Every February, African Americans and the nation alike, take the month to reflect upon the history of Black people in these United States. From the beginnings of slavery to the election of the first African American president, Black people have made many strides along the way and have certainly made their mark in the annals of American history.
In recognition, this is Part Two in OurWeekly’s four-part series on the 15 most pivotal aspects of Black History.
12. The Black Church
From the “hush harbors” of the 19th century to the modern “mega churches,” faith in scripture has been a hallmark of the African American experience. It’s a long history, stretching back to the venerable “call and response” of the old plantation fields that was recited and rejoined to help sustain weary souls during centuries of social deprivation.
While slaves were strictly prohibited from gathering in any form of worship, the Old Testament tales from Exodus recounting the deliverance of the Jews from captivity resembled a contemporary cry for a leader—a “Messiah”—to guide them through a wilderness of uncertainty. “Go Down Moses” was a frequent refrain of hope resonating daily within the lush Southern vistas of rice, tobacco and cotton.
“Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” became a familiar tome of hope during a continual search for truth and salvation. Even young David’s triumph against Goliath (representing the Jews and their plight against the Philistines, and for Black slaves, the defeat of the slavemaster), and so many other tales from the Old Testament, have for centuries served as stories of hope for African Americans in a never-ending quest for social stability.
Not purely ‘blind faith’
The urban regions of America’s big cities are replete with Black houses of worship. Locally, a leisurely drive along Broadway from Downtown to the Athens District near Watts may find as many as 100 sancturaries—some sprawling, others quietly serving their defined purpose—all vowing to save souls. Taking as example the fate of the Walls of Jericho, the persistence of faith within the Black church eventually knocked down and breached America’s centuries-old “gates of hate” that once shielded the rationale of chattel slavery, Jim Crow—and a resurgent wave of social exclusion—from divine providence. It is not purely “blind faith” that regularly leads African Americans to church but, rather, a long and resilient history of fellowship and social organizing that has helped to foster community improvement in the face of sparse governmental input and private-sector apathy.
As the Book of Job pointed to the virtues of patience and unyielding faith in acknowledging God’s promise of deliverance from adversity, so has the Black church served as a foundation of courage and perseverance in troubled times. In 1963, African Americans demonstrating for civil rights were heartened and emboldened by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in which the Nobel Laureate took guidance from St. Paul’s letters 2,000 years ago to a weary Christian church (Romans, Galatians, Corinthians) under siege from Rome. King, like St. Paul, wrote while being persecuted in offering encouragement to believers and to refute his critics: “… just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Grecco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my home town.”
Origins of ‘Black church’
The term “Black Church” evolved from the phrase “The Negro Church” which was the title of a pioneering sociological study of African American Protestant churches at the turn of the 20th century penned by W.E.B. Du Bois. In its origins, the term was largely an academic category; most African Americans then did not profess allegiance to “the Negro church,” but rather described themselves according to their denominational affiliations such as Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian and even “Saint” of the sanctified tradition. During slavery, Anglican ministers sponsored by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel made earnest attempts to teach Christianity to captive Blacks. History reveals that some slaveowners allowed their slaves to worship in White churches, where they were segregated in the back of the building or in balconies. Most of the sermons tended to stress obedience and duty in adherence to one of many spiritual admonitions from St. Paul: “Slaves, obey your masters” (Ephesians 6:5).
Methodists and Baptists made active efforts to convert slaves to Christianity; the Methodists also licensed Black men to preach which would lead to the founding of African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination.
Skip forward about 150 years and the American religious landscape reveals that Black church attendance, while in slight decline, is structured in a variety of settings that include the six major Black Protestant denominations all connected to either the National Baptist Convention, National Baptist Convention of America, Progressive National Convention, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Church of God in Christ, and AME.
