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America Rarely Lets You Forget That You’re Black

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America Rarely Lets You Forget That You’re Black


So I had myself an epiphany.

Actually, that’s not quite the right word. An epiphany is a moment of sudden clarity, but mine rolled in slowly, like dawn on a crystal morning.

I’m not sure when it began. Maybe it was in 2012 when Trayvon Martin was killed and much of America held him guilty of his own murder. Maybe it was in 2013 when the Voting Rights Act was eviscerated and states began hatching schemes to suppress the African-American vote. Maybe it was on Election Day. Maybe it was a few weeks later, when a South Carolina jury deadlocked because the panel — most of them white — could not agree that it was a crime for a police officer to shoot an unarmed black man in the back. Could not agree, even though they saw it on video.

I can’t say exactly when it was. All I know is that the dawn broke and I realized I had forgotten something.

I had forgotten that I am black.

Yes, I know what the mirror says. And yes, I’ve always known African Americans face challenges — discrimination in health, housing, hiring, and a racially biased system of “justice,” to name a few. But I think at some level, I had also grown comfortable in a nation paced by Oprah, LeBron, Beyonce, and Barack. The old mantra of black progress — two steps forward, one step back — had come to feel … abstract, something you said, but forgot to believe.

So when we hit this season of reversal, I was more surprised than I should have been. I had forgotten about being black. Meaning, I had forgotten that for us, setback is nothing new.

Right after the election, as I was grappling with this, I chanced to see this young black woman — Melissa “Lizzo” Jefferson — on “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” and she performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the “Negro National Anthem.” Something about that song always gets to me. Something about it always stirs unseen forces, shifts something heavy in my soul.

“Lift Every Voice” was written by James Weldon Johnson in 1900. That was 23 years after the Republicans sold out newly freed slaves, resolving a disputed election by striking a backroom deal that made Rutherford B. Hayes president on condition he withdraw from the South federal troops who had safeguarded African-American rights and lives since the end of the Civil War. It was five years after the first “grandfather clause” disenfranchised former slaves by denying the ballot to anyone whose grandfather did not vote. It was four years after the Supreme Court blessed segregation.

And it was a year in which 106 African Americans were lynched — a routine number for that era.

Yet in the midst of that American hell, here was Johnson, exhorting his people to joy.

Lift every voice and sing

Till Earth and heaven ring

Ring with the harmonies of liberty

Let our rejoicing rise

High as the listening skies

Let it resound,

Loud as the rolling sea.”

Lord, what did it take to sing that song back then?

I pondered that as the year deepened into December, as Christmas came and went, as the ball dropped in Times Square. Now here it is Black History Month, and I know again what I had somehow forgotten.

I had forgotten that we’ve been here before, that our history is a litany of people pushing us back after every forward step. I had forgotten that it long ago taught us how to weave laughter from a moan of pain, make a meal out of the hog’s entrails, climb when you cannot see the stairs, and endure.

I had forgotten that America is still America — and I am still black.

But it won’t happen again.

IMAGE: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) is joined onstage by first lady Michelle Obama and daughter Malia, after his farewell address in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a nationally syndicated commentator, journalist, and novelist. Pitts' column for the Miami Herald deals with the intersection between race, politics, and culture, and has won him multiple awards including a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

The highly regarded novel, Freeman (2009), is his most recent book.

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  1. Sean Andrews February 8, 2017

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  2. I of John February 8, 2017

    For a moment, after the first Obama election, I thought we were over the hump and were slowly moving past our petty intolerances. Then I watched the massive disrespect for Obama and the totality of NO from the GOP. It was all hate, all the time. Obviously we haven’t learned a thing.

    1. dpaano February 13, 2017

      Actually, the GOP hasn’t learned a thing…..the rest of us, in most cases, are more astute!

  3. dbtheonly February 8, 2017

    Mr. Pitts,

    I’m truly sorry you feel that way. I wish there was something I could do to alleviate your pain.

    But, Sir, it is not just the Black Folks that are suffering. Just today they’re starting to run an oil pipeline under the reservoir that holds the water for the Standing Rock Lakota Reservation.

    People getting shot by the Police affect us all.

    People being denied the effective vote affects us all.

    People being denied adequate health care affects us all.

    We live in one community. The wrongs to one are the wrongs to all.

