Tonight, my organization, Latino Alumni Network of Syracuse University, got a chance to co-sponsor a book event featuring Craig T. Williams, the author of The Olympian, a story based on the life of Dr. John Baxter Taylor, Jr., the first African-American (and one of the first Americans period) to win an Olympic gold medal. Williams’ retelling, compiled from obituaries, Penn State Relays records, and other articles from the time period, brings Dr. Taylor’s life back into the consciousness of Black America. For many of us, we recognize Jesse Owens as the first, a mistake considering the contributions so many Blacks made to track and field Taylor to Owens, a span of almost three decades.
Williams reminded me of this piece Sonia Sanchez did for Talib Kweli’s Eardrum, in the song “Everything Man“:
Remember the first time I heard Kwe-li
I don’t remember what I was doing
There were no remembered witnesses to my doings
But it seems like I’ve known him, forever
He who has, moved through mornings and midnights
Through, deaths and dawns
To document our bones our blood our lives
Listen, listen to his exact wings
Strumming mists from clouds
Listen, listen a man always punctual with his, mouth
Listen to his, revolution of syllables
Scoping lightning from his pores
Keeping time, with his hurricane beat
Asking us to pick ourselves up and become, THUNDER
Holy cow. For anyone familiar with Sonia Sanchez’s persona and work, they know she puts her entire soul into each word she puts down. Dually, she’s saying something about Kweli that we all ought to take heed.
The history is more than just a retelling, but a call to action. When you chronicle the lives of people so consistently with your own perspective, and have the talent to do this with few barriers, you’re not just commemorating Black history: you are Black history. The lives of millions of people not just in the United States but all over the world might only get told if you do it. The story of Dr. Taylor doesn’t get told if someone doesn’t reach out and find it, especially since Dr. Taylor, who died early with no descendants of any sort, only had a history through obituaries. Even if it’s our own words, we’re contributing to the zeitgeist by thrusting our voices into the collective consciousness about our experiences.
When I first saw Sonia Sanchez at Syracuse (for a Black History Month event), she kept pushing us to create new words. We already had Malcolm’s words, Martin’s words, or Rosa’s words. We needed new words, new things to say, new ways to say things. Black History isn’t some relic we celebrate for 28 – 29 days with ready-made posters from Scholastic Inc. or a placebo for guilt-ridden teachers needing to flex their knowledge about people they rarely interact with. It’s an acknowledgement that until all of our histories become part of the American tradition, this American tradition must suffice.
A few weeks back, I watched BET, abnormal for me except on the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday when they run the whole series of the critically acclaimed mini-movie King. Every year, I watch like I’d never seen the movie before, and every year, I manage to weep a little. Part of it is the acknowledgement that a great man / father / brother / son died, but another is the brutal way our country still treats folks of color. Our books get banned, our young men and women get imprisoned at higher rates than any other group in the world, and our aspirations normally limited to music and athletics.
The question then becomes: how do we document our bones, our blood, our lives? Just listen. The stories need to be told, waiting for us to say them.
Jose, who has the same birthday as Arturo Schomburg …