Preachers and their perks
It is not uncommon for some pastors in majority Black churches to have perks such as automobile and clothing allowances. Some Black congregations expect their pastor to appear exceedingly prosperous to better represent a person of stature or “shepherd” of God’s people. In some mega churches, the Black pastor is not subject to boards and elders or committees of deacons and only answers to the “Lord himself.” The so-called “prosperity preachers” such as Father Divine, “Sweet” Daddy Grace and Rev. Ike brought in millions of dollars during their heyday of ecumenical extravagance. Many of the more famous Black mega church pastors are multimillionaires. And it is because of the stereotypical “preacher’s Cadillac” that African Americans attest that Christianity may have poorly served them. So many generations of African Americans have resigned their fate to God rather than choose self reliance that the Black community has preferred to “be glad when I’m dead so I can go to Heaven.” This attitude within an older generation of Black families is believed to have contributed to a regressive posture in terms of social advancement, because racism was so pervasive, and chances of opportunity so slim that retreating to the Bible (i.e. “blind faith”) became a more practical response to entrenched social rejection and disappointment than did self confidence and personal responsibility.
“Since a people’s belief system is strongly influenced by their religion, then our religion has failed us,” notes Steve Coles, author of the 2006 book “The Black Church: The Root of the Problems of the Black Community.” Coles suggests that Blacks, who have been traditionally spiritual by nature, have lost something that is inherently inate. African Americans, he posits, have become a religious people but not necessarily spiritual.
“If we are to excell and regain self determination as a people, we must return to our original essence that feeds our spirit and nurtures our soul,” he explains.
Not all of the ancient religions from Africa have been abandoned in favor of Western worship. Yoruba, an ancient West-African religion, is gaining followers. The religion is particularly popular with African Americans who find it offers a spiritual path and a deep sense of cultural belonging.
Researchers at Harvard University reported recently that Blacks are traveling to places like Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria to gain a better understanding of indigenous spiritual practices. For instance, Orisha is a following within the Yoruba religion representing a spirit within one of the ancient manifestations of God (e.g. Eledumare, Olorun, Olofi) and was preserved by captured Africans during the Middle Passage.
The resurgence of Yoruba has resulted, according to some anthropologists, because of the impact of African and Caribbean immigrants. An application of this form of worship usually includes a long table covered with pure white cloth spread with sliced watermelon, bananas and, yes, gin as offerings to the divine.
Many African Americans are also studying the Palo spiritual tradition which is believed to have emerged from the Congo basin in Central Africa. Palo was carried to the New World via the slave trade and has been preserved by Afro-Latino communities in the United States.
11. Prison Industrial Complex
Prison has changed from a place where society sends offenders to be punished and reformed, to a money making venture exploiting Black and Brown people. This system has been dubbed the “prison-industrial complex.” The term was first used by civil rights activist Angela Davis in 1997 during a speech that was later released as a CD.
“Taking into account the structural similarities of business-government linkages in the realms of military production and public punishment, the expanding penal system can now be characterized as a ‘prison industrial complex,” said Davis.
America’s prison population has skyrocketed over the last 40 years. This coincided with the War on Drugs. Now America incarcerates more than 2 million people. Apart from having a devastating effect on the lives of incarcerated people and their families, there is also a major financial component to this issue. Prisoners and their families are exploited by prisons that charge them exorbitant rates to make telephone calls.
According to CNN, last year the Federal Communications Commission ordered prisons to reduce the cost of calls from up to $14 per minute to 11 cents a minute. And there is the thorny issue of prisoner pay. Inmates are assigned jobs which pay way less than the minimum wage, sometimes as low as 30 cents an hour. This has turned out to be a boon for companies that use prison labor say activists. Since labor costs are often the highest expenditure for employers, prison labor is a great way to reduce the wage bill say some critics. According to AlterNet writer, Rania Khalek, prison labor is the next step in American corporations’ race to find the cheapest possible workers.
“There is one group of American workers so disenfranchised that corporations are able to get away with paying them wages that rival those of third-world sweatshops,” Khalek said. “These laborers have been legally stripped of their political, economic and social rights and ultimately relegated to second-class citizens. They are banned from unionizing, violently silenced from speaking out and forced to work for little to no wages. They are the 2.3 million American prisoners locked behind bars where we cannot see or hear them.”
