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Black or White, It’s all OUR History…

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By Clayton Adams

Special to the Times The American poet Maya Angelou wrote; “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

I believe it takes courage and strength to review American history and learn from the successes and failures of others. All history is profitable for teaching, for reproving, correction and can improve any person or group of people – if they choose to improve.

We should celebrate the individuality of a person and the various cultures which make up this great country.

I look forward to such celebrations as; “Black History,” (February) “National Hispanic Heritage,” (September 15 – October 15) “National American Indian Heritage,” (November) and others. But these should be celebrated in the context of the whole American culture.

Admittedly, it is difficult to look back in our history and see the inhumanity of one person to another or how one group of people abused another group. For instance, the terrible acts committed against Native Americans by individuals and our government are horrible. The long and cruel story of slavery in America is a terrible part of our history, but it is Our History and as Ms. Angelou wrote, it “cannot be unlived.”

The first book I remember reading about an American of African descent was of Booker T. Washington, ‘Up From Slavery.’ An amazing book, I learned much about Mr. Washington and esteem him highly. I changed by learning about him.

While on vacation one year I read the book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D.

I have other books focusing on the “black experience” such as “Scottsboro” by Dan T. Carter and “Negro Slavery in Arkansas” by Orville W. Taylor. A poignant and humorous book bringing truth to the conversation of race in America is “Defining Moment in Black History – Reading Between the Lies” by Dick Gregory. Why do I read these and other books?

Simply said, I wish to better understand others, their point of view and improve myself.

I have been told that because I am white, I cannot understand what it is like to be black. That is true, but by that same logic a black person can’t understand what it is like to be white or any other hue. But I ask, should this keep us from having empathy for one another? Should we cease to learn about others because we are different? I say no!

Do you know of John L. Handcox? John Handcox was born in Brinkley, Arkansas in 1904 and became the official songwriter for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU). John also inspired many of the folk music performers we know like Pete Seeger and others. His life story is amazing and worthy of your time to discover.

Do you know of Isaac Shaw? Isaac Shaw, a survivor of the Elaine, Arkansas massacre of 1917, later became a minister and an integral part of the first STFU (Southern Tenant Farmers Union) convention in Tyronza, Arkansas and one of the leaders of the STFU.

Isaac Shaw said (speaking about the STFU); “We colored can’t organize without you…and you white folks can’t organize without us… It won’t do no good for us to divide because that’s where the trouble has been all the time.”

Many of our politicians, academia and religious leaders, motivated by an insatiable hunger for money, influence, power and preeminence are dividing people. Our nation is now more fractured and broken than at any time in our history.

The Southern Tenant Farmers Union was the first time that whites, who belonged to the KKK and blacks, who had been racial separatists joined together in the 1930’s and struggled together for better pay, living conditions and hope for a better future. This all happened in the small town of Tyronza, Arkansas.

It proved that blacks and whites could work along side each other to obtain the same goal – the American Dream.

This may be a revolutionary thought and I know it flows against mainstream and conventional thinking, but, I believe, the modern civil rights movement started in Tyronza, Earle, Parkin and other small communities in Arkansas in 1936 when black and white men and women joined a union, shared leadership and called each other “Mr.” and “Mrs.”

Have you heard of Jim Reece, Eliza Nolden or Frank Weems? These three along with many hundreds and thousands of others worked quietly and steadfastly to bring change to white and black sharecroppers – perhaps the poorest of all Americans at that time.

Jim Reece was almost beaten to death just outside of Earle attempting to organize sharecroppers. Eliza Nolden was beaten so badly she later died of her wounds. Frank Weems was beaten the same night as Reece and Nolden and left for dead.

Why did these people suffer so? Because of their belief in equality and to help others riseup and leave the deadly grip of share cropping, day laboring, poverty and generational dependency.

Slavery is cruel for it binds the body and soul keeping it from the very thing God created the body, soul and spirit for – freedom. Slavery in any form is wrong but unfortunately it is still widely practiced throughout the world.

Have you heard of “peonage?” Most people are unaware that peonage existed from the end of the Civil War up to the 1940’s and it was legal “with a wink of the eye” in most southern states. Arrested for a trivial charge like vagrancy or a trumped up charge the court ordered fine would be an impossible amount for the “criminal” to pay. Farmers and others would then pay the court ordered fine and “rent” these victims for a time as “laborers” on farms, orchards, building projects or whatever the project was.

Peonage was a method of keeping people captive, working against their will to whomever would or could pay their “court fine.” There were more white sharecroppers than black but there were more black victims of peonage than whites. This was a cruel system of keeping folks in involuntary servitude. Only one person in American history has ever been convicted of this practice. That man was from Earle, Arkansas.

Have we learned any lessons? I believe, history and current events prove we have not learned. Native, Hispanic, Black, Anglo, whatever hue of color, language, faith or culture in our nation, it’s all history and it’s our history.

What happens in the black culture affects the white, Hispanic, Native Indian and every other culture. What happens in the white culture also affects the black, Hispanic, Native Indian and every other culture.

We, as the worlds “Great Melting Pot” must stop seeing ourselves as individual “races” of people, there is one race – the human race – made up of various tribes, colors, languages, customs, commonalities and influences. We are “One Nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”

What we need is to work on the unity of being “One Nation” and making “liberty and justice for all” a reality.

Black, white, Hispanic, Native American, whatever background, whatever history, it’s all Our History.

Clayton Adams, West Memphis, AR email: [email protected]

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