Black people.” This is a common phrase used by many companies seeking racial equity solutions. These companies have made statements or have started to design and implement racial equity solutions after the murder of George Floyd. The common theme is to align these solutions and not duplicate efforts. This theme translates to companies saying, “we are not going to fund and partner with multiple organizations in the Black community.” Companies say they need black organizations to “align and work together.” Imagine if we held this truth to be self evident in the American economic system. We would have no need for the NASDQ stock exchange because it is not aligned with the NYSE. We would have no need for Bank of America because US Bank is fulfilling all the banking needs of the world. These banks are not aligned, they are just committed to providing financial solutions. Just as it is not necessary to eliminate a stock exchange system or rival banks, it is just as unnecessary for Black led organizations or Black led economic chambers or business organizations to eliminate one another or “become aligned” as we work towards sustainable long term solutions for the Black community. 400 plus years of racism, systemic oppression, economic destruction and social and political exclusion call for multiple solutions. Some groups may be aligned and some may not. Non alignment is no excuse for not investing in every possible solution for Black economic, social and political advancement. If you know the history of oppression of Black people, you know it is going to take multiple solutions and organizations to create change.
4. Dr. Benjamin E. Mays said it best, “not failure, but low aim is a sin.” History may tell us that we have not done a good job in reducing disparities for Black people, especially in Minnesota. Minnesota continues to have some of the worst disparities between Black and white populations in health, education, employment, economic development housing and social injustices caused by policing. It is plausible to suggest that because these disparities are so large, we must only strive for small incremental gains or decreases in these categories. If history tells us anything, it tells us when expectations are low outcomes will be low and change will never be sustained. No one ever dreamed of the elimination of segregated schools in 1954, no one ever dreamed of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, no one ever dreamed of lawsuits for eliminating discrimination and increasing diversity in higher education. No one dreamed of it, except those who believed and acted towards change. They did not set small goals to pacify others, instead they set ambitious goals that some did not believe they could achieve. They chose goals that could rewrite history and make Black people human. All companies that signed up for change after the murder of George Floyd must set high expectations and goals for success. If companies do not set double digit goals for long term change it is not humane enough for a movement, it is mere lip service for a moment.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The road towards elimination of racial inequities is paved with excuses and the acceptance of poor outcomes. If we are to use history to create humanity for Black people, we must make sure all of those who are offering to be allies in this work learn history, and apply solutions consistent with history for proposed future outcomes. The spoken word and the written word of elders and those who have done this work will make it easier to work towards the humanity of Black people and a movement that is much more than a moment in time.