“Stony the Road We Trod”
By Eileen Hogan Heineman, Manager, Community Outreach, YWCA Equity Institute
Over this year’s Martin Luther King weekend, the choir at my church led us in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, most commonly known as the Black National Anthem. Originally written as a poem by school principal James Weldon Johnson, it was first performed after his brother set it to music and the students in his segregated Florida school sang it to remember Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900.
I love the melody, and since singing it in January, one line has crept back into my head, over and over. It’s the start of the second verse, “Stony the road we trod…”. It has made me consider anew the many ways the road has been stony for Black residents of the United States, and ways it continues to be. Who or what makes someone else’s road stony? And how hard is it to navigate life’s journey, if ‘stony’ is the best word to describe your path? And what, if anything, gets done to remove stones from the path, to make the way smoother going forward?
All of these questions have dogged me during February.
And now that February is over, schools are taking down their Black History Month bulletin boards, Human Resource officers have deleted the link to “This Day in African-American History” from their desktops, and folks are going back to ignoring not only the various (often previously unknown) contributions of Black Americans, but also the lived experiences – past and present – of our nation’s Black citizens. When many of us can put it aside the rest of the year, or wonder “Why does there have to be a Black history month?”, are WE part of that stony road?
The reality is:
- The exclusion of a Black perspective in our U.S. History books for so many decades has created a population that is easily led to believe that learning isolated incidents in Black history is a substitute for understanding how Blacks have been systemically excluded and marginalized since the original documents of our country were written.
- Many people easily dismiss issues raised by those in Black communities, but shower attention when those same issues are raised by people from white communities.
- People mistakenly talk about the effects of segregation and discrimination in the past. As a white person whose father benefited from the low-interest VA home loan after World War II, I know I am STILL benefiting from the long terms effects of that government sponsored assistance, just as surely as the sons and daughters of his Black and Brown Navy brothers are still feeling the effects of NOT having had access to that and other programs. (Read more here.)
- Discussions often happen about needs of the local Black community, without actually including the actual voices of the Black community.
- Often times, the way individuals and media most frequently references Black people is as a problem, even though there always have been and always will be Black people who have been creating, solving, dreaming and living lives to be celebrated – and NOT just in February!
- Modern books and movies perpetuate old stereotypes, and the majority white critics glorify projects that honor the “white savior” narrative, rather than telling the full story of what Black characters in these films experienced.
So, what can we do? A few places to start:
- As you attend candidate forums and follow local and national elections, be intentional in finding out where they stand on issues that impact ALL residents of your community.
- If you need to get a fuller picture of American History than what you learned in school, read A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.
- If you need to understand how systemic discrimination works, read “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, from the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic magazine.
- Get yourself on a committee or connected to an organization that is working to dismantle structures that marginalize Black and Brown community members. Go. Listen. Learn.
- Want to learn deeply about one issue area around which you could advocate? Choose from: End the War on Black People, Reparations, Invest/Divest, Economic Justice, Community Control, Political Power, and read that section in the Platform created by the Movement for Black Lives.
- Educate yourself through workshops, reading, listening. The Equity Institute here at YWCA Evanston/North Shore provides many opportunities. Check them out on our website.
- Learn more about “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Be intentional about making Black History a part of EVERY month!