Former convict-turned-author Shaka Senghor said he noticed that when he was incarcerated, correctional officers used minor infractions to justify extending inmates’ sentences. The idea is the longer the inmate was behind bars, the longer they could keep working. Senghor realized that with the growth of private for-profit prisons, there is an incentive for politicians to pass tough laws that keep inmates behind bars for longer periods of time.
Many critics have accused the prison-industrial of complex of being a modern-day slave system. This is a point espoused by law professor Michelle Alexander in her 2010 book “The New Jim Crow.” In an interview, with Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now!,” Alexander said the prison-industrial complex is nothing new.
“We can look back in history and see this is not the first time we’ve done something like this. ‘Slavery by Another Name’ is an important book that I think all Americans should read; it talks about how, following the end of slavery, a new system of racial and social control was born, known as ‘convict leasing,’” said Alexander. “You know, after the end of slavery, African-American men were arrested en mass, and they were arrested for extremely minor crimes like loitering, vagrancy or the equivalent of jaywalking—arrested and then sent to prison and then leased to plantations.”
After 40 years of mass incarceration, politicians on both sides of the aisle are beginning to realize they have created a system that is costly and unfair. According to a report by the Hamilton Project, which is part of the Brookings Institute, the U.S. spends $80 billion a year on corrections. That works out to be $260 per person. In 1980, it was $77 per person.
Republican Sen. Rand Paul (Kentucky) has been a fierce critic of mass incarceration and was on the ground during the Ferguson mass protest. Former President Barack Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder attempted to try to undo some of the damage done to the Black community by mass incarceration. Holder, a former judge, saw the unfairness of mandatory minimum drug charges and tried to both raise awareness and chip away at harsh drug sentencing. Obama pardoned more than 1,300 prisoners and set a record of pardoning 231 inmates in one day, according to the website the Hill.
But with President Donald Trump in office on a “law and order” platform, it seems that any attempts to scale back the prison-industrial complex are on hold. In fact, several private prison corporations’ stock went up after his election in the expectation that he would send them more business.
From money-making films to hot TV shows, Black talent in front of and behind the cameras is making their presence known in a most powerful way. It’s been a long time in coming.
Black Hollywood is standing on the shoulders of men and women who dared to dream, and who were willing to break the rules. The early Black pioneers gave rise to a legacy of Black talent that couldn’t be denied.
Blacks in film
The year was 1913 and stage and comedic performer Bert Williams (1874-1922) became the first African American actor to play a lead role in the silent film “Darktown Jubilee.” Williams was a man of his time, a Black man in Blackface on stage and screen. He was a key figure in the development of African American entertainment. In an age when racial inequality and stereotyping were commonplace, he became the first Black American to take a lead role on the Broadway stage, and did much to push back racial barriers during his long career.
In 1915, a film destined to change filmmaking as the world knew it hit the silver screen. D.W. Griffiths’ “Birth of a Nation” revolutionized filmmaking, and introduced racist stereotypes that galvanized Black Americans to create their own films.
During that time, the most prolific filmmaker was Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) who was the first African American to release a feature length film, “The Homesteader.” He is thought to have written, produced and directed more than 40 films from 1919 to 1948. At that time, there were at least 450 Black-owned theaters in America. It is said Micheaux hand delivered most of his films to these theaters.
For his body of work and pioneering spirit, Micheaux received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1978.
Black-cast films offered the same faire as White films: drama, comedy, romance, action and musicals. However, White films had better production values due to larger budgets and big named stars. But Micheaux countered with Black star power by giving leading actors such as Lorenzo Tucker the title, ‘The Black Valentino.” And like a number of Black filmmakers, he made a point to make his lead characters fair-skinned Blacks, ironically a casting decision adopted by major studios as well.
In 1929, Hollywood director, King Vidor’s “Hallelujah’ was the first all-Black and all sound movie. The lead character was played by 16-year-old Nina Mae Mckinney. Mckinney, straight from a Broadway chorus line, Lew Leslie’s “Blackbirds,” was beautiful, talented and fair skinned, with straight hair and keen features, which was a requirement for Black women in the chorus line at that time, even Josephine Baker didn’t make the grade.
