I just returned from a trip on the Underground Railroad where we learned about the great individuals who made America great. The story of our people is the story of tenacity, overcoming adversity, and recognizing that this history is the foundation of all American History.
Last week, I went from anger to hurt back to anger again as I reflected on the latest entertainment event to hit the Inland Empire, "The Last Emancipation". The play written by Richard O. Jones was full of inaccuracies, lies and just downright self loathing.
The main premise of the play was that Aunt Jemima, Uncle Remus and Uncle Ben's likeness were used for 100 years, they are now updated characters and they still are using their likeness without paying into the estates of these real life people.
That premise could have worked to show the historical inequities in every part of American life but it sorely missed the mark. It instead turned on the victim once again. This time victimizing ourselves which truly offended me.
First they had a trial. Traditionally Blacks were not allowed to testify in court on their own behalf or for/against anyone else. But The Last Emancipation had a trial. Then the cast of characters who testified included Frederick Douglass, Mary McLeod Bethune, Josiah Henson (aka Uncle Tom) and to top it off W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington were added, playing stereotypical lawyers.
Booker T. Washington was made to look like he was against his own people. The difference in the philosophies of Washington and W. E. B. Dubois were not articulated.
Washington was the original founder of the Negro Business League, he not only founded Tuskegee University but every summer he went south to teach reading. Over 100 years later Tuskegee stands as a testament to his genius. Washington focused on uplifting the masses of Blacks who were just one generation out of slavery or who, like him, had been former slaves. W.E.B. Dubois, instead, believed in focusing on the top ten percent of African- Americans. That “talented tenth” would then become the leaders who would uplift African Americans right after emancipation.
As Washington's late granddaughter, Margaret Washington said in a speech given at the annual Booker T. Washington luncheon at the Mission Inn, a few years ago: “they were both right!” This was lost to showing Booker T. Washington as a buffoon. No it is not alright.
Mary McLeod Bethune was a brilliant lady not a caricature.
Frederick Douglass looked unkempt and not at all like the giant that he was. Want to know more about him ask his great great grandson, Kenny Morris, who also is Booker Washington's great great grandson.
He lives in our community, and is founder of the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation, an organization committed to not only preserving the history of Douglass but to eradicating modern day slavery around the globe. He would have been more disappointed than me.
I left Uncle Tom for last. Josiah Henson was the character that Harriet Beecher Stowe used to help to shine a light on the horrors of enslavement of Black Americans in his famous novel,, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
There is no way with the portrayal of her book that the playwright ever read it.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written to help abolitionists in their efforts to end slavery, was sparked by Stowe’s visit to Old Washington, Kentucky after she witnessed a slave auction on the town’s courthouse steps.
She was horrified at seeing families sold off, mothers torn from their children, the degradation of their bodies being inspected and then to hear, SOLD for $50, $100, even $1000 or more. She was told that slavery wasn't that bad so she wrote a fictional story based on the lives of real characters.
She started her research and she came across the narrative of Josiah Henson. In her book she named him Uncle Tom. His autobiography (dictated by himself) tells the story of how dedicated he was to his master. He was trusted with the management of the farm, he doubled crops and was trusted as a man who kept his word.
Unfortunately, his enslaver did not keep his word, and because he could not read he was tricked by a slave owner and kept in enslavement. But when he had enough, he lost trust in his enslaver, he decided to emancipate himself and took his family with him to Canada.
Henson, a minister, with years of experience in management became a leader among the freedom seekers. He soon founded the British American Institute in the Dawn Settlement near Dresden, Ontario Canada, where his third home is preserved by the Canadian government. He additionally saved hundreds on the Underground Railroad, went to England three times and met with Queen Victoria on his last visit. His great great granddaughter Barbara Carter has dedicated her life to tell the true Uncle Tom story. She asked me to tell the real story of Uncle Tom and tell the people that for 85 years white minstrels in blackface traveled the world making fun of and distorting our history. Barbara said that she hopes in her lifetime to set the record straight. It’s so sad a full audience of people saw how we destroyed our own history.
The Last Emancipation made a mockery of the memory of the great heroes. We stand on their shoulders, if they had not fought the fight then we would not enjoy the lives we enjoy today We are the dream of the enslaved Africans. Our ancestors would be devastated that their memories have been bastardized by some of their own.
The other sad thing about this play is that a full audience laughed and as Richard Jones commented “they liked the minstrel part the most.” We have work to do in our community and I thank him for this sorely needed teachable moment. I hope he either scraps the play and never does it again or gets help from some of our accomplished professionals at California State University San Bernardino or University of California Riverside to do it right.