Anne Klaeysen's Blog
Since 1976, every United States president has officially designated February as Black History Month. Here’s hoping President Trump does, too. He, more than any other president since 1976, needs to learn the lessons of Black History Month. A case in point: During the presidential campaign, Trump said there had “never been a worse time to be a black person” in America. President Obama urged him to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture (https://nmaahc.si.edu/) to brush up on his history. Trump seemed to have “missed that whole civics lesson about slavery and Jim Crow,” he said in a September speech at the Congressional Caucus Foundation in Washington, DC. “We’ve got a museum for him to visit, so he can tune in. We will educate him.” Sadly, Trump cancelled his plans to visit the museum on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. One wonders whether he did so because civil rights leader John Lewis, who chose not to attend his inauguration and questions his legitimacy as president, championed the creation of this museum and is featured in many of its exhibits.
In her memoir, Negroland, Margo Jefferson quotes her mother, who, in the 1950’s, was worried that her young daughters were “being naturalized into white culture.” “When I was your age,” she said, “we celebrated Negro History Week. The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History was founded by Carter G. Woodson right here in Chicago. We read The Crisis [official magazine of the NAACP]. We were so proud when we sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing’ at assemblies and church programs.” Jefferson writes, “From that day forward Mother began her own cultural enrichment course with evening and weekend contributions from Daddy.”
Black History Month grew out of Negro History Week, founded by noted historian Carter G. Woodson and launched in 1926 in the second week of February between the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Woodson also founded the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH) in 1915 and the Journal of Negro History in 1916. A prolific writer about the contributions of African-Americans, his best-known work is The Miseducation of the Negro, published in 1933. It focused on the Western indoctrination system and African-American self-empowerment.
Born to former slaves in 1875 in Buckingham County, Virginia, Woodson worked in mines and quarries until the age of 20, received his high school diploma at the age of 22 and a master’s degree in history from the University of Chicago. In 1912, Woodson received a doctorate in history from Harvard, but was unable to land a teaching post there because Harvard wasn’t hiring black professors. He taught instead at Howard University, one of the nation’s leading black educational institution.
Woodson spent his life investigating, documenting and publishing African-American history. He died suddenly of a heart attack on April 3, 1950 in Washington, DC, before realizing his ambition of publishing the six-volume Encyclopedia Africana.
The theme for 2017’s Black History month, selected by ASALH, is “The Crisis in Black Education,” a tribute to its founder. It focuses on the crucial role of education and recalls Woodson’s words: “If you teach the Negro that he has accomplished as much good as any other race he will aspire to equality and justice without regard to race.”
The crisis, according to ASALH, “first began in the days of slavery when it was unlawful for slaves to learn to read and write. . . [C]ontinuing today, the crisis in black education has grown significantly in urban neighborhoods where public schools lack resources, endure overcrowding, exhibit a racial achievement gap, and confront policies that fail to deliver substantive opportunities.”
I am finishing this column on Inauguration Day and will travel early tomorrow morning to Washington, DC to march for all that I hold dear about our nation. That includes Black History Month and the lessons we still have to learn.
At noon on Friday, the 20th of January 2017, a New York City real estate developer with business interests across the globe, someone who lost the popular vote but garnered enough states to win in the Electoral College, will be sworn in on the West Lawn of The Capitol as the 45th president of the United States.
On the following day, I will join women and men from across the country in Washington, DC to protest the direction he has chosen for our nation, down a road far from the values we hold dear. Protests will also be held in other cities, including ours. The lives of many Americans have already been put at risk, some targeted by his late-night tweets; his lies, although challenged, are repeated by his supporters even as he quotes them from known fake news sources; and his reckless policies will endanger our relationships with other nations, as well as the environment we all share.
As historian and activist Howard Zinn reminded us, “dissent is the highest form of patriotism. In fact, if patriotism means being true to the principles for which your country is supposed to stand, then certainly the right to dissent is one of those principles. And if we’re exercising that right to dissent, it’s a patriotic act.”
There is much to dissent in the appointments Donald J. Trump has announced:
- a chief counselor who runs a website is lauded by the most virulent racists in America
- a climate change denier in litigation against the Environmental Protection Agency to run that life-saving department
- a strong advocate of private schools to run the Education Department
- someone who opposes minimum wage to run the Labor Department
- handing the Department of the Interior over to someone who plans to sell public lands
- nominee for attorney general whom the Senate refused to confirm as a federal judge in 1986 for being too racist
- a Treasury secretary who foreclosed on thousands of homes during the housing crisis
- and a nominee for Secretary of State with a financial stake in Exxon, which has operations in more than 50 countries, and who has drawn scrutiny for his close relationship with President Vladimir Putin, whose country has been accused by the CIA of having influence our presidential election.
And this was just the news from December, along with a rise in hate crimes perpetrated by those emboldened by his inflammatory rhetoric. There is much more in store for us and the rest of the world. It is no wonder, then, that people are gathering to exercise their right to dissent, to proudly declare themselves as patriots.
