What to do with the African

I’ve had to ponder how I felt about the House of Representatives passing a resolution apologizing for slavery and also CNN’s two-part, four-hour documentary Black in America.

Like commentator and finance professor Dr. Boyce Watkins, I’ve struggled with indifference.  It was somewhat irritating that a white representative could bring it to the floor, but Rep. John Conyers’ H.R. 40 to study the issue can’t be considered.  But in both cases, there’s been too much attention to ignore.

Ten years ago, PBS did an historical documentary Africans in America.   I was on a panel at the San Francisco affiliate KQED that did two half-hour followup discussions.  One of my fellow panelists, Dr. Wade Nobles of San Francisco State, noted that the documentary missed the big question of American history “What to do with the African?”   If you’d like to explore that further with him, go to the Association of Black Psychologists conference in Oakland this weekend.

I was reminded of his question by the local anchorman who followed the video of Rep. Steve Cohen, D-TN, proposing his resolution before the House yesterday with this quick qualification.  The resolution does not include reparations.  It was a telling remark since neither Cohen nor the resolution mentioned reparations.

The best answer to Dr. Noble’s question comes from two sources prior to the First World War.  The first is a 1912 book The Narrative of the Negro, written by a Washington, D.C. schoolteacher named Leila Amos Pendleton.  She wrote:

“What is called the Negro problem has occupied the time and thought of Americans since the very beginning of the existence of the United States.  True patriots have never doubted what was best to do with the Negro — simply to treat him as any other human being, to give him every opportunity and encouragement, and to demand of him strict obedience with the laws that bind every other man.  But alas, how small a proportion of true patriots and statesmen this country has produced!”

The second came from the head of military intelligence’s Negro Subversion division, Maj. Walter H. Loving. “As a whole,” he wrote, “Negroes have resolved never again to submit to the treatment which they received in the past and any attempt to deny them such privileges and rights as they are entitled to, in common with other men, will be promptly resented. The above is a true statement of existing conditions, verified by personal observation and contact with Negroes of all classes.”

Neither the resolution nor the documentary captured these obvious points.  But I think the real takeaway for African-Americans is that they must seize the media agenda for writing this saga just as Mrs. Pendleton did and thousands of black publishers since the birth of Freedom’s Journal in 1827, more than 160 years ago. Just think Frederick Douglass did not have to depend on Fox News or CNN.  He published the North Star and the Frederick Douglass Paper.  His many white subscribers understood that he wanted nothing less than abolition and full freedom. And many acted on his philosophies.

You can’t encapsulate the Narrative of the African-American in two two-hour segments or one resolution.  It needs to be covered 24-7.  That will only happen as a result of our changing our media practices to support news coverage.  It is distressing that The Africa Channel among the three cable television choices covering blacks is the only one with a full complement of news shows.  In fact, BET is bereft of news, but is apparently planning to cover the Democratic National Convention. (With who, ComicView?)

As I have watched people praise CNN’s effort, I’m suggesting that equal energy be directed at insuring that the stories are told every day. During National Black Business Month, subscribe to the media that cover us all year round.

As for the resolution, you can expect your colleagues at work to ask you what else do blacks want.  You can refer them to Ms. Pendleton.

If we don’t consider ourselves important, no one else will.


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