Saturday, February 21, 2015

Remember the Past: The Assassination in the Ballroom

The stage after the assassination. The circles are bullet holes.
Fifty years ago today, Brother Minister Malcolm X stood before a crowded room in the Audubon Theatre and Ballroom to speak. Some time after he began speaking, someone yelled, "Nigger, get your hand out my pocket." A ruckus began, the bodyguards moved towards the commotion and in the distraction and confusion, several assassins approached the podium and shot down Brother Minister Malcolm X.


In my plans to blog about lesser known Black Americans and their contributions, Malcolm X doesn't quite fit squarely into that category. He's well known. People know his name even if they aren't really sure what he stood for. There's a movie about his life. He's often held up in contrast to Dr. Martin L. King. Although he's not considered a "safe negro" like the other blacks who are discussed ad naseum year after year in attempts to "honor" February and Black History Month, he is discussed to some degree.

I choose to discuss him today because today marks the 50th anniversary of his death, and I fear not many people know or care.

Just like Dr. King has been turned into a saint and boiled down to a few quotes and ideas that are easy to remember and repeat, Brother Minister Malcolm has been held up in contrast as the "by any means necessary" leader who viewed all whites as "blue-eyed, blond haired devils" and the man who said "chickens coming home to roost never made me sad; they made me glad" about JFK being assassinated (which was viewed quite negatively). He was more than that.
Just as Dr. King was much more than only promoting non-violent, civil disobedience to get things accomplished and gain equality, and his planned speeches for the days after his assassination were a huge shift in tone and rhetoric (esp. with regard to the Vietnam War), too many people forget that in the many months before his death, Malcolm X's pilgrimage to Mecca had altered his view of Islam as he had been taught in the Nation of Islam. Too many forget that after he'd witnessed Muslims of ALL shades while in Mecca, he began to see that racial integration and tolerance was actually feasible in the States. In essence, he began to change his views and rhetoric. But 21 bullets from assassins stopped that before we got to know the more tolerant Brother Minister, before we would ever know what a Malcolm X preaching integration was like.

But much like the many forgotten leaders of the past--some names we remember, some we forget--we don't always view the whole person. We boil them down into easily digestible bits. We forget they were people and not merely historical figures for us to extract the parts we like and ignore the parts we don't.
They lived.
They breathed.
They had opinions.
Sometimes those opinions changed.
They died.
Sometimes they were killed.

Malcolm Little: thief, drug-abuser, conk and zoot-suit wearer, convict.

Malcolm X: leader, rhetorician, Muslim, father, husband, friend, servant. assassinated... this day... fifty years ago.

We owe it to the people of history to gain better understandings of who they were.
We owe it to ourselves to learn more about those we don't know.
We owe it to ourselves to remember and help the next generations remember.

Pay attention.
Remember the past.
Share it with the future.

Remember the Past: A Personal Reflection

Recently, I read an article that claimed that Alberta King (Dr. Martin Luther King's mother) was assassinated too. She was shot by a mentally unstable person while playing the organ at her church. While this information is incorrect (yes, she was murdered but not assassinated), the larger point of the article was that despite the author's parents purposely ensuring that he was well acquainted with Black Historical figures, by and large, the activists were men and the women were mostly artists--writers, poets, playwrights, singers, etc.

In working on this series of Remember the Past posts, I'm recalling all sorts of history lessons I was fortunate to receive throughout my youth. As I read that article, I realized that my lessons were not painted in that way so that the activists and fighters were mostly men and the women were in essence, the artsy supporting roles. From age 6 until 15 (with a few years absence), I was fortunate enough to participate in a play at my church wherein I was exposed to more than the typical "safe negroes" (Dr. King, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and occasionally, for sciency-reasons George Washington Carver) that schools trot out during February. I was introduced to the likes of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Constance Motley Baker, Shirley Chisholm, and Barbara Jordan. (Each of these will have a spotlight soon.) In hindsight, it's quite possible that because the writer and director of the play was female that she either actively highlighted the contributions of fighter women or that these were merely her role models, and she felt it important that the play included these women.

