Another side of Black History

Prepared talk by Gloria Verdieu, Socialist Unity Party member and longtime organizer in the struggle to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, for “Another Side of Black History: a Black Socialist Perspective,” presented by the Black Caucus of the Socialist Unity Party on Feb. 28. Watch in full on YouTube

Historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the second week of February 1926 to be “Negro History Week,” 95 years ago.

Negro History Week led to Black History Month or African-American history Month.

Certainly, Woodson did not expect us to take only a week out of the year to study Black History nor should we expect to take only a month to focus on African History.

Political Prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal explains in one of his many commentaries on history titled “How Black is our Black History Month?”

“Black History Month is a time to remember that which the corporate culture wishes is forgotten. A time to remember rebellion, resistance, and what it means to be Black in a white nation — today.”

This year — 2021 — our focus in the Socialist Unity Party Black Caucus will be to intensify the movement to release Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, Russell Maroon Shoats, Mutulu Shakur, Sundiata Acoli, Imam Jamil, Ruchell Magee, all political prisoners. Immediately.

We join the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and others calling to take immediate steps to depopulate jails, prisons, immigrant detention centers and juvenile facilities that are genocidal hotbeds for COVID-19 infections and death camps for millions.

Free Mumia

Mumia Abu-Jamal has written many commentaries on Black History Month.

I’ve been involved in the movement to Free Mumia and all Political Prisoners for many years.

I went to a meeting in San Diego where Pam Africa of the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal was the keynote speaker along with members of the Move organization, I brought Mumia’s book, “Live From Death Row,” and after reading it, I was sure that we would succeed in stopping his execution.

I also knew we would free him because it was clear to me that he was innocent. That was over 25 years ago.

I joined the San Diego Coalition to Stop the Execution of Mumia. a group that met weekly at San Diego City College. We would begin each meeting by reading an essay by Mumia.

My education about the prison-industrial complex, the disparities of mass incarceration, state sanctioned death sentences, and the U.S. criminal justice system deepened.

Mumia’s essays are filled with Black people and Black people’s movements that are left out of the Black History Month news stories, and sensational events covered in mainstream media outlets.

In 2003 Mumia wrote “Why kids flunk history.” Some 89% of U.S. students at junior and high school ages could not meet the requirements of U.S. history at their grade level!

Mumia writes from his own experience. 

At an early age he witnessed and participated in student protests demanding Black Studies in school. These protests were somewhat effective because Black Studies made it into Ben Franklin, the high school Mumia attended.

One of his African culture teachers taught the students some Swahili and assigned them Swahili names. Wesley Cook took the name Mumia (Prince) and at 14, began using this name. He later changed his last name to Abu-Jamal (“father of Jamal”) when his son was born in 1971.

His Black Studies teachers hung pictures of Malcolm X, and W.E.B. Dubois so Black students would know what their leaders looked like. He learned about Africa and that Africans had a cultural heritage that predated slavery. Africa was not only the cradle of humanity but the cradle of civilization.

Knowing this opened the doors for him to want to know more, to read more. Mumia read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” “The Souls of Black Folks” and he took books home to read.

Born in the South

In my own education, born in the South in the Florida panhandle, history was not one of my best subjects in high school.

I favored math because I like solving equations and English literature because we got to choose what we wanted to read and write about.

I didn’t have an appreciation for history until I took U.S. history from an African perspective at San Diego City College.

The Black Studies department at SDCC was created in 1971 through Black student activism demanding that the administration create a Black Studies department.

Professor Nathan Katungi was my first introduction to African history. The required reading in the first course was “Before the Mayflower” by Lerone Bennett. At that time, I was thinking that this class was an easy ‘A’ until I realized the history of Africa is huge. The contributions of African people worldwide is vast.

I continue to learn and read about my African history in the Americas and around the world.

So back to Why kids flunk history — Mumia writes:

‘History’ must be more than the numbing line-up of ‘great men,’ and reciting of dates from antiquity. They must tell the stories of real people, who fought, and still fight, for freedom against great odds, for social justice, for the rights of women, for a broader view of a life which they can recognize and become a part of.

Huey P. Newton’s name, and more importantly, his history of resistance and struggle, is little more than a mystery for many younger people in their 20s.

The name and works of a third rate rapper is more familiar to the average Black youth, and that’s hardly surprising given the failure of the public school system.

For the public school system is invested in ignorance, and Huey P. Newton was a rebel — and more, a Black Revolutionary.

— from “Huey a Memory”

As Black History month is celebrated Who will remember Huey-no postage stamps will be printed to remember him- too few school kids will learn his name, but outside of schools in the streets, in barber shops in bars on playgrounds his name will be remembered. A Black revolutionary, Dr. Huey P. Newton.

— from “For the Love of Huey”

Black History Month, the shortest month of the year, cannot hold the wealth of information guarded over the last 5 centuries of Black life in this New World — a “World’ that is certainly not new to the Native people who dwelled here an estimated 50 thousand years before European invasion.

African History should be a part of every discipline in all educational curricula from kindergarten to high school, college and on.

Today we continue to fight for Black Studies, more broadly ethnic studies in all schools especially public schools where most of our children attend.

Black History Month should be a time to celebrate what we have learned and accomplished throughout years of reading, our experiences, current events that we must study, analyze, and reflect on to determine how we are to move forward. 

