history Archives - The Jose Vilson


Sonia Sanchez

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“:

I don’t…
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

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Stereotypical Cartoon from the 1900's about Women's Suffrage

Stereotypical Cartoon from the 1900's about Women's Suffrage

In the early 1800s, a woman by the name of Augusta Ada King, countess of Lovelace (commonly known as Ada Lovelace), wrote a “program” for Charles Babbage that would work for a “computer” that he hadn’t even created yet. She’s widely credited as the first computer programmer, and even had the first major computer named after her. Yet, there’s still debate about this point because, of course, Babbage didn’t acknowledge her or any other contributors to his work much.

From many reports (and just from reading some of her sample biographies), she didn’t seem like one to follow rules. She studied math in a time when the idea of women becoming educated citizens in this world was still either new or still unheard of in many countries. From all accounts, she was a badass and a thinker, who actually predicted that, with computer programs, we’d be able to hear music while others found it to be nonsense. (New Zealand was the first country to let women vote … in 1893! The US only picked that up 30 years later.)

Now, I wouldn’t bring someone up like Ada Lovelace (who I still don’t think the male-dominated technology fields give enough props to) because she was the first computer programmer or a bad-ass, but because she was the first computer program AND a bad-ass. People have said in my circles that well behaved women rarely make history, and that stands true to now. It’s easy for males to say that women need to act a certain way to be productive members in society. They should naturally lean towards the kitchen and the laundromat. They should naturally lean towards taking care of the kids. They should naturally wear certain types of clothes or act a certain way.

And naturally, I find it all to be BS. I want you right now to make a list of all the women that have made history right now in your mind.(rosaparks, angeladavis, michelleobama, sallyride, doloreshuerta, arethafranklin, susanbanthony, sojournertruth, idabwells, yurikochiyama).

OK, that’s enough time. Now if 60% of your list were goody-two-shoes, then I suspect you need a few more lessons in history.

Now, think about your present situation and think about the women in your life. I’ll give you enough time to think about the women who make a difference in your life, in any facet …

Right. Now if your list is 60% goody-two-shoes, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough. I said it.

For some reason, whether the woman is my girlfriend (who is as misbehaved as they come), or the writers of the blogs I read, or the friends I’ve made, the women who surround me serve as, at once, independent figures who I believe are making history with their ways or starting revolutions with their work and counterbalance to my own delusions of grandeur. I don’t think any of them are considered well-behaved, and while some of them play nice when needed, none of them conform to some social standard of what they’re supposed to do.

And that thrills me.

As men, we need women. I’m not ready to worship women either, but the ones in my life need that affirmation to let them know just how they’re breaking standards in their own way. I prefer when the women aren’t well-behaved, and make conscientious noise. This behavior isn’t about being rude, disrespectful, trifling, bellicose, or disagreeable. It’s about breaking those social norms that dispel the nonsense of what women can achieve and can’t.

Society is quick to tell women how they should behave, but it’s often the ones that don’t behave that push the human race forward. If people can’t accept that, then maybe they need to be reprogrammed.

Jose, who needed the right impetus to celebrate Women’s History Month …


I Shall Fear No Man (Y’all Don’t Hear Me Though)

by Jose Vilson on January 19, 2009

in Jose

Backstage at the Democratic National Convention

Backstage at the Democratic National Convention

My favorite speech from the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King has been called “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” and it ends something like this:

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy, tonight.

I’m not worried about anything.

I’m not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

The thoughts swirling through my head with the recent release of Notorious and the pending inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama all have a focal point of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Particularly, I’m always concerned with a few parts of his legend that have turned into fable, and have almost made it impossible for the younger generations to feel empowered by the Civil Rights Movement. (Some of the inspiration for this post came at the behest of CNN’s Soledad Brown’s interview with Fred Gray, Rosa Parks’ lawyer during the pivotal bus sit-in, who is still quite sharp.)

These are a handful of things everyone can take to the younger generation in case even we forget what’s truly possible:

1) Rosa Parks was neither lazy nor stubborn. She was a protester who knew what she was doing when she sat on that bus, and she knew who had her back.

2) The movement may have had male figureheads, but the movement wouldn’t have even been possible without the women in the movement, and everyone who’s anyone knows it.

3) From some reports, MLK Jr. was actually reluctant to even get into the movement, but eventually felt it was the best thing to do.

4) Most of the movers and shakers of the movement were really young. Some of the Black Panthers were late teens or college students. The same can be said for the Brown Berets, Young Lords, Yellow Fist, etc. MLK Jr. was still a preacher at 25, but he was assassinated at 39. Malcolm X was also assassinated at 39. Rosa Parks was 35 during the infamous bus incident.

5) Despite videos and tales to the contrary, the people who marched, protested, and made noise were relatively few. Thus, it only takes a few to shake millions.

6) Unlike many rappers who have professed their suicidal thoughts to the masses, MLK Jr. didn’t say the aforementioned “Mountaintop” speech because he was somehow depressed or disillusioned with the world around him. He, like other Civil Rights leaders, actually feared for their lives because they were HELPING ADVANCE EQUALITY FOR ALL!

Now some of these facts might come off as a little morbid, but the residuals of these ideas have almost made many of our young brethren ostentatious when unnecessary but timid when it comes to civil action. Rather than actually feeling some inspiration about these awesome figures in this country’s history, many of them cower and shun those times in favor of more individualistic goals and a lavish lifestyle.

Thus, tomorrow’s inauguration is truly symbolic not simply because Barack Obama’s a Black man in the White House or because it comes at the heels of MLK Jr. Day, but also because this president’s whole campaign was about igniting the younger generation, and relying on their expertise. Maybe percentagewise, it may not have been much of a difference, but the people who took to the blogs and the streets is impressive, and maybe then, too, we’ll have a new generation who finds value in giving life and limb for a cause that benefits the greater.

Jose, who doesn’t believe in this post-racial business, you need more people …

p.s. – Dick Cheney hurting his back moving out of the office? Wow. Not that coincidental.


Toy Soldiers

November 27, 2007

Every morning, I’m usually in the class, setting my board up for my homeroom class, who also happens to be my first period class on Thursdays and Fridays, so it’s almost like having an extended homeroom. The whole school routinely says the US’ Pledge of Allegiance, and the responsibility to recite it over the loudspeaker […]

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U, Black Maybe

August 2, 2007 Jose

“I guess in his mind, though, there’s no doubt as to what I am. Suffice it to say, people immediately peg me as “Black.” That’s fine; there’s nothing wrong with that. What’s unfortunate, though, is how limiting these labels become. What does it mean to be Black in this country? And does it allow for people who don’t necessarily fit right in that slot?”

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