The Lesson Just Isn’t In The Cards

WEDNESDAY, FEB. 22, 1995

Who am I?

It’s 1986. I am sitting on an idling Greyhound somewhere in rural Georgia, watching rain pulp the soil into a muddy clay, when that question announces itself. Maybe it’s the fatigue of a hard half-dozen hours on the bus, but the question won’t leave me. It is the central conundrum of black life, the thing that separates us from self-knowledge. Are we Africans or Americans? Believers in the American Dream, or proof of the American Nightmare? Where have we been, what did we learn there and where do we want to go now?

Who are we? Who am I?

The rain sluices down in torrents and the wipers drone a weary rhythm. There is no other sound. There are no answers.

As it happens, I was on a research trip, studying and gathering soundbites for a radio documentary in honor of Black History Month.

Each year since, I’ve found myself less a fan of that slick, corporate-sponsored celebration. There’s so much to know that “heroes of black history” trading cards, commemorative burger specials and school curricula don’t teach. The only thing my youngest son has learned from the month is that a black man invented the traffic light. Nothing about the cauldron that forged us or the hammer blows that shaped us. Not a word about how we got over.

So I was surprised when my friend Merrill told me recently that he’d love to see a “Month” devoted to the history of his people.

Surprised, not just because of the sinking esteem in which I hold Black History Month, but also because, hey, Merrill’s Jewish. And whenever we are seized with the why-don’t-our-children-know-who-they-are blues, we black urban professionals are fond of pointing at American Jews as a model of doing it right.

But Merrill doesn’t see it that way. As a child, he wasn’t taught about the Holocaust. When he misbehaved, his mother called him a “Hitler.” He didn’t know why.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, explains that for years, Jews avoided the Holocaust. Many survivors chose or were pressured to distance themselves from their horrific ordeal so that their children might be “as American as anybody else.”

Cooper says two things changed that in a miniseries on the Holocaust and a neo-Nazi march in the largely Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie. “With the neo-Nazis in the streets, a lot of the survivors said, I’m not going to put up with this.”

And so, Jews began to take possession of their history and to appreciate its lessons. As Merrill puts it, “I think reality has probably set in with distance.”

Not quite 30 years after the Freedom Movement sputtered to a close, is the same about to be true of black Americans? I like to think so. I like to think we are in the process of reclaiming our history, of realizing that there are things that only “we,” not McDonald’s, not the school system, can teach our children.

I gathered mine the other day and announced that we’ll hold black history classes every Saturday morning in our living room. I braced myself for gale force objections, but none came. Instead, my kids smiled and nodded and I realized that they were eager for this knowledge.

That eagerness shamed me. What a dunce I had been: obsessing on the forest and forgetting the trees.

Robert Novak, director of the Southern Region of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Hollywood, told me once, “The Talmud says he who saves a single person, it is as though they have saved the entire world.”

That wisdom is distressingly easy to forget.

And you know, it satisfies me, takes the edge off my frustration, to have class with my kids. To watch them grapple with the question that came to me once on a bus in the rain and the answers I’ve found in the decade since.

Children, I say, This is how we got over. This is who we are.


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