In 2015, the Chicago Urban League honored journalist Isabel Wilkerson. His book “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of the Great Migration” is joyful and heartbreaking as it chronicles how African Americans moved from north to south, often feeling racial and economic violence.
It is nothing less than a masterpiece.
In his acceptance speech, Wilkerson encouraged grandparents to share their stories with their grandchildren. She stressed the importance of documenting family history and not losing migration stories.
When family stories are not shared, a new story emerges. Not to mention how the history books omit much of black existence and resistance. And a crop of so-called lapidary T-shirts doesn’t help. At best, they are narcissistic (“I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams”) and at worst anhistoric (“Dear racism, I am not my grandparents. Sincerely, These hands.”)
“These hands” is a common slang expression that basically means “I defend myself”.
This latest post postulates that the youngest are bolder and better than their grandparents who turned the proverbial other cheek. But have they ever seen Southern cops turn fire hoses and sick dogs at blacks during the civil rights movement? What do they know about people who are lynched just for having lived?
Even though their ancestors were not people of the “movement,” they were humans who endured far more than we will ever know about racism and Jim Crow. School children across the country will be reporting on Black History Month milquetoast about a tired seamstress who has not given up on the bus. They will not 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 teenager from Chicago in Mississippi in 1955 by racist white men. What struck me was the constant resistance of black Mississippians.
They faced backlash after Brown v. Board of Education and Dixiecrats flouting state rights.
There was a white judge who – before the murder of Emmett Till – predicted the murder of a “flippant young nigger” from Chicago. There were citizen councils, formed by so-called respectable and intellectual white men who disowned the Ku Klux Klan – but were in fact a protective crowd of apartheid.
Newspapers published the names of black residents who signed petitions to vote. If white people saw your name you would catch hell and could lose your job. Your family members too.
Insurance companies canceled the policies. Bullets went through the windows.
People were beaten up, but they continued to campaign for voter registration.
According to Tyson, a pastor who received constant death threats was ultimately killed by two dozen bullets when his car was shot down. A cotton farmer was killed while risking 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 “grab those hands” t-shirts while reading Tyson’s book. What nerve to print and carry such a message.
Arrianna M. Planey, a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of Illinois-Champaign, agrees. She thinks of her own maternal grandparents, who were the first black people to own property in Pike County, Mississippi.
“One memory I have is my grandfather who looked after the farm and told us stories,” Planey said. “I remember watching my grandmother shell peas and tell stories about their life in Mississippi. “
They spoke of black men banding together to stop the night riders, of black families banding together to defend themselves.
“It’s so disrespectful not to recognize this story,” Planey said of the “those 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 premonitory gift for a future radio career. My dad asked me to sit down with my grandfather and record our family history.
It pains me to say that part of the tape was recorded and then lost. I didn’t quite understand the mission at the time, but I remember hearing about the Moors in Nashville. My grandfather left the South because of the racial violence he witnessed.
In this Black History Month, I encourage older people to talk to younger people and not to look down on them. Each generation wants to make its mark and the generational whims make everyone dizzy.
Our elders have so much wisdom. Their acts of resistance, large and small, need an audience.
Natalie Moore is a reporter for WBEZ.org
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