10.04.2009

ASALH Convention

The organization that created Black History Month-94 years and counting, meets in Cincinnati

I had never heard of the ASALH organization before getting an email from my cousin via Facebook. ASALH means the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. It is an organization founded by Carter G. Woodson, the noted historian. I knew who Dr. Woodson was, however I was not familiar with his organization or its long and illustrious history. The email that was sent out, was a forwarded message asking for volunteers for an upcoming convention to be held at the Netherland Hilton, here in town.

Now, if you've read me more than once or twice, you know how I feel about Black History Month. I have long voiced disapproval of Black History Month, not because I disagree with the concept. I don't like the fact that we, as a nation set aside only one month to talk about Black history when Black history is literally the foundation of this country. Slavery was our Holocaust. In other words, we built this country. Its foundation is forged from the blood of our ancestors, and we are still suffering from white denial. I am absolutely sure that Dr. Woodson did not envision this month becoming the white corporate mea culpa in place of reparations, that it has become.

But back to the convention. I liked what I read in the email, so I volunteered, eager to learn about the organization and to get away from my computer for a few days. Being a writer, I am chained to this particular piece of technology for the rest of my life in order to sustain my life and independence. Yet I am always open to putting it aside, if only for a little while, to engage with my fellow humans face to face, like we used to do back in the day, before advancing technology relegated us to shadowy fingers on keyboards, with invisible wireless contact to the outside world. We are swiftly losing our abilities to socialize and to interact civilly with one another, all in the name progress. To put it bluntly, I miss the ability to “conversate.” But I will save that conversation for another day.

What better way to engage with people then to attend a convention full of scholars and academes, whose expertise is one that is very close to my heart. Volunteering to work a convention makes you a fly on the wall, seen but not seen, talked at, but not talked to, hearing all and saying nothing, and smiling all the while. I loved it.

To quote one of my younger nephews, the staff who put on this convention, were “cool peeps.” They were easy to work with, and for, for the three days that I hung out. They had our backs and hopefully we had theirs. I also hope that we represented our city. I tend to rail against Cincinnati as only a native can. Being born and educated here, I have seen the changes, both good and bad and I want Cincinnati to always be good, despite what comes out of my mouth sometimes. I really wanted my city to step up and I tried to step up too, because this time we were dealing with our folks, and it is important to represent, as the young ones say. I think we did that.

There is always going to be some grumbling and we heard some. For instance, I got the feeling from one overheard conversation that the tour of Black history in Cincinnati was lacking. I'm sure it was probably done with the blessing and guidance of the Underground Freedom Center. But while the tour may have been Black history, it was not “our” history, and there is a difference. I didn't facilitate the tour, so I have no way of knowing if the tour stopped at Union Baptist Cemetery where one of only two Black Civil war recipients of the Medal of Honor is buried. Were these scholars allowed to see the gravesite of Sgt Powhatan Beaty or the 119 other Civil War Veterans buried there?

Or did they swing down Ezzard Charles Drive and gaze on the monument dedicated to the 267 women of the 6888 Central Postal Battalion of World War II. These women were the only Black women who served overseas during the great war. My great aunt, Sgt Bessie L. Robinson's name is carved on that marker. Was the tour allowed to look at the remaining copies of Wendell P. Dabney's Union Newspaper, the oldest negro newspaper in this area.

I don't know the answer to those questions. I just know that some on the tour wanted more color to their Black history. I don't fault the ASALH for this, but I do fault the city, for the slight. And I fault, “us” in particular because “we” haven't done enough to illustrate “our” history, either. The Underground Freedom Center is wonderful. However, it is only the beginning of the story. The rest of the story remains to be told and pulled together for future generations.

That is one message that I have taken away from this convention. The story will never be over, but much of it is quickly being forgotten and lost, because no one is stepping up to document and remember. ASALH is a Black organizaton that studies the history and lives of Black people. This organization connects the past with the present and the future, helping us to understand. This was very apparent by the choice of keynote speaker, Eugene Robinson, at the closing banquet last night.

Robinson is the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Washington Post and regular commentator on MSNBC programs. I read him religiously. Robinson lived through and witnessed an event called the Orangeburg Massacre, that happened in 1968 in South Carolina. Three Black students were gunned down on the campus of South Carolina State College by police. They had bullet wounds in their backs and in the bottoms of their feet. This was two years before the shootings at Kent State, here in Ohio, where four young white students died, killed by the National Guard. They were eulogized by the legendary Jimi Hendrix in the song “Machine Gun" and by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, in "Four Dead in Ohio." The story of the Orangeburg Massacre has never been sung and the filmmakers have struggled for years, to find an audience for their telling.

Robinson, who can speak intimately of our President Barack Obama, was just as riveting with his personal story about those nights on the campus in South Carolina. This was just one indication of ASALH at its best, these past few days. They will be in Raleigh, North Carolina next year. I hope some day that they come back to Cincinnati. I for one, will welcome them with open arms.

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