Whatever the circumstance, I'm glad that my education on Black History did not end with the "safe negroes" I learned about in school. However, I've also come to realize that my lessons were indeed unique and not everyone received these lessons. I've come to understand that me being able to rattle off the accomplishments of Wells-Barnett and Constance Motley Baker is an anomaly. It's an anomaly that needs to no longer be an anomaly. For not only do women of color who fought for rights need to be recognized, but more Blacks in general need to be recognized for their places in history. Now, this isn't to minimize the contributions of people like Phyllis Wheatley, Nikki Giovanni, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and others, but it's to say that yes, their contributions mattered, but so do so many forgotten people, esp. the women warriors.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Remember the Past: The Men who were called Boy

I recently watched this video of Samuel L. Jackson describing his childhood in Chattanooga, TN.

In this video, Jackson recalls going to work with his grandfather as a child and his grandfather being called "boy" by the white men who worked in the real estate office his grandfather cleaned. His grandfather called them "Mr" So-and-so, but they called his grandfather "boy." His grandfather also scolded Jackson about looking the men in their eyes when he talked with them and frequently asking them questions.  Conversing with and asking questions of whites wasn't something blacks were allowed to do. Even as a child, Jackson realized there was something odd about the dynamic between the two sets of men. The white men were called "mister" by his grandfather (and other blacks) while the white men were allowed to call the black men "boy."

Boy.

Mister.

I've heard my own tales of the word "boy" my whole life. My own father often recounted the tale of hearing his grandfather being called "boy" by shop owners and of being told they couldn't drink Coke or Pepsi because those drinks weren't for blacks. Whenever my dad told me about these things, he expressed anger over the confusion he felt then because as a child his grandfather was the biggest, tallest, best man there was, but before white males, he was nothing more than a "boy."

There has been so much power and control behind such a simple word.

So many strong, intelligent, loving men belittled and made to feel inferior in front of their young sons and grandsons because of the power dynamic of the past. It hurt my dad to witness his grandfather being called a boy, but the pain and anguish that that word imposed has been lost on generations today.

In the video, Kelly Ripa is riveted and experiences chills while hearing this story from Sam Jackson, but he (just as I) shrugged it off because as he said, "it is what it is." That was life for blacks, esp. black men back in the day. Through my dad, I've heard these stories before, so I nodded while watching this. I know these stories well. It's how it was. I've been taught this by my family.

But for people who don't know, never heard these stories, it's amazing, riveting, chill-inducing stories.

Boy.

Mister.

To all the men--strong, powerful, hard-working, loving men who were made to feel less than, made to feel inferior, made to watch your father, uncle, grandfather feel less than which in turn made you feel less than, I thank you for enduring. Thank you for showing that a word, such a small but powerful word in that context did not truly make you who you are. Your actions made you who you are.

We have forgotten stories like this. We no longer pass them along. How easy it is to forget that we are but one, maybe one and a half generation removed from men being called boys, being treated as less than, being belittled.  We mustn't forget. We must remember.

To the men who were called boys: thank you for being strong and teaching us how to become misters.

Pay attention the past.
Study history.


I dedicate this to my dad and the many other teachers I've had along the way.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Remember the Past: The Unwitting Mother of Immortal Cells

Family illnesses and life falling down around me has delayed my posts. Goodness have I got to catch up!  In the meantime, allow this next Remember the Past post to introduce you to


Henrietta Lacks: The Unwitting Mother of Immortal Cells



Thanks to efforts of writers, some scientists, some doctors, and Mrs. Lacks family after they found out, Henrietta Lacks now receives the proper acknowledgement that she deserves.

In life, Lacks was sadly not much different from other people of her era--lots of siblings, married young, produced lots of babies, died of illness at a young age.


However, in death, although completely unknown to her family for TWENTY years after her death, Lacks' cells (taken from her without her knowledge or permission by George Otto Gey) would become the first human immortal cell line for medical research: HeLa Cells.


Lacks grew up in the shadows of slavery in Virginia. After her mother died in 1924, her father parceled Lacks and her nine other siblings out to family members for them to raise. Lacks ended up in the care of her grandfather; he lived in former slave quarters on the plantation that had been owned by Lacks' white great-grandfather and his brother. Also living in that house was Lacks' first cousin, David "Day" Lacks--he would later become her husband and father of her children.

