February commemorates Black History. HL celebrates these important markers idiosyncratically. Not by recalling what was hammered into the head about Crispus Attucks but his own experience with what is being celebrated. Reflecting on what Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15), St. Patrick (March 17), Israeli Independence (May 9) and The Bimbo (2007) mean to him. With some of those, and certainly Black History, a lot.
One key moment for HL occurred in 1956, while watching TV with my father, on our 11-inch black & white set. The news of the day included footage of House UnAmerican Activities Committee hearing involving Paul Robeson. I asked, “who’s that guy they’re all mad at?” Dad, a moderately conservative R, football player and WWII veteran of some renown deadpanned “That’s Paul Robeson, he was an All-American, Rutgers valedictorian, Columbia Law graduate, and the best singer and actor of his time, but he can’t get served in restaurants slightly south of here, so he became a Communist.” An oversimplification and I, nine years old, did not ask for clarification, but the history lesson was learned.
A year later, I was with my parents when a distraught neighbor told us that a “colored” family was moving into our Queens neighborhood and said “I wouldn’t mind if Ralph Bunche was moving in.” This time Dad raised his voice and responded, “why would Dr. Ralph Bunche want to live near you?” The neighbor pouted away.
By 1968, my father had died, I had gone to college and during the “disastrous, spring semester” (as my resume read for many years), HL was an exchange student at Howard University. A status that ended abruptly when the administration asked the 30 or so white students, among the student body of 11,000, to leave after Dr. King’s assassination.
Before that, my residence at Howard had been the worst and best of times. On several occasions, I was sent by schoolmates to places where I would be very unwelcome but at the last minute redirected by them or another Good Samaritan student. I was threatened/ordered by a Kappa Alpha Psi brother (where I was a temporary/honorary member) to cancel the date I had made with an AKA sister to attend a play. I still recall her knowing and disapproving look as I backed out with tail between legs. But later, the same brother had me named UMOC (Ugly Man on Campus) for the next frat party, clearly an honor bestowed to make amends.
I sampled Black Studies at Williams, where several classes were taught by Alex Haley (post “Malcolm X” and pre “Roots”) and Howard’s American History Chair, Dr. Rayford Logan, who was Williams Class of 1917 (“The Negro in the United States”; “The Negro in American Life and Thought: The Nadir”; “The African Mandates in World Politics” among many others). However, I wanted to see how Black Studies was taught at Howard, the mothership. The most indelible lesson happened one night on a bus back to campus from the Library of Congress. At some point during the ride I looked up and realized I was a night light on that bus and saw or imagined that every other passenger was staring at me. I bolted out at the next stop, well short of the campus and heard raucous laughter as the bus pulled away. At that moment I experienced what it was like to be the “only”-examined, judged and toyed with by dominant others. That black history lesson from February 1968, and those taught by my father, still serve me well.