“I belong” strikes a chord at Celebrating Black American History

Speaking to audience during Celebrating Black American History in San Francisco

For many of the audience members at Celebrating Black American History yesterday, my remarks came down to two simple words–“I belong.”
Just about everyone who came by to talk afterwards mentioned the phrase.
It was in concert with the spirit of the massive event, which had over 400 people spilling into the balcony of the Hotel Whitcomb ballroom.
In preparing for the speech, I had deleted three items to keep it within the 15 minutes that the event organizers had requested. Pope Powell in his invocation declared the room a “sanctuary,” not knowing that my title was “Continuity of Conscience in the Western Sanctuary.” I had thought it would take too long to explain.
S.F. Public Utilities Commission General Manager Ed Harrington pulled from my blog the education statement from the 1855 Colored Convention of California. I’d considered using it for my closing, but he had no way of knowing that.
In keeping with the national theme of Black History Month, I focused on the role of black abolitionists in Gold Rush era California, but for time’s sake, dwelled on some of the lesser known freedom fighters as opposed to Mary Ellen Pleasant.
Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, the emcee, actually had a dress made which reflected how Mary Ellen Pleasant would have appeared in the 1850s and gave facts about the “mother of civil rights in California” each time she got up. After leaving office in January, to be replaced by new 10th District Supervisor Malia Cohen, who also came with her parents, Maxwell mentioned that she now had time to reflect on such matters.
The audience, which included many city department heads, several members of the Board of Supervisors and new Mayor Ed Lee, was clearly fascinated to learn about the early black presence in San Francisco.
So the bases were loaded spiritually when I stepped up to the podium. I was free to give some context to why the history is important–because the role of pioneers like Crispus Attucks and conquistadors from the Cortes party to the Portola expedition–gives African-Americans a sense of belonging to the historical record.
It is no accident that one of the greatest works of literature of the 20th century is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It has the same theme as the first play by an African-American on Broadway by San Franciscan Garland Anderson. Likewise, the great pastor Dr. Howard Thurman’s book, which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. always kept on his person, was Jesus and the Disinherited, which Thurman wrote while in San Francisco.
The theme also resonated with the two vocalists. Tricia Hutchinson, who led Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, as she has for the previous seven years of the gathering, related that she was taking her fourth grade daughter to Mission Dolores the next day. She was amazed to know that William Alexander Leidesdorff was buried there.
Lolita “Lea” Sweet, who sang Did You Ever Know That You’re My Hero with Jaye and Friends backing her up, told me afterwards that she had researched her family background to find connections to James Brown and Otis Redding. It had propelled her to pursue her own singing career.
Everyone needs to belong. That’s why we need to infuse this history in our schools and properly recognize black historic sites throughout California.
We’ll discuss these issues further on Saturday, Feb. 26 at 1 p.m. in room 413 of the southeast campus of City College of San Francisco during the sixth session of Come to the Water: Teaching California Black History.
For those who can’t make it, there are online, print and video resources at http://www.californiablackhistory.com.

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