By 1929, Josephine Baker was the toast of Paris. She, too, was in a Broadway chorus line in her early career, but she was at the end of the line where she would make twisted faces, and contort her body while dancing to draw attention, because at that time she was considered to be too dark and unattractive to be considered beautiful. Baker was once quoted as saying, “What a wonderful revenge for an ugly duckling,” she said of her fame in Paris.
However, one Black woman of fair complexion who could not only act, but sing and dance was known as the ‘Maid of Hollywood.’ Theresa Harris (1911-1985), like most Black performers working in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s, was generally limited to servant roles. Harris however, maintained visibility in more than 60 films and offered on-screen companionship to many of Hollywood’s greatest icons—including Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Ginger Rogers, and Barbara Stanwyck.
As one of the industry’s first Black actresses to receive credited and speaking roles, Harris also broke barriers by serving as a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), where she lobbied for dignified roles for African American actors. Harris remained in films until 1958.
However, for the most part, casting discrimination regarding Black women was instituted in Hollywood. The only options left for dark-skinned Black women were roles as servants and mammies but the actresses turned it into an art form.
Hattie McDaniel proved that point when she became the first Black American to win and Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, in the epic film. “Gone with the Wind.” (1940).
Who would have thought that children of all races would fall in love with a 6-year-old Black girl whose name is Dottie “Doc” McStuffins. She and her friends, heal plush animals in her backyard clinic. Created by Chris Nee, who is White, she is often asked what was the decision behind Doc McStuffins being Black?
“It really was a very early discussion with Disney. I think it was the very first discussion when they bought the show,” Nee said. “They said look we’re looking for a property that we can have that has someone of a different race and I said you know what, that sounds great.” (2012 – 2017). McStuffins, is voiced by Kiara Muhammad.
In 2009, Walt Disney Studios made history by presenting their first Black Princess in the animated feature, “The Princess and the Frog.”
With a modern twist on a classic tale, this animated comedy is set in the great city of New Orleans. Featuring a beautiful girl named Tiana, a frog prince who desperately wants to be human again, and a fateful kiss that leads them both on a hilarious adventure through the mystical bayous of Louisiana.
It was a dream come true for young Black mothers who wrote letters to the Disney Studio requesting that their daughters enjoy the magic of a Black Disney princess on the silver screen.
There were a lot of “firsts” for Blacks on network television, however many point to Alex Haley’s “Roots” as the most impactful change. “Roots” (1976) was the saga of an African American family adapted for television, becoming one of the most popular shows in the history of American television.
In September 1984, “The Cosby Show” starring Bill Cosby made its television debut. The show ran for eight seasons and became the most successful in television history featuring a mostly African American cast.
Fast-forward to recent TV history, it took a down-and-dirty show like “Empire,” to shake things up in 2015. The heavy viewership caused network bean counters to take notice of the revenue the show was generating, and because of that fact, other networks tried their hand at Black-themed programming hiring more Blacks in front of and behind the camera.
Now, those networks have new competitors, and Black networks are seeing their share of success. We owe it all to Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET) in 1980.
What started as a music video channel has grown to be a top contender in a variety of programs targeting the Black audience. BET C.E.O. Debra L. Lee has put a new face on BET programming and the slogan #YESTOBLACK says it all.
TV ONE Network, founded in January, 2004 is owned and operated by Radio mogul, Cathy Hughes. TV One programming offers an engaging mix of original and acquired programming from key entertainment genres. And TV One’s programming provides a sophisticated alternative for adult African American viewers. TV One’s goal is to be distributed on the most widely available cable and satellite service level in markets where African Americans represent a significant segment of the population.
The new kid on the block is OWN, Oprah Winfrey’s Network. Winfrey brings her classy and informative style to a new genre of network TV with diverse programming and original movies.
Women in Power
Black women are exercising a lot of power these days in television and film production. Often referred to as the “SuperProducer,” Shonda Rhimes is a writer and producer, of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” “How to Get Away With Murder” and “The Catch.”