While still living in Virginia, both Henrietta and Day remained in the shadow of slavery--working in the tobacco fields of the area. Henrietta gave birth to her first child at age 14; it was 1935. She had another child in 1939. In 1941, Henrietta and Day married. Towards the end of 1941, a relative convinced them to leave the area and to find work elsewhere. They moved to Baltimore, Maryland. In Baltimore, they had three more children.

With the fifth pregnancy, Lacks had noticed a knot in her stomach. After giving birth to the fifth child, she began to bleed profusely. She ultimately ended up at Johns Hopkins hospital. She was diagnosed as having cervical cancer and was treated with radiation.  While this process was happening, two samples of her cervical tissue was removed--without her knowledge and permission.

Even after the radiation treatment, Lacks remained in pain.  On August 8, 1951, she returned to the hospital for her next treatment, but instead asked to be admitted. She never left the hospital alive again. Henrietta Lacks remained in hospital until her death on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31.

She died in October 1951, but her cells, known scientifically as the HeLa Cells, live on today.


What's interesting is that HeLa Cells are one of the few things I remember hearing about in my many science classes in high school.  It's weird how things stick with you in a subject you weren't particularly fond of, and you can't remember why that stuck with you. I'm glad that I remembered that phrase because when I discovered the truth of the HeLa Cells a few years back, I had a connective memory to go off of.

Truthfully, Lacks didn't live much of a remarkable life--no different from other people like her during that era. And sadly, her remarkable contribution to science remained unacknowledged for twenty years after her death. In fact, it wasn't until researchers began to contact the family in the 1970s to ask them for further blood samples that they even became aware and suspicious of the odd requests.  (The fact that scientists thought they could continue to request biological material from this family smacks of arrogance and lack of ethical considerations, but perhaps some of the scientists truly didn't realize the Lacks family had not granted permission all those years ago.)

And what's sadder still is that even as recent as 2013, scientists have used the HeLa cells in research without seeking permission from the family.  And even sadder, in August 2013, the National Institute of Health has finally given the Lacks' family some control and oversight over the Lacks' genome and family acknowledgement in scientific papers. Yeah, some oversight.

So, what made her cells so special?
When Dr. Gey received Lacks' cells, he realized that unlike any other human cells before, Lacks' cells could be kept alive and grow. Prior to the HeLa cells, cells only stayed alive a few days and then died. Essentially, her cells could be continuously multiplied and so they were. Her cells were used to help develop the vaccine for polio, were the first human cells to be cloned, and have been used in research for AIDS, cancer, gene mapping, checking the effects of radiation, and innumerable other scientific experiments. All without her family's knowledge or permission. It is estimated that scientists have grown 20 tons (yes, tons) of her cells over the decades.

Sadly, in 1990, a California Supreme Court even ruled that discarded tissue can be commercialized and sold, which the HeLa cells have been time and time again. But were they truly discarded? Seems to me they were taken, stolen without permission, then discarded--not by the owner, but by a scientist. Legally, if someone discards something, it can be picked up by others and used, repurposed as the finder deems fit, but Lacks didn't discard her own cells.

We will never know how the situation might've turned out differently if Henrietta Lacks had been asked for her cells. Maybe she would've consented. Maybe not. I am, however, quite sure that the doctors and scientists would NOT have explained the full situation to her honestly, as evidenced by so many other situations in the U.S. in the past where blacks were used as experiments with or without their permission (Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment comes to mind, but so does the horrifying work of gynecologist J. Marion Sims), and as evidenced by how Lacks' family continued to be lied to and given the runaround as recent as the 1970s, 1980s, and then screwed over legally by the CA Supreme Court in the 1990s.

This situation goes so much deeper than Lacks and her HeLa Cells. It speaks of the theft of black bodies and black health for far too many years in this country. It speaks of the lack of disclosure and honesty about our health. It speaks to the assumption that "well, they're too stupid to truly understand what's happening with their bodies, so we'll just tell partial truths or outright lie." (Sort of makes me draw a clear line from this type of thinking to the current political thinking that "women don't truly understand their bodies, so we need to write lies to protect them from themselves." But I digress.) There are probably more situations like this than we could ever know about, but thanks to documentaries, scientific reports about this atrocity, many articles, books, a Law and Order episode, and even CDs and movies, at least Henrietta Lacks' contribution to science, health and medicine is now more well-known.

