Author: teamwpt

Do We Really Know American History?

By Catherine Onyemelukwe

I get regular emails from Atlanta Black Star. In the email I receive, the online journal declares its point of view: “Atlanta Black Star is a narrative company.  We publish narratives intentionally and specifically to enlighten and transform the world.”

This week they published a story on America’s history and our lack of knowledge about it. The author of the article, D. Amari Jackson, says, “A 2012 [American Council of Trustees and Alumni] ACTA survey found that less than 20 percent of college graduates could identify the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. A 2015 survey revealed more than one-third could not place the Civil War within the correct 20-year time frame.

“Such widespread historical ignorance is problematic for a nation currently grappling with deeply entrenched issues of economics, power and race,” she says.

The lack of knowledge is frightening. But there’s so much more that many of us don’t know or don’t think about. She cites Gerald Horne, the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston, who says, “America began as a slaveholder’s republic.” According to Horne, the American Revolution was fought because the slaveholders wanted to maintain their slaves, not for some lofty principle of freedom. The colonists also wanted to continue the practice of dispossessing Native Americans of their land which they feared Britain would halt.

He believes that today, “the exoneration of police officers who kill us [Blacks] on a regular basis tends to show” that there the Constitution does not really pertain to everyone. There is a “disconnect between the official stated policy of nondiscrimination and “what’s actually happening to Black people in the streets.”

Harsh words! I find truth in the article. What do you think?

 

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Black and Queer On The Appalachian Trail

by Catherine Onyemelukwe

I just read a fascinating article about hiking the Appalachian Trail. But it’s not about the hiking at all. It’s about the experience encountered by Eritrean American writer Rahawa Haile (@rahawahaile), a queer Black woman hiking the trail. What she meets along the way is frightening. Early in her article she describes a well-intentioned white man who insists on knowing where she is from – her parents are from Ethiopia – and then tells her she isn’t Black because “Blacks don’t hike.” Micro-aggression, this is called, when a person from the dominant culture labels a person from the minority culture as he/she wishes, with no regard for the person him/herself.

14309957_255830871477646_1479426284_nYou can read the full article here. Be warned – it’s not easy reading. And it’s full of hyperlinks that whisk you off to other amazing articles. So you may need a solid 30 minutes, or several hours if you want to explore all it offers.

An example of what she encounters is this experience in a town in the Smoky Mountain region. “It isn’t until I’m about to leave town that I see it: blackface soap, a joke item that supposedly will turn a white person black if you can trick them into using it. I’m in a general store opposite the Nantahala Outdoor Center. The soap is in a discount bin next to the cash register. I’d popped in to buy chocolate milk and was instead reminded of a line from Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: ‘The past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow.’ ”

She says, “It is no understatement to say that the friends I made, and the experiences I had with strangers who, at times, literally gave me the shirt off their back, saved my life. I owe a great debt to the through-hiking community that welcomed me with open arms, that showed me what I could be and helped me when I faltered. There is no impossible, they taught me: only good ideas of extraordinary magnitude.”

Rahawa Haile is a brave woman whose work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Brooklyn Magazine, and Buzzfeed. She lives in Oakland.

BOOK REVIEW: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

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by Judith Hamer

A good book can provoke an impassioned discussion about plot or character or theme. A friend and I were discussing The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel. “ I don’t see why we need to know what happened to Mabel,” I stated flatly. Mabel is the missing mother of Cora, the book’s protagonist. My friend, having read the book twice, disagreed with me vehemently. We agreed to disagree. Now that I’ve re-read Whitehead’s fictional account of Cora’s escape from a Georgia plantation and her run for freedom by way of an imagined underground railroad, I’m coming around to my friend’s point of view. Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad”

Fifty Years On, Have We Progressed?

by Catherine Onyemelukwe

Fifty Years Ago Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s book, Where Do We Go From Here? was published.

Beacon Broadside, a Project of Beacon Press, noted the occasion. The article said, “King’s acute analysis of American race relations couldn’t be more prophetic. Written in 1967, in isolation in a rented house in Jamaica, King’s final book lays out his plans and dreams for America’s future: the need for better jobs; higher wages; decent housing; quality education; and above all, the end to global suffering. King’s dreams are very much our own today.”

In honor of the anniversary of the publication of Where Do We Go From Here? Beacon Broadside provided a collection of quotations from the book. Each one reminds me of what King worked for, longed for, and was not able to achieve. Have we progressed at all? I have to wonder!

Here is one.

“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”

King does not say this ignorance is willful or evil. But it is real.

The quote makes me think of Jodi Picoult’s latest novel Small Great Things, which I discussed with my book group recently. The main character is Ruth, a Black nurse. When she is on trial, she works with a white attorney named Kennedy. Kennedy believes she is liberal and non-racist, but over several months and many conversations, the attorney becomes aware of how much she doesn’t know about the lives of Black people in the U.S. today. It’s a good read!

 

I Hope That Now We Are Not Strangers

by Ramin Ganeshram

It is the Muslim holy month of Ramadan: The month during which Muslims believe the holy books of all Abrahamic religions were handed down. The month designated to put aside all worldly pursuits and attend to the spirituality of one’s soul. The month for welcoming the stranger.

