A life changing moment in my childhood was when my godmother, Charlotte Ruth, now deceased, took me to Harlem to visit the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. It was the mid-1960s and my Aunt Charlotte knew her godson was inquisitive about Black history and had a real thirst for learning about my culture. A school teacher, she saw the Schomburg as the one place where I could get many of my questions answered about the past and the present state of Black Americans in 1967.
At the time Black History was recognized by an annual Negro History Week and the extent of my exposure to the history of my people was through my church, Varick Memorial AME Zion Church in my native Hackensack New Jersey. Had it not been for my church I would have had no knowledge of the Underground Railroad, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, the Civil War and other historical markers because the history of African people was a deliberate omission in public education. My elementary school did have one book on its shelf, The Negro Almanac, which I borrowed so often the librarian called my mother and suggested she purchase it for me. The book was one of my Christmas gifts in 1967 and remains a prized possession on my shelf. Through my church and a solitary book I began to develop a deep pride in Black Americans and our contributions to world civilization, not just our survival in the United States.
Mostly though, it was the trip to the brownstone in Harlem that housed the Schomburg collection that changed my world view. It was a day long excursion during which my godmother allowed me to roam the building free and library staff took great pleasure in answering my seemingly never ending questions. On that day I immersed myself in my culture and through an almost spiritual osmosis became obsessed with the preservation of Black history and the commitment to the full emancipation of my people. The 8 year-old Black boy who entered that building emerged as a self-assured and defiant young man who pledged his life to the uplift of his people.
As this year’s recognition of Black History Month winds down it is the memory of that first trip to the Schomburg that stirs prominently in my mind. Upon walking down the steps of that Harlem brownstone my thoughts were on the future. If Black people had such a glorious past, truly our future, despite the turmoil of the times, would exceed the experiences of our ancestors. At least that was my hope and I was determined to be part of shaping the destiny of Black America.
As a middle-aged Black adult I now find myself in a quandary. I am old enough to remember a period when Blacks were ascending and the key actors responsible for our emergence as a people. I am also of age to recall when the tide began to turn against Black people and the set of circumstances that have led to our present state of confusion. Through this cycle Black Americans have seemed to lose a sense of history and self, and slid into a comatose state defined by the loss of cultural consciousness. It was a point of discussion during another personal cultural milestone, a one-on-one dinner conversation with historian and Ebony Magazine Senior Editor emeritus Lerone Bennett, Jr. several years ago. I walked away from that several hour discussion with two more prized possessions, autographed copies of his seminal book, Before the Mayflower; A History of Black America. Yes, I do consider Black history a priceless heirloom.
I have come to the understanding that if there is truly going to be a future for Black Americans it must be self-determined. Since the first importation of African slaves, our liberty has been calibrated in relation to white privilege. We have been allowed but so much freedom because we have invested in a pseudo-democratic model that adjusts our rights in relation to the status of whites. Any movement toward equality for Blacks is viewed as an encroachment upon white entitlement and met with resistance, sometimes political and often times violent. It is clear to me that Blacks cannot pin our hopes on the acquiescence of a resistant white America to our legitimate claims for equity but must use very resource we possess to carve a self-determined path to freedom.
We can do this by exploiting our economic power as consumers that we casually waste when we make purchasing decisions that have no inherent value to our long-term survival. If we were to channel the billions of dollars we waste on trivial purchases into business development and education it would prove decisive for future generations. It is also imperative that we make education, culturally competent and quality instruction, a priority. We must make public education the human rights issue of the 21st century and invest our energies into transforming the elementary and secondary schools our children attend. At the same time we must preserve and strengthen historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that are serious about upgrading their academic offerings and campus facilities while maintaining their historical commitment to Black youth. Truth be told, we likely do not need 100 Black colleges as much as we need a sizeable core of very strong, financially stable and global academic institutions. The support of HBCUs must extend beyond the alumni community and become the passion of Black America. We will not be relevant, let alone survive as a people, if we do not have a strong institutional base. That base includes HBCUs as well as a faith-based infrastructure that needs to mature in its development role in the Black community.
What is also misunderstood is the importance of a media infrastructure, and not one that entertains but one that informs and educates. The independent ownership of mass communication portals and new media enterprises is crucial to the long-term preservation of Black people in America. To date we have wasted billions on television and radio enterprises that serve to enrich their owners but do little to raise the consciousness of Black people and mobilize the masses to affect change. This is not rocket science. During the period of our most accelerated advancement it was Black newspapers, radio and a diverse array of periodicals such as Negro Digest, Ebony and The Black Scholar that informed and influenced the movement for equal rights. Today we have access to a powerful medium, the Internet, which is overwhelmingly used for frivolity on our part and is now in danger of having access to it limited by forces that truly understand its power. Likewise, we dominate the consumption of digital, mobile communication devices and social media applications, but use them primarily for social gossip rather than information sharing and political connectivity.
My omission of politics is deliberate. What I have come to realize is that our political power is a byproduct of all of the above. For too long we have engaged in partisan politics that has been a revolving door of expectation and disappointment. Despite our electoral successes at all levels of government, including the election of an African-American President, we remain a marginalized political faction because we have not grasped the importance of our economic security to potential benefits and gains in our democratic system.
So, as I witness the end of another Black History Month I remain a futurist; looking forward with the same optimism I had when I walked out of the Schomburg in 1967 but with a more self-determined spirit, understanding that the preservation and uplift of Black people is contingent upon our own devices.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.