There are so many things that converged to screw over Lacks and her family were the HeLa Cells are concerned. We owe it to them not to forget. Take the situation of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cells as encouragement to me informed and aware of your personal health and aware of history.

Pay Attention to History!



Sources:
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/24/opinion/sunday/the-immortal-life-of-henrietta-lacks-the-sequel.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henrietta_Lacks
http://www.biography.com/people/henrietta-lacks-21366671#hela-cells

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Remember the Past: Les Gens de Couleur Libres

Yes, I'm a day behind, but here's to it...
I dedicate this post to my wonderful, brilliant niece who might be taking a new interest in history, and that makes me even prouder on so many levels.

Today, I'll introduce you to Les Gens de Couleur Libres (The Free People of Color).

Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants in a Landscape
Painting by Agostino Brunias

Some years back, a cousin asked had I seen the film Feast of All Saints. I had not. She proceeded to tell me of the plot of the movie wherein the Les Gens de Couleur Libres--the Free People of Color-- living in New Orleans were an entire class of people living in the slave state of Louisiana before the Civil War ended.  My mind was blown. I'd never heard of these people. I was mad that I had not, but I instantly wanted to know all I could.

Growing up, I always knew there were Blacks scattered throughout the country prior to 1863 and 1865 who were free through various means--buying their freedom, born free, marriage making them free, etc. Typically though, the further a person went North, the easier it was to find free Blacks. But free blacks living in the South? Not just the South, but in New Orleans--literally, the bottom of the Mississippi River, which was a major waterway of slavery.

So, I instantly ordered Feast of All Saints. It was interesting. It was a B-rate film with some very well respected, well known actors (Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Pam Grier, Forrest Whitaker, James Earl Jones, Eartha Kitt, Ben Vereen and others) but also some lesser known but quality actors (Robert Ri'chard, Bianca Lawson, Jason Olive).  From what I've read about the Les Gens, the film describes their social standing (a sort of in-between status) pretty well and the drama is pretty decent. But more importantly, it continued to feed my need for knowledge about this class of people.

The Free People of Color of New Orleans (frequently called Les Gens) existed in a sort of in-between status between the French Creoles and Spanish people of the area (the whites) and the blacks who were enslaved. They were in essence, a second tier of citizens: not enslaved and forced to endure the horrendous atrocities of slavery, but also not fully free to do exactly as they pleased in society, and certainly not beyond New Orleans or other places where Free People of Color lived in large groups. They apprenticed, some of the men had been educated in Europe (esp. France), had property, etc. But they were still second class people caught in between fully free and fully slaved. As the Les Gens increased in population over time, their rights and freedoms (apprenticing, reading/writing) began to be restricted. As the civil war ended and all slaves were freed, the Les Gens sort of lost their second class place in society. Though some cities acknowledged a difference between newly freed slaves and Les Gens, after awhile, that eroded away.

But before all of that, there was plaçage.

To maintain their place in society, the older women of the society held something like coming out parties wherein the younger free ladies could meet and "connect" with the French Creole, German, and Spanish men of the area. During this time period, many men sowed their oats and worked to establish themselves before marrying at older ages. While the men were sowing, they would need mistresses or placées to keep them satiated, so the older women would often make deals with the men who were interested in their young ladies to secure the young ladies' futures. In essence, the white men of society would agree to take care of their mistress and any offsprings produced from their "union"--frequently, these agreements meant property for the women, formal education for their offsprings (esp. males), money, etc.  The placées were the acknowledged women on the side. In many ways, this was a comfortable opportunity for free women of color, but in other ways, it was a tragic situation. In reality, they were agreeing to be mistresses for life: playing house when their man came home, but otherwise, sitting at home, raising the kids, tending to the property (and likely servants of the property), and possibly longing for the next time their man returned.

But let's not focus on the negativity.

The Free People of Color of New Orleans are important to remember because Blacks in America up until 1863 and after the Civil War are often painted in broad strokes: Blacks were either slaves who tolled from sun-up till sun-down until they died OR blacks were free somehow (usually because they ran away) and attempted to work in the white world, sometimes doing so successfully but sometimes not.  Blacks in America prior to the Civil War were more than this. Les Gens de Couleur Libres shows that there was an entire class of people in the South who worked, lived, thrived, and were free. Yes, they were limited. No, they weren't completely free, but they were free from ever knowing the bonds of slavery.  The chains of society bound them, but they never knew what it was to toil in a field, have someone whip you, or maim you, or sell you away from your family. It wasn't a perfect society, but I have to believe it was better than the horrors of slavery.

