PictureEducation by Pamela Maria Chavez
The other day I had a conversation with a friend of mine that reminded me what a bad rap Black consciousness gets in this hemisphere.  He is a phenotypically White Armenian American whose grandmother arrived in the United States as a refugee from a vicious genocide. The wisdom he received from her included impressions of the United States as a bastion of liberty and safety, which he holds closely and fiercely as good grandkids of grandparents now gone often do. I hold the insights of my African American grandfather similarly, and the content of his reflections were dominated by the push and pull of the United States as the only home he ever knew and a perpetrator in the centuries-long crime against his people, the effects of which made him a refugee in his own country.

Peering at the situation through our respective lenses, we talked about the idea that Blacks were miserable complainers…’protesting, rioting, talking shit, complaining. Always. If not about police, about jobs. If not about jobs, about some flavor of the month killing of an unarmed civilian—Trayvon at the moment. Its 2013, slavery has been over for hella long, and you’re lucky to live in the United States and enjoy the freedoms afforded you. Be thankful and stop complaining.’ This narrative found perch in my friend’s mind and had been nurtured by selective American histories taught in school and the sensibilities of our profit-driven friends at Clear Channel and Time Warner who disproportionately control media messaging. And he is not alone. The Pew Research Center released poll results recently that showed that while 86% of African Americans expressed dissatisfaction with the Zimmerman verdict, only 30% of White American felt similarly. I would venture to guess that this ‘complainer’ narrative is hard at work behind those numbers. 

I am quite familiar with this narrative myself. Through the years I’ve struggled as I resisted and internalized the hate, fear, and violence that it ascribes to brown skin and Black identity throughout the Americas. As an educator I’ve watched youth of ‘post-racial America’ struggle as well-- some striding inspiringly toward new visions of dignity and equity, but more succumbing to this dominant culture narrative that they consume at unprecedented rates.  As a citizen I’ve watched this narrative justify such time-released social disasters as the caging of more people than any society in human history, the rolling back of our civil liberties under the guise of counter-terrorism, and the rampant criminalization of poor people. Gross.

If, like so many of my sisters and brothers of so many skin hues, this was the only narrative about Black consciousness I had access to, well—I’d probably think we were just a bunch of complainers too.  Luckily I grew up with other narratives of Black consciousness that were harder to come by, but much more accurately described how Black folks painstakingly created the circumstances which allowed us (and so many others) a measure of the liberty initially denied us—a liberty we were never ‘given’ by moneyed elites, but that we instead had to wrestle, cajole, and fight into existence.

I learned the story of how Black consciousness breathed life into democracy in the Atlantic world and throughout the Americas, agitating for the universal human equality that neatly worded documents only imagined. In the late 1700s, the French empire flirted with democratic ideals when the National Constituent Assembly ratified the Declaration of The Rights of Man and of the Citizen amidst bloody conflict. Across the Atlantic, an upstart nation, The United States, founded itself in a democratic image but sat incongruously on top of a society whose majority—women, people of color, and poor people—didn’t enjoy full citizenship or political participation.  In the French Americas it was left to the Black Jacobins, slaves turned revolutionaries, to realize the lofty rhetoric of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’.  In a letter to the colonial assembly of St-Domingue in July of 1792, slave revolt leaders Biassou, Jean-Francois, and Toussaint L’Ouverture wrote:

You, gentlemen, who pretend to subject us to slavery—have you not sworn to uphold the French Constitution? What does it say, this respectable constitution? What is the fundamental law? Have you forgotten that you have formally vowed the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which says that men are born free, equal in their rights; that their natural rights include liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression? So then, as you cannot deny what you have sworn, we are within our rights, and you ought to recognize yourselves as perjurers; by your decrees you recognize that all men are free, but you want to maintain the servitude of 480,000 individuals who allow you to enjoy all that you possess.

In the United States, the writers of the Constitution struggled with how to legally define the human chattel in their midst. The question of people and property came to a head with government representation—what should a slave count for in population figures that determine numbers of representatives from each state in the House of Representatives? 3/5 (three-fifths) of a person was the legal answer compromised upon. And of course the 3/5 vote was exercised by the slave owner, not by the slaves themselves. Damn. It was not until almost 100 years later, after tireless agitation from Blacks and their allies and a horrific civil war that the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution afforded all Black Americans that last two-fifths and gave them the right to exercise their own vote. As in the French Caribbean, it was not the framers of Constitutions that birthed democracy, they only provided a form for Black folks to advocate towards. Only through the blood, sweat, and tears of this tortured, downtrodden segment of society did the language of ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ fancied by elite intellectual circles become manifest.

In sum, it was Black people who introduced true democracy to the modern world, pushed the legal definitions of both personhood and citizenship to include all people regardless of race, and ultimately set the table for ideals of universal human rights later codified by the United Nations and other international bodies. What a gift to humanity!

            And it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Blacks in the Americas have continued to advocate for their rights and the rights of others in national and international contexts. In the 20th century Blacks in the United States such as Ida B. Wells, Bayard Rustin, and Barbara Jordan were dogged allies for the equal rights of all Americans and miserable foes of those who sought to undermine those rights.

And what an important time to use this gift! With the NSA, CIA, and Google conspiring to keep tabs on you for targeted marketing and/or drone strikes, there has never been a better time to apply the lessons of civic engagement, resistance against oppression, and universal liberty learned the hard way through the Black experience. Black consciousness in the Americas and its fierce advocacy for universal liberties have ushered in an era where human rights have been legally defined. Now it is our duty to keep both these narratives and the work alive.

As a Black person growing up in the Americas, I would have been cast (further) adrift on a sea of consumerism, self-hate, and individualism had I not been exposed to these narratives of liberty, insight, and pride. Like my Armenian American friend, I may have succumbed to the waves of dominant culture messaging that intentionally obscure the fact that Black Americans not only complain about the uneven application of the liberties his grandmother enjoyed, we birthed them. As a nation and as a human race, we will be perpetually menaced by false and crippling histories if we don’t collectively expose ourselves and our children to these empowering narratives.

Finally, we would do well to remember that for all the wealth and insight contained in the Black experience, there are parallel treasures to be found in the narratives of peoples of all different colors and ethnic backgrounds.  We need all of this wisdom if we are to find our way through the troubled waters we are currently wading through. And since people of color make up over 80% of the global population and just over 50% of humans are under the age of 30, the narratives we most need are those that are geared towards, resonate with, and created by youth of color. CaneRow has set out to collect, highlight, and spread just such narratives and in doing so have placed themselves in a proud tradition of advocacy for the dignity and identity of people of color and consequently the betterment of the condition of our entire human family. Many thanks, y’all; keep up the good work!

Chris Darby is the founding director of NMBG, a think tank and project incubator based in Berkeley, California that works to catalyze, manage, and support creative, community-minded projects in education and the arts. 

Pamela Maria Chavez is queer latina artist and community cultural organizer. Her work concentrates on narratives that directly impact communities of color in the US. By pairing everyday struggles and injustices with the extraordinarily hopefilled and magical, she hopes to capture an honest expression of her surroundings. Pamela would like to accomplish this work by developing the intersection between stop motion animation, painting and storytelling; concentrating on a rich aesthetic and deep conceptual and critical understanding of the world today.



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