Among them is Mayor Bill DeBlasio who, during a public address at Cooper Union on November 21, reassured New Yorkers that “The results of an election don’t change who we are. A single office-holder doesn’t change who we are; a law that gets passed in Washington doesn’t change who we are. We are 8.5 million strong, and we ain’t changing. We are always New York. Somos siempre Nueva York.” He went on to say, “We don’t live in perfect harmony, but we’ve found a way to live and let live. And we know how to support each other, and we know how to protect each other, and we know how to have each other’s backs. . . Now, it’s our turn to build a movement – a movement of the majority that believes in respect and dignity for all.”
Here’s what lies on the road ahead: Muslim-Jewish alliances, sanctuary sites for undocumented immigrants, activist engagement of a younger generation, training in allyship, and indigenous peoples declaring “a reawakening of the nations of Turtle Island.”
Here at Ethical, we recommit ourselves to standing up for human rights and protection of the environment that embraces us all. In this issue of Outlook, you will find programs and activities, a list of ethical action affinity groups, and inspiration to walk down this road together.
Oft hope is born when all is forlorn. – J.R.R. Tolkien
Having grown up in rural western New York State, I wasn’t as surprised by the presidential election result as many of you were. Trump lawn signs were prominently planted in the front lawns of my hometown, and many of the people I knew from school watch only Fox News. Nonetheless, I was disturbed that an antiquated Electoral College once again put someone into office who had lost the popular vote. (Previous beneficiaries were Bush in 2000, Harrison in 1888, and Hayes in 1876.)
We held sharing circles for our staff on the afternoon after the election and for members that evening. There were tears and anguish, fear and anger. The growing and deepening division between our two Americas was painfully clear, and many doubted that the union could hold.
In the days that followed, we assessed the danger that awaits us when Trump takes office. As I write this, we have learned about the appointments to his White House staff and cabinet. We can expect assaults on human rights and environmental protections. We are already experiencing a campaign of disinformation that promotes heinous positions taken by alt-right media.
A colleague, Jone Johnson Lewis, shared a colloquy called “The Gift of Despair” that I led last month. Founder Felix Adler wrote and spoke about learning from failure; it is when we realize that, despite our best efforts to achieve an ideal, we have failed that we also realize what it was that we most wanted. It is similar to mourning for someone who has died. We recognize how much we valued that person and despair over our loss.
This colloquy includes a quotation from historian Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States: “[H]uman history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
Here is my ethical dilemma: How do I attribute worth and dignity to people who deny human rights to others? Trump’s election gives license to every racist, misogynist, homophobe, xenophobe, etc., and the attacks are increasing. These incidents must be meticulously documented and reported. Visit the Southern Poverty Law Center for details: https://www.splcenter.org. We who still have privilege must be allies and accomplices to those who do not, and we must do so with humility, following the lead of organizers for their respective groups.
My Ethical Culture faith has been sorely tested as I try to stay in relationship with people whose values are diametrically opposed to mine, people who accuse me of condescension when I bring to their attention the suffering of marginalized Americans and the disinformation promulgated by hateful social media sources. I don’t want to pay lip service to our ethical rule of eliciting the goodness in others and thereby in ourselves by engaging in the “toxic niceness” of simply accepting that they hold different opinions. This election is a tragic reminder that rights are never given; we must fight for them every day of our lives. It is time to roll up our sleeves and take to the streets; to employ every legal means available and every civil disobedience tool in our kits to right the wrongs that have already, and will continue to be, unleashed.
The time calls for action. Up, then, and let us do our part faithfully and well. And oh, friends, our children’s children will hold our memories dearer for the work which we begin this hour.
Felix Adler, Founding Address, May 15, 1876
Historians remind us that this election is not unique in terms of rancor and divisiveness. Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the United States from France in 1831, wrote: “Long before the appointed day arrives, the election becomes the greatest, and one might say the only, affair occupying men’s minds. . . As the election draws near, intrigues grow more active and agitation is more lively and widespread. The citizens divide up into several camps. . . The whole nation gets into a feverish state.”
Nonetheless, most Americans experiencing the 2016 campaign have never witnessed such noxious public discourse. Voter suppression and voter fraud are both cited as dangers to our democracy. While there is considerable evidence for the former; the latter is statistically non-existent. Various court orders have been issued to states to lift restrictions to voter registration and to the GOP to prevent intimidation at the polls. The Democratic party, on the other hand, has dedicated itself to full voter registration and getting out the vote. Families and friendships have been torn asunder, with supporters of one presidential candidate vilifying supporters of the other. And the whole nation, anxious about the results, wonders whether these relationships can ever be healed.
I cannot tell you for whom to vote, but I can encourage you to follow your conscience when you do vote – and remind you of who we are. We Ethical Humanists affirm the worth and dignity of every person. Since our founding in 1876, we have devoted ourselves to social justice and the common good. We hold the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights with reverence. Remember who you are and what you value tomorrow and every day – and vote accordingly.