Since I was a child, I’ve been in love with black history. I have, however, become bored with Black History Month, which we celebrate annually during the shortest month of the year.
Lately it seems to follow the same predictable path: Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement, some black American “firsts” and endless stories about the ordeal of slavery.
This approach only helps to promote the myth that Black History Month was supposed to eliminate: that the black experience in America is all about victimization. The spirit of self-reliance, an integral part of black heritage, is given too little time and space.
An exhibit that opened in south St. Petersburg this past weekend goes a long way to show what I call the other black history.
The new African American Heritage Trail, a string of markers along 22nd Street and Ninth Avenue South, tells the tale of a black community that thrived even when Jim Crow was in its heyday. It informs those who read the posts that values like self-help, strong families, religion and nonreliance on government are rooted in black history.
Such values existed in the working-class neighborhood where I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s. In similar black communities in the North and South, there was a collective approach to child-rearing in which the individual girl or boy was made to feel part of a protecting, disciplining world that extended beyond the immediate families, most of which were composed of two parents. That world supported education and encouraged serious study; it emphasized family values long before the term became popular; it made crime almost nonexistent and criminals pariahs. Alcoholism and drug addiction were rare and existed mostly on the fringes or completely undercover.
Almost every able-bodied person was employed, and residents didn’t have to leave their neighborhoods to shop and dine. A dollar could turn over three to six times without ever leaving the community. These places weren’t paradises by any means, but they reveal a spirit that led blacks to carve out decent lives for themselves when racism and segregation were at their heights.
The area along 22nd Street was a good example.
“It’s very important for our people, for African-Americans, to know their history, but it’s also important for others because then there’s a level of respect when you understand how people persevered,” said Gwendolyn Reese, president of the local African-American Heritage Association. “It’s important to know how difficult it was to be black in those times of Jim Crow and racism, but we survived and we flourished.”
Indeed, that’s seldom mentioned when black history is taught today, even though it existed until the 1960s.
So what happened?
Much of 22nd Street’s decline has been attributed to the construction of the interstate. There was also, ironically, the freedoms won by the civil rights movement that gave black consumers more choices.
More insidious, but seldom mentioned, is the countercultural, anti-establishment revolution of the 1960s that questioned traditional values and justified even the most dysfunctional behaviors. Also about that time, black communities began to be referred to as “ghettoes.”
When I was coming up, ghetto was used to describe Jewish enclaves in Eastern Europe. I don’t recall a press conference where Jews officially removed their affiliation with the word and gave it to black America, but it seems to have happened in the late ’60s. Elvis Presley even made a song titled “In The Ghetto,” which was all about hopelessness and victimization. Sadly, it reflected the culture of many black neighborhoods, which changed for the worse.
It’s unusual for a group of people to have to go back in order to move forward, but that’s the state of many black communities today, with Midtown in St. Petersburg being one of them. By focusing on the values that allowed us to survive through the worst of American oppression, we can make that other black history a source of moral and spiritual rejuvenation.
That’s why I hope the residents of south St. Petersburg who don’t know its history will stop by this exhibition along 22nd Street. This especially applies to the younger generation that has grown up on gangsta rap music and its nihilistic messages. It’s important for them to know that where they live wasn’t always known as “the hood,” that it was once a thriving community, and that it can be again if they want it to be.