I will read an edited version of “Another Side of Black History Month” by Mumia Abu-Jamal written in February 2003.

The idea of Black History Month has always filled me with ambivalence.

On the one hand, there is understandable pride in the accomplishments of one’s ancestors; people who fought long and hard for their place in the sun, against monstrous odds, and indeed, against American white supremacist terrorism. They used every means imaginable to sustain themselves against a system that was predicated and dedicated to their spiritual, psychological, and material destruction. When one studies the life of Harriet Tubman, or other freedom fighters like her, it is almost impossible not to be moved.

On the other hand, the institutionalization of Black History Month, by corporate, and political America, has resulted in a kind of ‘dead history,’ by which the uses of advertising and even stamps, to promote historical figures, many from the distant past, who portray a ‘safe’ side to a history that was, and is, anything but safe.

There is also a deep, troubling bourgeois factor in popular Black History that seems to remember the well-to-do yet ignores those who struggle among the ranks of the poor, who did not wear clean suits every day.

I speak of the forgotten ones; those people who fought for freedom and Black Liberation, not at news conferences, or in editorial board meetings but in the fields, in the shops, in the streets, among the people.

In this new kind of bourgeois, safe, corporate Black History, people such as these make no real appearances. It is almost as if these agencies strive to create a kind of ‘Black History lite’, that will not disturb the sleep or the stomachs of white Americans.

This is a shame, and a disservice to both white, and Black Americans, and all who really want to know about the history of this country.

It is therefore fitting to recall those names of people who lived in the hearts and minds of their people, and who, in their own way, fought for freedom, but are rarely mentioned in most history books.

Here are a few:

Ola Mae Quarterman, a bright, sensitive 18-year-old girl boarded a bus in Albany, Georgia, and refused to move when the white driver ordered her to.

She responded, “I paid my damn ten cents, and I’ll sit where I please.” When the segregationist-trained driver began to wag his finger in her face, she quite rationally responded, “Get your damn finger out of my face.” What happened next was in some ways like what happened in Montgomery, and in other ways different. Ms. Quarterman was convicted of violating the segregationist laws and sentenced to 30 days in jail.

The president of the local college where Ms. Quarterman was enrolled expelled her, and the local support was so splintered that Ms. Quarterman, alone and without support, drifted into despair and depression.

Her life teaches us, not the hopelessness of resistance, but the necessity of united action in resistance to social wrongs. She was right; those who failed to support her, for any reason, were wrong.

There is Margaret Morgan, a fugitive captive who fled to Pennsylvania in the 1840s, and was seized by a slavecatcher, Edward Prigg, under the draconian Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.

She was at the center of the case, for her freedom hinged on the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. ‘Justice’ Joseph Story (of Massachusetts) who was on the side of the slavecatchers and gave judicial blessing to the return of Margaret Morgan to a bitter bondage in the South — with her children, the youngest born into a ‘free’ state.

The lesson? Freedom proceeds from the struggle for freedom, not from the courts of the rich and influential.

Will there be any postage stamps to honor the historical contributions of Dr. Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party? or Fred Hampton?

To Ramona Africa, the courageous fighter and resister who survived an urban holocaust on May 13th,1985? Or Assata Shakur, revolutionary and survivor of the Black Power Movement in exil for over 40 years.

To George (or Jonathan?) Jackson?

To Ruchell Magee — a brilliant jailhouse lawyer whose work has led to the freedom of over 40 young men, but who is perhaps the longest-held Black political prisoner in the Americas?

To the great Seminole warriors, Coacoochee ( Co-ah-coo chee) (also called “Wild Cat”) and John Horse who fought for Red and Black freedom from the American slavers.

We think not.

Black History isn’t ‘safe,’ it’s challenging, and troubling, and speaks to the lives we live now, under the illusion of ‘freedom.’ It ain’t Martin Luther King alone, but the many who followed, and the many who did not.

Why not a Black Liberation Month? That would concentrate our minds, not only on history, but on the sometimes-painful lessons of history; but more importantly, it would point us to the undiscovered land that beckons us all — the future.

Imprisoned radio Journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal’s death warrant was signed twice by the state. He came dangerously close to execution on August 17, 1995, and December 2, 1999 (death of John Brown). It was the mobilization of a mass international movement that saved his life-

Today, Mumia is in poor health, suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, the result of a recent near-fatal bout with Hepatitis C.

On Friday, Feb 26, Pam Africa got a call from Mumia telling her he is suffering from Covid-19 symptoms, difficulty breathing and chest pain.

Mumia is 67 years old with preexisting conditions — a high risk for getting COVID-19 and he thinks he has COVID. This is an urgent moment because Mumia rarely talks about his own condition.

The International Concerned Family and Friends are demanding the immediate release, treatment, and hospitalization, not solitary confinement.

At a Saturday rally, organizers called for the release of Mumia and all inmates older than 50 and any who are medically vulnerable.

For an update and a clear picture of the case of Mumia and what you can do to gain his release, visit the Mobilization4Mumia Facebook page and Jamal Journal created by the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal — jamaljournal.blogspot.com.

Also Saturday, March 6, the Mobilization4Mumia, Campaign to Bring Mumia Home and International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal are having a Global Street Meeting — with a special appearance from Fred Hampton Jr.

“Freedom has never been so close.”

Watch in full on YouTube