Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Honoring my Teachers...

¡Hola! Everybody...
I’m rambling a bit here, but bear with me...

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-=[ Heroes ]=-

... but to labor in season and out of season, under every discouragement, by the power of truth... that requires a heroism which is transcendent.

-- Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887)

As many of you know, I love to read. Yes, I am a “squint,” an elitist. LOL! Over the years, I have come to look upon some authors as mentors, as teachers, even friends. In the past year, I have lost three such mentors/ friends -- all warriors in the battle for truth, creative and fearless voices, all three historians: John Hope Franklin, Ivan Van Sertima, and Howard Zinn.

Each taught me through the power of their example, their challenges the bigoted status quo that has passed for history in our schools and universities, in academia, and the media. Each created works that in turn made history by introducing millions to a new multitude of heroic men and women whose fearless contributions had been shamefully ignored.

Franklin, Van Sertima, and Zinn exemplified how research could be used to confront a Eurocentric, male-dominated establishment comfortable with racism, economic injustice, and imperialism, and willing to frame such practices as a form of progress. The works of these innovative scholar/ warriors amounted to what can only be termed as a vast underground railroad of subversive knowledge.

Ivan Van Sertima, a linguist, anthropologist, historian, and a poet with a powerful sense of irony, wrote during a time when the world’s leading scholars, led by Arnold Toynbee, claimed Africans made no contribution to civilization, its science or art, none, nada, zilch. Van Sertima cited sources beginning with Columbus to prove an African presence in America before 1492 -- exploding a core Eurocentric myth. Then he went on to detail African contributions to global science. Sertima’s work was revolutionary and at the time regarded as academic heresy, compelling a leading British critic to call Sertima's They Came before Columbus “ignorant rubbish.” Sertima’s impeccable scholarship struck at the Achilles Heel of racist scholarship -- who discovered the Americas? Who contributed to science? Who created civilization? Unwilling to address his documented challenges, many of his critics scampered. Others still lurk.

John Hope Franklin wrote during a time when noted historians described slavery hideously apathetic terms: “As for Sambo... he suffered less than any other class in the South from its ‘peculiar institution’.” This was how Pulitzer Prize winning historians Henry Steele Commager and Samuel Eliot Morison described slavery in their extensively used college text, The Growth of the American Republic.

Franklin confronted a nation schooled on the thinking that people of African descent really benefited from slavery and had no history worth recounting. His response was to detail painstakingly how people of African descent contributed substantially to each stage of America's economic and democratic growth. He too was excoriated by his peers.

And Howard Zinn... Zinn forced the discipline of history to look at itself when he claimed conventional U.S. texts and school courses failed us by celebrating wars, Presidents, generals and captains of industry. He stood on its head when he recounted how masses of American women and men, people of color and poor whites, built the country first as slaves and indentured servants, and then as mill hands, assembly-line workers and maids. Zinn further antagonized traditional scholars by celebrating the disobedience of slave rebels, union organizers, and radical civil rights and anti-war agitators. He framed dissidents as America’s real patriots and democrats -- not the George Washingtons, Thomas Jeffersons, and Andrew Jacksons who talked of liberty while they traded in slaves, and sent posses after those who escaped.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. once said of Zinn: “I know he regards me as a dangerous reactionary. And I don’t take him very seriously. He’s a polemicist, not a historian.” This last item was repeated in the mainstream media across the globe -- in the New York Times, Washington Post, and the leading American wire services in the obituaries that followed Zinn’s death. It is worth noting that Mr. Schlesinger, as a top advisor to President John F. Kennedy, played a key role in the overthrow of Cheddi Jagan, the democratically-elected progressive prime minister of British Guiana (now Guyana). Like virtually all the American historians granted validity and respect by the mainstream media, Schlesinger was a cold war hawk. Those like Zinn who questioned the basic assumptions of the Cold War on the global stage, and capitalism at home, were regarded as polemicists.

Attacking from diverse angles, Franklin, Van Sertima, and Zinn helped establish the notion that much history is a bogus tale, a false patriotism designed to whitewash past crimes, prop up traditional heroes, and promote conformity. Each joined demonstrations for causes dear to their historical understanding.

The research contributed by Franklin, Van Sertima, and Zinn brought a light to the world, moved mountains, and lifted people who had been told their ancestors never amounted to much.

I will miss my teachers, and I despair that their likes will not appear anytime soon. The one consolation is in knowing their deep love of humanity and astonishing works will live as long as people seek to examine the past as a way to chart the future.

I submit here, however, that their absence makes us all poorer...

-- Eddie

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