It is said that the networks now feel like a Shonda-produced show is a safer bet than one with a big star.
Ava DuVernay is a writer, producer, director and distributor of independent films. Nominated for two Academy Awards and four Golden Globes, DuVernay’s “Selma” was one of 2015’s most critically-acclaimed films.
Her current directorial work includes her dramatic television series for The Oprah Winfrey Network entitled “Queen Sugar,” which is a feature-length documentary on criminality and race relations entitled “The 13th” which is now nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary category. She also distributes and amplifies the work of people of color and women directors through her film collective ARRAY, named one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative companies in Hollywood for 2016.
The history of Blacks in film and television is a history of people who will never stop dreaming of a better day despite the odds.
9. Social Control
“Time has proven that (the ‘Negro’) is best fitted to perform the heavy labor in the Southern states … He will willingly fill the more menial positions, and do the heavy work, at less wages, than the American White man or any foreign race … This will permit the Southern White laborer to perform the more expert labor, and to leave the fields, the mines, and the simple trades for the Negro.”
—From an 1899 speech by William H. Baldwin Jr., railroad executive and Tuskegee University Trustee.
The Donald J. Trump presidency, still in its infancy, appears to be making good on the chief executive’s campaign promises. Paramount among these promises is the pledge to secure the country’s southern border, and turn the nation, from foreign interlopers he believes are corrupting America’s hallowed ground.
Many of the policies on which the Trump platform is based, be they travel and immigration restrictions, mass deportations of foreign nationals in the country illegally, and the resumption of water boarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” might be categorized under the catch-all phrase “social control.” As an adjunct to understanding the ramifications of what Trump’s policies might entail, a quick overview of this country’s history may provide a clue. As chronicled in history, sociologists and historians say social control is intertwined with the subjugation of people of color, often those from the African Diaspora.
Social control has existed in various guises since the beginning of civilization; well before this and related-terms were codified into a formal structure, i.e., a legitimate field of study. Karl Mannheim (1893-1947) a founder of the study of the classic sociology held that social control is the methodology by which a group regulates human behavior to maintain good order.
During America’s colonial era, the newly arrived Europeans used a system derived from the British Empire from which they’d recently departed to escape religious intolerance. In short order, they amended these schemata to deal with the friction from the mingling of the newly arrived Africans, Caucasians, and the Native Americans (or “Indians”) in the New World. Regardless of ethnicity or origin, historians say that those at the bottom of the caste system were rebellious and oppositional to authority. (Indians, being in their home environ, were especially inclined to run away), a trend that would occur throughout the history of the United States.
In settling this virgin territory, the new landlords were abetted by providence, since the indigenous population proved to be susceptible to the myriad bacterial infections and viruses the Europeans brought with them to the new land. Without the immunity required to ward off these strange new diseases, Indians perished in droves, as noted by a founder of the Massachusetts Bay colony, John Winthrop.
“For the natives, they are near all dead of the smallpox, so the Lord hath cleared our title to what we possess,” Winthrop wrote in a 1634 letter to Sir Nathaniel Rich, a former member of the British Parliament and early investor in the conquest of the Western Hemisphere.
This epidemic may have been intentional, because the colonialists were aware of the ability for smallpox to be spread through the contamination of bedding or clothing. In what might be considered one of the first incidents of biological warfare, British commanders habitually gave presents of blankets, handkerchiefs, etc. saturated with the lethal virus to the indigenous people.
Building upon this organic method of eliminating their opponents, the founding fathers amended legislation to redefine slavery to prevent fraternization between Blacks and Whites in order to continue their quest.
Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, in which a union of poor Whites and African slaves lashed out against native Indians, prompted the ruling elite to abolish indentured servitude (where Whites were allowed to work for a specified period before winning their freedom). This left Africans as an ideal source of labor, codified slavery and changed the relationship between the races. It also conceptionali.zed the White race (consequently, academics from W.E.B.. Du Bois onward insist that race is a social, not biological construct). This separation of the races neutralized the ruling elite’s fear of a unified uprising of the lower classes (Black and White), and set the blueprint for the basic class structure of America as we know it.
