This business of history…
Three things I learned this week
Biography that idealizes (sanctifies) its subject. This is a word I had not been aware of before but have always understood its implementation. Each time a person passes, history is recast. Presidents and politicians, celebrities and CEOs especially most often have the scrutiny of their earthly lives evaluated through a reflective lens. In death, we are all, most likely, given a pass on the many things that acknowledge the aura of the time in which actions were undertaken and statements were made. It is difficult for feeling people to degrade those who have made their transition. We find the need in death, more so than in life, to understand, empathize and humanize individuals. Presidents become “the last of a great generation.” Rock stars become the greatest performers ever. Regular people become known for the fond memories held by their families. Respectfulness requires a sense of decorum once the life is over. While we know the deep dark secrets which define lives, we ignore the frailties and erase our own harsh criticism in order to recognize the fragility of life on earth. I have watched with fascination the retelling of the life stories of Senator John McCain and President George H.W. Bush this year. Stark bad tempers became curmudgeon and strict conservative ideology becomes an all knowing passionate style. We have acknowledged their flaws but mostly extolled their contributions to the greatness of America, given the reflection of time. To an extent, because this courtesy is not universally applied:
This week I came upon this article which described the connection between Holiday, the song “Strange Fruit” and the government official who preyed on her weakness to drugs. In the popular retelling of her life, after death, the most important thing we knew about her was her amazing talent and the drug addiction which destroyed it. Little has been discussed about her activism, her steadfastness to recover or her strength. She sang the song at the close of every show in darkness and silence to remember the scourge of lynching, despite the mainstream resistance and abhorrence to hear about the constant lynching plaguing the country. This was her activism. The missing historical fact, not shared, is that the war on drugs was born in the need of one man, Harry Anslinger, to save his job. The department he headed, the Bureau of Narcotics existed because of prohibition and when prohibition was ended, he made a new need for himself based on drugs and the commonly held, easily swallowed, characterization of the black community. He focused on the lifestyles of jazz artists specifically, but the characterized lifestyle of African Americans more broadly. When you read the article, images of Whitney Houston, “just say no” and the demonization of Black communities in The War on Drugs come to mind. All of these parts of history lead to the justification of mass incarceration and the wholesale attempt at the destruction of a people’s history and legacy. Billie Holiday’s image was not rehabilitated upon her death. In fact, she became a tragic figure whose drug abuse and “lifestyle” led to her demise.
The Binga Bank was the first privately owned African American Bank in Chicago, founded 100 years ago. He built his business from scratch, no loans, no family money, just intelligence, grit and innovation. He built homes and buildings and invested in his community. He was, therefore, always under attack; his family endured consistent bombings at their home, almost monthly, during the time of the race riots of 1919. The white residents of the city did not want African Americans to buy homes outside of the segregated, designated Black, redlined neighborhoods. By controlling his bank, the cornerstone of capitalist economy, he could control wealth building in the African American community. Jesse Binga was providing the access to capital that allowed that to happen. He was providing a way to circumvent the exclusionary white and government owned banking system and redlining. The great recession finally took him down, and he was eventually and finally charged with the crime of embezzlement. He died poor, living with his nephew. After his death he was pardoned. He left a legacy in his home that still stands on 59th and King Drive, in what was then an all-white neighborhood when it was built. But very few know his story. Instead of trying to celebrate his accomplishments at death, he was relegated to obscurity. Of the many well-informed people I have asked as to whether they knew who Mr. Binga was, few were aware of his business or success, or even his demise.
The ease with which we accept characterizations of people is dependent on the commonly held beliefs about those people; the cultural implicit bias that is prevalent. Even the most liberal citizens cannot be exempted from this behavior. Presidents, until 2009, were white men and primarily white men with military backgrounds and presumed integrity. Elevating them for their service to the country has not been difficult, nor has it been a stretch to gloss over their faults or transgressions.
Not so for those of any other status or of a darker skin color. The truth is that in this country and around the world, we are willing to believe the negative images of ‘other’ people. They deserve what they get. We are not race specific in our predilections either, they exist as a part of the ethos we hold as truths in our nation. It does not go without notice that Bill Cosby before his demise was fond of saying that young Black men scared him because of their sagging pants. He was lost in his belief of his otherness because of his wealth, he forgot, he too was a Black man. Nor is it lost that Donald Trump was able to question Barack Obama, the President of the United States, throughout his presidency about his birthright, education, religion and credibility and create a critical mass of believers to follow those lies. Even as we have gone from Negro to African American, or Hispanic to Latinx, or Homos to Gay, all of us are victims of the propaganda meant to cement the status quo.
The problem is that shifting demographics and the wealth gap, have brought to full light the commonality of problems faced by people who lack resources and access, regardless of the color of their skin, gender, or whatever. Whether in that realization we reach out to one another or further separate ourselves is the choice now. We are at a serious moment where we need all hands on deck to solve the problems we face as a city, nation and world. Limiting our minds to the capacity of people to achieve and add value puts us all at risk.
So in this season of peace it is time to reflect on your own capacity to broaden your mind. We cannot continue to be fooled into thinking this is a zero sum game. It’s long overdue. The work is not easy. Dig deep, use your mind AND your heart. It is not too late, but it is urgent.