Black History Month Begins on a High Note
By Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu
The current generation of black people in America must fashion their own vision for the future, according to Jeffery Johnson, national director of the youth and college division of the NAACP.
In an impassioned speech marking the opening of Black History Month, Johnson urged the largely black audience to wake up and "be honest with ourselves."
His speech was part of a cabaret evening celebrating the music of the black churches, featuring the University's gospel choir, Voices of Freedom; Judah, a handful of the choir's alumnae; the Wilmington Chester Mass Choir; and gospel artist Beverly Crawford. The event, sponsored by the African American Cultural Center and the Institute for African American Studies, was held in Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts.
Urging the audience to reflect on the history of black people, Johnson said this historical awareness must go beyond the month of February: "I'm sickened by the fact that we come to black history programs in February as the only time. We are the only people on the face of the earth who allow somebody else to tell us when we can talk about our own history," he said.
The only other time black history is widely remembered, he said, is when the life of Dr. Martin Luther King is celebrated in mid-January.
Yet important as the legacy of King is, the current generation has an obligation to dream dreams and have visions that will contribute to the future instead of looking back to an era that no longer exists, he said.
"We cannot continue to talk about the dream of Martin Luther King as if it was ours," he said. "We cannot still be dreaming in 2002 the dream he dreamed in 1963."
Like Rip Van Winkle, who slept through the Revolution, he said, "we find ourselves asleep and dreaming someone else's dream."
Johnson, who is responsible for more than 600 youth councils and college chapters of the NAACP, involving 60,000 young people nationwide, said the young generation has made itself irrelevant and incapable of fighting against what is wrong in society.
"I often see our nation's most confused (young people) with pagers on their hips, but they can't conjugate verbs," he said. "They have high-top Tims, but low ambition, they know the words of every song on the radio, but can't tell you what's on their minds.
"We've got to wake up to the knowledge of ourselves," he said.
Part of the awakening, he said, is to look beyond just civil rights and slavery when considering black history.
"When we talk about black history, do we really analyze everything we've been through?" he asked. He ran through some of the heavyweights of black history, from Kweisi Mfume in 2000 and Jesse Jackson in the 1990s, to Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in the 1970s, Thurgood Marshall in the 1950s, and Marcus Garvey in the 1920s.
Beyond the "nameless and faceless heroes and sheroes" who bore the brunt of the slave trade, "black people did have a history before slavery, Johnson said. He recalled the kingdoms of Mali and Songhai, and the civilization of Timbuktu, that "taught Europe about sciences, math and stars." He also traced the legacy back to Jesus, Moses, and Adam.
"When we talk about black history, we must talk about it from the beginning to the end," he said.
Johnson criticized today's black leaders as politicians who come into the community only during election time and ministers who don't minister to anyone outside the church. "They are not concerned with anybody but themselves," he said. "This is not what we need. Leadership is not about 'what can I get' but about 'who can I serve'."
In a society where communities have brand-new stadiums and jails, but the schools are falling down, individuals must take personal responsibility for the struggle, he said. "There's a nightmare taking place in our communities, so we must wake up with a vision."
"We've got to be actively involved in the fight" for a better society, he added. "The only thing that matters is what are you going to do."