This idea of welcoming the stranger is a core concept in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Torah says when the prophet Elijah appears as a beggar at the home of a poor couple who give him the last of the their food they are rewarded with plenty from God. The Bible tells us that Jesus lived as a poor wanderer  who depended on the hospitality of strangers for his livelihood. In the Quran, the Prophet Mohammed clearly outlines the charitable treatment of those who are the most needy or the most unknown.

As a mixed-race, mixed heritage person with ties to Christian and Islamic heritage I’ve always found these stories compelling. Perhaps it is because,  I often feel like the perpetual stranger: The layers upon layers of my ethnicity, the religions encompassed within my family, and our tribal and geographic associations make it hard to find a niche and stay in it. Like the jack of all trades and master of none, the multiplicity of my background allows me nothing to singularly call my own. While, I long to be e pluribus unum  but I’m mostly just e pluribus.

That’s why when I was invited with my family to an Ramadan Iftar dinner hosted TEAM Westport and Westport’s Interfaith Council I was a bit trepidatious. (Iftar is the meal taken after all day fasting during the month of Ramadan) I went so far as to tell intrepid event host and organizer, Dolores Paoli, (who does yeoman’s work representing the Muslim voice at TEAM Westport and in the larger community) that despite my cultural background being partly Iranian, I wasn’t Muslim and was that ok?

Even as I was indulging the persistent  “imposter” syndrome that often plagues me, Dolores quickly and kindly put my fears to rest. She assured me I was most welcome, that there would be people of all faiths there, including those like herself, who had participated in various religions in their lives.

In short, she welcomed me completely–not as the stranger I saw myself to be–but as a friend.

The event, which in part honored a Syrian refugee family sponsored by the Interfaith Council and the volunteers who have helped them, was enlightening. It afforded an opportunity to teach my young daughter not just about Islam–the faith of her sufi maternal great-grandfather–but to witness first-hand the excitement of a shared meal and shared experience among people who despite their unique faiths shared the common religion of humanity.

As I listened to the Qu’ranic recitation that accompanied the breaking of the fast I felt awe and appreciation for the lyrical quality of verses being read in song-like chant–so like Roman Catholic Latin chant or a Jewish cantorial song.

But what I most noticed was how readily and happily people greeted each other, asked one another’s names and listened carefully to the response. I looked around and saw no one looking at their phones or staring off into the distance. Little kids ran around playing–sometimes “interrupting” even–but no one was angry. In those few hours, people committed to carving time out to getting to know one another.

Looking around, I remembered  a greeting from my father’s Caribbean heritage:

“I hope that now we are not strangers?”

It’s an opening gambit toward the possibility of friendship. It is a willingness to put aside being strangers by making those most unknown to us into those most welcomed by us. This welcome to the stranger is also a program commitment that Team Westport is making in the coming months  so please keep an eye out for events, posts, and more around the theme of Welcoming the Stranger.

Perhaps you’ll join us in our goal that one day soon we may no longer be strangers and perhaps we might even become friends.

 

 

 

 

 

What’s Passed Down

What’s Passed Down

By Catherine Onyemelukwe, Team Westport

 

In late May my husband and I attended our grandson’s graduation from Cornell. Our daughter Beth and her husband Kelvin got to the graduation early to hold seats. They got places in the eighth row up, right behind reserved seats for legacy families.

We sat right behind the Gellerts. At least thirty people were in the group. They all wore red T-shirts. On the back were the names, years, and in most cases the degrees, of all the Gellerts who had graduated from Cornell.

The earliest was 1927. The list ended with Jason, TBD.

It was fun to see. They were having a lovely time.

But it also reminded me of the privilege that can get passed down through generations to some of us and denied to others, specifically denied to people of color.

At the end of the U.S. Civil War freed slaves were promised 40 acres and a mule. The promise was not fulfilled. Starting with nothing, former slaves who had been denied an education had to make a living.

Very few Black people were even admitted to Ivy League colleges and universities in the 1920’s when the first Gellerts attended. There has been little or no opportunity to develop legacies like theirs. As many white people became property owners during the last century, Black people were denied mortgages, so had little access to property ownership. There are so many other instances of injustice.

But I kept thinking, is it fair?

Catherine Onyemelukwe, CFRE, served in the Peace Corps, taught and ran her own company in Nigeria before returning to earn her MBA at Yale. She is a volunteer fundraiser for her Mt. Holyoke class.  She chairs the Racial Justice Task Force at her Unitarian Church and serves on the board of the Unitarian-Universalist United Nations Office.

Event: A Conversation about Political Correctness

On April 23, Team Westport and The Westport Library will host our next installment of our Conversation series, in which we have open, respectful discussions about matters of diversity, civil liberties, and social issues that our affect our community.

During this conversation we’ll explore the following questions: How did civil discourse become associated with political correctness? What does it mean to be “politically correct” and why does it carry a negative connotation? Who decides what is hateful or unacceptable speech? TEAM Westport invites you to join the dialogue to continue the effort to foster understanding and greater trust regarding complex multicultural issues in our community. Reverend Alison Patton, pastor of Saugatuck Congregational Church, will moderate the discussion

 

WHEN: Sunday, April 23, 2017, 3-4:30pm

WHERE: The Westport Library, 20 Jesup Road, Westport, CT 06880

RSVP: https://www.facebook.com/events/1955509301348015/

Free event.