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Minds Stayed On Freedom

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By Hugh B. Price
President, National Urban League


In this month when intensely concentrated attention is paid to the past and the present of African Americans, two displays offer a seemingly stark contrast between the history of African Americans in the 19th century and their history during the 20th century.

One is the gripping documentary the HBO cable channel debuted February 10, “Unchained Memories: Readings From The Slave Narratives.”

The second is an exhibit that opened this month in New York City honoring 30 elder citizens of that fabled Black community, Harlem, U.S.A.

The HBO special was drawn from the 1930s’ interviews of African Americans who had been born into slavery conducted by the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project.

Read by African-American actors, the experience of slavery is told largely in the words of that last generation of Black Americans—then, from 80 to well past 100 years old—to have experienced slavery first-hand; and it is a priceless treasure.

The New York City exhibit, “Harlem Is …,” was created by a local organization called Community Works not only to honor individuals, who range in age from 50 to 100, who’ve had a significant impact on Harlem and the world.

It’s also meant to pay homage to the twentieth-century history of Harlem itself for serving as the incubator of such achievement.

Unlike the African Americans who had been born into slavery, several of those celebrated in the “Harlem Is …” exhibit, now at the Aaron Davis Hall on the campus of the City College of the City University of New York, in Harlem, are known far and wide.

They include Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel, the singer Gloria Lynne, the writer Albert Murray, and the jazz drummer Max Roach.

Those names underscore what are, at first glance, the overt differences in environment, in the degree of challenges faced, in the resources that individuals could utilize, in formal learning, and in just the basic ability to live with a measure of freedom between the African Americans in the HBO special and the African Americans in the Community Works exhibit, which also includes Latino Americans and White Americans who are Harlem treasures.

Yes, the differences are unquestionably real.
For one thing, many of the former slaves were still living in the South, where the brief promise of Emancipation and Reconstruction, was suffocated by a brutal, government-sanctioned, White supremacy.

Black Americans had escaped slavery. But they were far from enjoying even a half-measure of freedom. These men and women who had endured so much never had the chance to show the world their worth; and it was the world’s loss.

But, in another sense, the differences are deceptive.

For what comes shining through in both of these cultural landmarks is the indomitable will those in one century and their descendants in the following displayed to live their lives as full human beings.

One dramatic example of this was told by Jennie Proctor, of Texas, who recalled that slaves were forbidden—on pain of a severe whipping—to learn how to read.

“None of us was allowed to see a book or try to learn,” Proctor says, her words spoken by Oprah Winfrey. “They say we’d get smarter than they was if we learned anything.”

Nonetheless, she and her determined band managed to sneak a copy of Webster’s speller from the slave owner’s library and by candlelight in the dead of night in their ramshackle cabins, study their letters.

“We learned it, too,” she concluded, her words surely conveying only a fraction of both the tenacity it took for African Americans held as slaves to learn to read and the zeal with which the freed men and women pursued formal education after the Civil War.

Her words made me realize what I was seeing when the HBO special showed close-ups of the enslaved children, and I was struck by the brightness and intelligence and beauty in their eyes.

The slavers would soon begin the brutal process of trying to systematically extinguish the humanity from the souls of the Black children.

The irony is that, generally, they only succeeded in extinguishing it from their own.
For these Black Americans, as those who had gone before them, had their minds stayed on freedom, as an anthem of the civil rights years of the 1950s and 1960s puts it, and they were not going to be deterred.

Their tragedy was that they themselves were largely never to realize their full potential.
But their powerful legacy to African Americans of the twentieth-century was to lay the groundwork for us to be able to do so, and thus, to help, in the words of Langston Hughes, another Harlemite celebrated in the Community Works exhibit, “make America be America.”

So, as the words to “Mind Stayed on Freedom” resounded in my mind, I was not surprised to remember that Albert Murray, a four-decade-long Harlem resident, but Alabama-born, has defined this fierce quality another, equally wonderful way.

He described it as “the indelibility of the ancestral imperative to do something and become something and be somebody.”

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