Now, bear in mind, New Orleans wasn't the only place where Les Gens lived. They were also in many Caribbean countries and cities, but I'm trying to keep a focus on Black History in America for now. Maybe I'll branch out later.

Also note: my description here barely scratches the surface of the complexities of the lives and society of Les Gens. And as with any of my Remember the Past posts here, I hope my facts of history spark an interest in you to explore the topic more on your own.

Pay attention to history.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Remember the Past: The First Lady's Seamstress and Confidante

Hopefully, you had a chance to read my first post in this Remember the Past series; it was about Dr. Charles Drew.

In this next post, I'm going to introduce you to Elizabeth Keckley: The First Lady's Seamstress and Confidante.



Elizabeth Keckley was born a slave in Virginia in 1818. She became a seamstress and made dresses for the women of the area. Through her work as a seamstress, she was able to purchase her and her son's freedom in 1855. In D.C., she made beautiful dresses for the socialites. Her reputation for style, flair, and expert fit helped her score the ultimate client: First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who was known as a clotheshorse. (It's believed that she overspent her 1861 clothes stipend by $6,000.)

Keckley ended up becoming more than just FLOTUS Lincoln's dressmaker; she became a friend and confidante.  The death of both women's sons within several months of one another helped bring them even closer. After President Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, Keckley was there to comfort the grief-stricken Mrs. Lincoln.

After Lincoln's assassination, the very traumatized Mary Todd Lincoln was deeply in debt due to her extravagant spending while still a FLOTUS.  She ultimately would battle Congress to receive a presidential widow's pension, which she won by a slim margin to the tune of $3,000 per year. Immediately, following Lincoln's death, the FLOTUS attempted to sell her wardrobe which turned into the Old Clothes Scandal.  Keckley assisted in these attempts.

In an effort to help Lincoln's reputation, Keckley published a memoir in 1868; it was titled Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years as a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Unfortunately, the book had the opposite effect because FLOTUS Lincoln viewed the book as a betrayal and the women never communicated again.
Although the book is viewed favorably now for shedding insights on the Lincoln White House, at the time, it was received horribly. Aside from sharing personal connections and relationships that were not discussed publicly at that time, it was written by a Black woman.  "How dare she?" was likely a frequent remark. Lincoln's son Robert Todd Lincoln even went so far as to attempt to get Keckley's publisher to pull the book.

After the publication of the book and public fallout, Keckley lost her high standing as a dressmaker. In 1892, Keckley went to teach at Wilberforce University in Ohio in the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts.  Unfortunately, poor health limited her abilities and she could not continue in her duties at the school. It is believed she mourned the loss of FLOTUS Lincoln's friendship for the rest of her life.

Elizabeth Keckley died in 1907 at the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children in D.C.






Keckley was portrayed by Gloria Reuben in the 2012 film Lincoln, as seen here:










Here, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln is wearing a dress made by Keckley.


            



  







This quilt was made by Keckley.




While Elizabeth Keckley's life ended somewhat tragically compared to the life she had lived, like so many of the other people I suspect will be in this series, she lived an amazing life that I'm sure she could not have dreamed of while living on plantations in the South.

Remember, no matter how long your life, it's what you do in the time you have. These lives are worth remembering.

Pay attention to history.


Sources: 
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-story-of-elizabeth-keckley-former-slave-turned-mrs-lincolns-dressmaker-41112782/?no-ist
http://www.biography.com/people/elizabeth-keckley-9361611#death-and-legacy
http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=17
http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2012/11/23/the-secret-story-of-mrs-lincolns-bff/

Mini-Remembrance: The Poet, Novelist, Playwright, and Renaissance Man

Yesterday, I started my Remember the Past series with the intent to highlight lesser-known Black Americans during this February.  My first post is about Dr. Charles Drew, the Father of Blood Banks.



