You know that you are beginning to age when the the icons of past generations and your generation begin to die.
Since the mid-2000’s with the death of Michael Jackson and a few years later Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston then icons like Muhammad Ali, Aretha Franklin, Prince, Sean Connery and hip-hop artist that you grew up with culturally like, Nate Dog and Phife Dawg (who remind young people that taking care of your health should be as cool as the music and a priority). The younger generation has been hit just as hard with the death of artist like Mac Miller (whose death exposes the music industries drug culture) and the death of Nipsey Hustle (whose death reminds Hip-Hop of the street culture that was glamorized for the almighty dollar), to death of sports legend Kobe Bryant. We have seen what the Christian Faith has been teaching for centuries all humans have a date and destiny with death. Most recently the death of Hank Aaron and Cicely Tyson have captured the headlines of the world of African descendants and cultural icons now sleeping with the ancestors.
Aaron who was the first baseball player to match and surpass the homerun record of Babe Ruth without the aide of performance enhancing substances like steroids and Cicely Tyson whose contribution to African-American film and theater and film in general hit home in different ways.
Both lived long lives well beyond the life-expectancy of males and females. According to statista the life expectancy of a male in the United States is is 76.1 years of age and the life expectancy of a female is 81.1 years of age. Unfortunately, the life expectancy of both African American male and female is shorter. Aaron and Tyson lived to be 86 and Tyson lived to be 96. Both made major contributions to their perspective fields while the decks were stacked against them. Both endured racism, and Tyson faced the double whammy of gender and dark skin but they both and perserved, pursued and achieved excellence in their fields.
Aaron from baseball diamond to successful entrepreneur who was not afraid to talk about race and Tyson who refused to take roles that would contribute to feed into negative stereotypes of black people and black women will be lifted up on the Mt. Rushmore of African American culture because they proved you can make it without compromise.
I wonder how many roles Tyson turned down that could have made her wealthy, but she refused because of principle. How many home runs would Aaron have made if his Negro league baseball record was counted as part of his 21 season record in the Major League Baseball. When they slipped into eternal rest they became part of the pantheon of African-American ancestors.
There lives and their narrative are important because they made major contributions. But they are also important because of the month that we are now celebrating.
We live in a culture where information moves so fast, its easy to forget about the past and be consumed with the present and the future (the next big thing). It seems that so many don’t know the story of African-American achievement. And as we continue in the 21st Century we must not forget. It was Malcom X who said, “History is best Qualified for our Research.”
Each year that we celebrate Martin L. King Day I’m reminded that so many don’t know the depth and importance of the Civil Rights Movement.
We must pay Carter G. Woodson a debt of gratitude for creating Black/African-American History Month with the sole purpose of highlighting our people’s history and contributions and for recognizing that Black or African-American history did not start with slavery on American Plantations. Through Woodson and Dubois, we learned that one of the first casualties of American Independence was a black man named Crispus Attackus. Its because of Carter and others we later learned about the African presence in other countries like Europe and the America’s (before 1619) from historians and scholars like Ivan Van Sertima and Chekh Anta Diop.
Its important that we learn about the contribution’s of Black/African-Americans and know of their importance before they die.
I remember like yesterday reading any and everything on the Civil Rights Movement, Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party and later Muhammad Ali and beginning to grasp the major significance of his cultural and religious impact in American Culture. Once you begin the personal search of knowing yourself you can’t stop. From there the search led to Africa and her contributions to the world and that search led to the Bible and specifically Genesis 1.
Muhammad Ali’s impact in sports and world history is huge. Hank Aaron’s and Cicely Tyson’s death hits with a different punch. It seems that all of the deaths that have happened in a COVID world are ironic and iconic. Tyson whose acting prowess has inspired several generations of black leading ladies with the concept of being classy and elegant without taking off your clothes. Aaron was the fearless athlete who could be great at his craft and be bold about race, without alienating or making the world hate him. Tyson’s portrayal of Jane Pittman and her role in Sounder had a major impact on African American life. While Jackie Robinson and Willie Mayes came before him, Aaron’s breaking of Babe Ruth’s record all while facing death threats to him and his family are a testament of resilience.
One of the best ways to learn our story is deciding to learn as much as you can about a particular event or person. When you do that you will begin to have other interests that flow out of your area of study and concentration. When you study Aaron’s life you’ll be forced to learn about the Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and the Negro Leagues and the great talents that never made it to Major League baseball. You will also learn of other athletes in various sports who suffered discrimination because they were excellent in their craft and of darker hue: from Jack Johnson, Jim Brown, Fritz Pollard, Bobby Marshall, Kenny Washington, Earl Lloyd, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, Althea Gibson, Bob Ryland, Dewey Brown, John Shippen and the list continues. When you study the life of Cicely Tyson you’ll learn about Ernest Gaines who wrote the novel The Autobiography of Jane Pittman and other writers like August Wilson. You’ll learn about William H. Armstrong who wrote Sounder and how many African-Americans decided they wanted to tell and produce their stories instead of others. When you study the life of Cicely Tyson, you are forced to look at black cinema from writers, directors, actresses, film makers etc., from Oscar Micheaux, Maria P. Williams, Noble Johnson, Lester Walton, Spencer Williams, Hattie McDaniel, Tressie Souders, Freddi Washington, Gordon Parks, Spike Lee, Ernest Dickerson, John Singleton, and Ava DuVernay.
As we celebrate Black/African American American History month let’s celebrate our past by reading up on one person or event in history and commit to learn as much as you can. Let’s honor our ancestors, our peoples struggle and history and the Creator of the Universe. If you don’t know your past, you can’t know your future.
The Rev. Carey A. Grady is the pastor of Reid Chapel AME Church in Columbia, South Carolina (www.reidchapel.org). He believes words have power. He blogs at www.careyagrady.com.