Emancipation and the Civil War’s end, heralded another type of socal control that began during the Reconstruction Era—an acceleration of prison construction, assisted by a “scientific” approach to the study of criminality (informed by race and heredity). This, in turn, ensured the continuation of a cheap and a plentiful workforce (via prison labor). In short order, the growth of law enforcement and the legal system (especially Jim Crow legislation) supported by auxiliary movements like the Klu Klux Klan, were slanted to preserve the status quo for Whites in the South.
Central to Jim Crow laws were “Black Codes,” which restricted the movement of “freedmen” and subjected them to arrest for vagrancy and induction into the unpaid labor force. In this way, plantation agriculture endured, individual states retained control over the former Confederate territory, the races remained separate, and the path to self-sufficiency—economic and political—was blocked for ex-slaves.
Social scientists also lump narcotics into the category of modern social control techniques. Two schools of thought hold that: 1) mind altering substances work hand-in-hand with deviant human behaviors, while others maintain that 2) narcotics are an instrument of the state used to prevent any solidarity or political opposition to the ruling class.
America was not the only country to practice social controls. The impact of the opium trade (1750-onward) swelled the coffers of the British Empire and enriched the bottom line of many American dynasties as well, including Warren Delano (grandfather of President Franklin D. Roosevelt). It also fed the endowments of Columbia, Harvard, Princeton and Yale universities. Prominent American families profiting from this “joy plant” include the Astors, the Cabots (Henry Cabot Lodge (which produced several senators and a governor), and the Forbes (represented in contemporary politics by ex-Secretary of State John Forbes Kerry).
By the 20th century, another drug captured the American imagination as newspapers exhorted the scourge of “Negro Cocaine Fiends” menacing Southern White womanhood. In 1914, Dr. Edward Huntington Williams, “… a distinguished physician,” proclaimed that intoxicated Black men were rendered impervious to lawmen’s .32 caliber pistols, prompting Southern law enforcement to switch to the more powerful .38 to subdue these “superhuman” miscreants. This, in turn, sparked the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan riding on the public fear of the animalistic Black brute, a recurring caricature in American culture.
Law and order resurfaces again
Law and order is a hot button issue that regularly surfaces during political campaigns, utilized by both major parties. Its shadow has loomed over election results since Richard M. Nixon tapped into the voting public’s anxiety about crime (and its racial under tones) on his way to the White House in 1968 (abetted by his agreement to go easy on desegregation??? for Southern politician Strom Thurman).
Legitimate concerns about disorder and wrongdoing are omnipresent (even today, when crime is at an all time low). During the Ronald Reagan era, the former matinee idol gave it a dramatic spin with the help of his wife Nancy. The jury is still out on how effective her “Just Say No” drug campaign was, which tried to stem narcotic consumption. The period it spanned included the explosion of the inner city crack cocaine, the militarization of law enforcement, and mass incarceration in the prison system—an epidemic the country continues to suffer from.
The issue of crime emerged again in 1988, when George H.W. Bush used an assault and rape committed by Willie Horton, a felon on weekend furlough during Mike Dukakis’ tenure as governor of Massachusetts to defeat Dukakis in their presidential contest.
In the first of Bill Clinton’s consecutive successful campaigns for the Oval Office, he interrupted his campaign (just before the New Hampshire primary) to return to Arkansas (where he was the sitting governor) and oversaw the execution of a lobotomized death-row inmate—Ricky Ray Rector.
Social control, a tool used in whipping up opposition to the marginalized and outcast, is also historically a tool used to ensure a steady and cheap source of labor. Social control was also a handy tool for drumming up support for controversial legislation, is equally functional in an emotionally charged political campaign.
The events chronicled here are just a few of the traumatic consequences endured by descendants of the transatlantic slave trade during their existence in North and South America. Along the way, they have been a convenient device in the realization of other group’s agendas/objectives, with little or no thought for their own interests. As we embark upon a new, polarizing, political administration, let us hope that these past experiences provide guidance and an inkling of what to expect in this uncertain future.