However, shortly after posting that first entry, I discovered that February 1 is Langston Hughes' birthday.  Hughes is obviously well known and studied in many high school classes, so he doesn't quite fit into my intended theme for Remember the Past, BUT I had to commemorate his birthday, esp. since he's one of my favorite poets.  I've been exposed to Hughes' work since middle school, so it wasn't a big surprise that I'd choose to do extensive research projects on him during grad school. When thinking of my admiration for Hughes, his work, and the impression it left on my life, words fail me.  So, I'll just say Happy Birthday Mr. Hughes!

I'll leave you with one of poems that had a very lasting impression on me.

Let America Be America Again


Langston Hughes1902 - 1967
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? 
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
Source of poem: http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/let-america-be-america-again

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Remember the Past: The Father of Blood Banks

As discussed in this post, I intend to do posts about Black Americans' throughout the month of February. Beyond February, I intend to post about historical figures.

This is the first post.


Charles Drew: The Father of Blood Banks
Dr. Charles Drew was a doctor and surgeon who developed ways to store blood plasma in blood banks. I chose him first because the story of his life and death left an indelible impression on the 6 year old me. I now know the story I learned of his death is a myth (explained below), but his life's work and its contribution to life today is still VERY impressive.

During high school and college, Drew excelled in many sports; the sports helped him attend college. He attended Amherst College in Massachusetts. After receiving his B.S. degree, he worked as a biology teacher at Morgan State University (then Morgan College) in Baltimore, MA. After two years at Morgan, he attended McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He excelled in his studies, and graduate in 1933 with a Doctor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degrees. He remained in Canada to complete an internship and residency for two years, then returned to the U.S. and worked as an instructor of pathology at Howard University in D.C. During his time at Howard, he was simultaneously an instructor and a resident at the Freedman Hospital (the teaching hospital at Howard).

He then spent two years at Columbia University in New York as a student and resident. It was here where his focus turned to blood transfusions. While at Columbia, he wrote a dissertation on "banked blood," in which he explained his development on how to store blood plasma for long periods. Prior to his work, blood plasma could only be stored for two days. His worked prompted him to convince Columbia to establish a blood bank.  Dr. Drew would become the first Black American to obtain a Doctor of Medical Science degree from Columbia University. After helping to establish Columbia's blood bank, he was asked to go to England to help them set up blood banks. During WWII, Dr. Drew led a program called Blood for Britain.

In 1941, he was helping the American Red Cross set up blood bank programs for U.S. military personnel, but after he realized that the blood would be racially segregated, he resigned. In 1942, he returned to Howard where he was a professor and head of surgery. He became the chief surgeon at the Freedman Hospital, and later became the first Black American examiner for the American Board of Surgery. He received many awards for his work, including the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. He continued to be a well-respected professional.

Unfortunately, Dr. Charles Drew died in 1950 after a car accident where he sustained severe injuries. The myth I learned as a child was that due to his injuries, he needed a blood transfusion, but because the accident was in the South, and there was no "black blood" available, he died from the lack of transfusion. Another version of the myth is that the town where it (Burlington, NC) happened did not have any hospital beds available for black people, so the hospital services let him die. 

The truth of that accident is that his injuries were so severe that he could not have survived. He was indeed cared for by a hospital. Although his colleagues who were traveling with him sustained minor injuries, he became pinned in the car and died a short time after reaching the hospital.

Dr. Charles Drew died at age 45, which seems so very young, but he accomplished so much. His work has saved countless numbers of lives, both during WWII and in the many decades since. Forty-five years young doesn't seem like many years, but at his funeral, the minister remarked that he had "a life which crowds into a handful of years significance so great men will never be able to forget." 

Sadly, it seems that the truly remarkable among us die soon, but the important thing is what do you do with that life while you have it, and what your lasting legacy will be. Dr. Charles Drew and his phenomenal work left a lasting impression on the world. We must not forget Dr. Drew and the many other people like him.

Pay attention to history.


Sources: http://www.biography.com/people/charles-drew-9279094#father-of-blood-banks 
http://blackinventor.com/charles-drew/

Black History Month begins again... Let's celebrate ALL history all year.