  4. Aaron_of_Portsmouth February 8, 2017

    The “One Drop Rule”, enacted in Arkansas in 1911 has stamped its imprimatur on America ever since. But long before that formal ruling, the perceptions of “blackness” and “whiteness” had already crystallized as a psychological handicap following Bacon’s Rebellion” in 1676.

  5. Aaron_of_Portsmouth February 8, 2017

    The “One Drop Rule”, enacted in Arkansas in 1911 has stamped its imprimatur on America ever since. But long before that formal ruling, the perceptions of “blackness” and “whiteness” had already crystallized as a psychological handicap following Bacon’s Rebellion” in 1676.
    A brief summary of the One Drop Rule is the following: “…The one-drop rule is a social and legal principle of racial classification that was historically prominent in the United States asserting that any person with even one ancestor of sub-Saharan-African ancestry (“one drop” of black blood) is considered black (Negro in historical terms).”

    Many of us, black and white, have swallowed this artificial concept to the point that we can no longer discern the common heritage of all humanity, as defined quite clearly by Baha’u’llah for the first time in 1863, and the dawn of such a Reality had begun to show itself when His predecessor in Persia, Siyyid Ali Muhammad(whose title and general designation is “The Bab”) announced The Babi Faith in Shiraz Persia on the eve of May 22, 1844. One of the Bab’s initial acts was to free His slave—slavery, a common practice across the globe, was naturally practiced in Persia, and the Bab had an Ethiopian slave He inherited from His father, which was a common practice. This freeing of a slave was a powerful gesture then, since it was uncommon due to the economic advantage of owning a slave or slaves.
    Then Baha’u’llah took the step much further by being informed that His Message was to revolve around a singular axis—namely “The Oneness of Humankind”. Since Baha’u’llah also had inherited slaves through His father, Mirza Buzurg, He straight away freed all His slaves. One freed slave, Isfandiyar, chose to remain with Baha’u’llah, even though it was a peril in fanatical Islamic Persia at the time to be a Babi or a Baha’i, and in any way be associated with Baha’u’llah.
    Baha’u’llah took another bold step by formally abolishing the institution of Slavery in His Kitab-i-Aqdas, the foremost Book from the Pen of Baha’u’llah, and a Charter for the future. This proscription of slavery was the “First” time a Religion made such a Pronouncement and codified it as a Law.
    Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria emancipated slavery in their respective domains, but those were secular injunctions, and not upheld in unison by Christians and Christian institutions, because it WASN’T in Christianity, Judaism, or Islam’s purview to do so. The abolitioon of Slavery across the world had to wait until after 1863, when Baha’u’llah penned the Kitab-i-Iqan in Arabic while still a Prisoner nominally of the Ottoman Empire.

    So, in retrospect, the entire notion of “Whiteness” and “Blackness” are figments of our imaginations—imaginations drawn up by certain members of that branch of the “tribe of Modern Humans” who migrated from East Africa into Europe. And here we are today, with the likes of Trump, Bannon, the KKK, etc, still viewing humanity in terms of Black/White. We’re immersed and still drowning in a “Sea of Fantasy and Delusion” on the subject of the Myth called Race.

  6. pisces63 February 8, 2017

    I KNEW it was more or less a pipe dream from the beginning. When the klackker McConnell declared they would NOT work with Obama, I knew. Lied about his birth, ACA, breathing, living, rhythm, etc. Bigots will have their way as they blame their bigotry on Obama. To paraphrase Michael, they need to look in that man in the mirror.

  7. dpaano February 13, 2017

    If only people would understand that we’re ALL the same under our thin layer of skin! It truly bothers me that people are so afraid of others just because of the color of their skin!!! It’s ludicrous, annoying, and downright ridiculous!

    1. Oddworld February 13, 2017

      You’re right but I would be lying if I claimed I don’t notice people of color although I should note that we whites are also people of color especially when you consider Caucasians are the minority race in the world. None of that bothers me which actually is the point. Some whites are too blind to realize their fear is complete nonsense. My guess is that even if white supremacists eventually get their way and turn America into a “Whites Only Nation” they wouldn’t be happy for very long. Eventually they would turn outward like Hitler did and try to destroy other countries of non-whites for their own imagined security. So it isn’t based on whether or not we all recognize people of other colors but how we treat them. I try to exercise the knowledge that we’re all humans first and ethnicity is a non-issue.


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