As I've described in other posts recently, I've been a student of history, esp. Black American History, since I was barely in elementary school. However, in recent years, I (like many others, such as Morgan Freeman) have begun to question why we should have one month designated to one particular race's history--even if it is my race. Why shouldn't we study all races all the time? My questions stem from my anger over the fact that children in most American schools are getting a piss-poor education in history, period, full stop, end of. So many of my students have no tangible, working knowledge of so many things of history. Even fully grown adults who are intelligent in so many other ways lack knowledge of history and frequently, the desire to even learn (even if they admit they know they should know). Ted Gup complained about this in his article "So Much for the Information Age."

Each February, most schools trot out the same old figures of Black History--Dr. King, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Lincoln for the Emancipation Proclamation, and a few others here and there. So, not only are students not getting a full, accurate view of history, they especially aren't getting a full view of the history of Blacks in America. However, I realize the complexities of this. By continuing to designate February as Black History Month, students, at least for ONE month of the school year, are forced to learn about how Blacks contributed to the nation. But forcing someone to learn something that's taught poorly and that they have little interest in doesn't really motivate them to know more.  My concern is that 1) by reusing the same historical figures year after year, students will eventually not give a damn at all--unless they are the students of color for whom those historical figures reflect people who look like them. 2) They never learn deeper appreciations for all that was contributed.  On the flip side, if we remove Black History Month in the hopes that in the bigger scheme of things, schools will study ALL of American history--from all sides--would that hope actually come to fruition? I doubt it. 

I'm a cynical pragmatist, a realistic dreamer. What we hope would happen--all of history studied--and what would actually happen would be years a part. Oddly, I see a similarity between this discussion and the minimum wage argument by delusional RWNJs like Bachmann: We mandate Black History Month in the same way we mandate a minimum wage. If left to their own devices, some teachers would willingly choose to incorporate Blacks into the history lessons just as some employers would willingly pay their workers more (as some already do), but I fear that a huge number of teachers would not incorporate those lessons, in the same way a huge portion of employers would likely drop the pay to below the horrible level it already is if a law doesn't force them to do otherwise.
With Black History Month, students are at least exposed to these lessons for one month--even if the lessons are repetitive and poorly planned. Without it, what would we have? But if it's forced, repetitive, poorly planned and executed, and dull, is it really worth it?

Additionally, the more I study history--all history, of America, of other countries, of various races and cultures--the more I'm enraged that students aren't learning about all contributions of all races to the growth of this nation and the world. And the older I get and learn the full truth of many things I was taught in school (like, the U.S. won WWII. Lincoln wanted to free the slaves. Uh, no, not really.), the more I wish students could see the full picture of it all. The saying is so true: "learn from history or be doomed to repeat it." We are already seeing some events come back around again. Sadly, this other phrase is also true: "Those of us who study history are condemned to watch the rest of the world repeat it." Boy, do I feel condemned.

It's sad, but it seems we have to have a Black History Month, a Women's History Month (March, in case you didn't know), a Native American Heritage Month (November. Hmmm...), a Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (May) and others to ensure that people pay attention to the marginalized groups.  Interestingly, the latter two were declared by Pres. George H. W. Walker in 1990. What's even more interesting is that some months overlap.  May is both Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month and Jewish American Heritage Month.  This page states which months are what.

Now, of course, as my boys age, my goal will be to teach them of the contributions of Black Americans to this country, but my larger goal will be to ensure that my kids (and anyone else I have even a modicum of influence over) appreciate and learn as much history as I can give them. Not only will it keep history alive and real for them. It'll also help them be more knowledgeable about the world and sensitive to other cultures.   

So, with all of this in mind, I'm going to start a series here (titled: Factoids of History--changed to Remember the past. See note below) to share a little bit of history as often as I can.  I'd like to share one Black American for every day in February. (We'll see if I get it done daily. The full time working mother life is busy and exhausting sometimes.) 

I realize this goal is sort of feeding into what I've just discussed here, but 1) I hope to share info about lesser known (or merely forgotten or not as glorified) Blacks and 2) I intend to continue this beyond February. Perhaps I will seek to honor each of the designated groups for their months, and the months without designations, just post about whomever. We'll see how it goes. Check out the first post here.


UPDATE 2/7/2015: I've recently learned that the word "factoid" actually means "a brief of trivial piece of information" or even "something fictitious or unsubstantiated."  This points of history are anything BUT trivial, fictitious, and unsubstantiated, so I'll be changing the name of the series to Remember the Past.