Friday, February 15, 2019

Hank Sanders: Sketches #1653 - When we don’t know our full history, we cannot tap into our full power

  I love history. I loved history as a child. I especially loved Black History. I loved Black history, but I did not understand the power of Black history. I had to look back from a decades-later perch to fully understand the power of Black history. I do not want our youth of today to have to look back decades later to fully understand the power of Black history. I want all people to better understand the power of history. I know the power of Black history.

  I returned to the South because of the power of Black history. I left the Deep South at 18 years of age. I returned several years later to attend Talladega College. I left again for the state of Massachusetts to attend law school. I returned to the South again. The real reason I returned both times to the South sprung from the power of Black history.

  I read about Harriett Tubman’s life in slavery and her escape from slavery in the South. She went North where slavery was no longer her daily reality. She was no longer enslaved. She no longer had to fear for her life. She no longer had to suffer constant attacks on her dignity and her freedom. But she risked all that freedom provides by returning to the South to help others escape from slavery. She returned 19 times and helped some 300 enslaved persons to escape to freedom. She could have been captured or killed each time she returned South but she went anyway. I was profoundly touched by Tubman’s story in Black history. I knew in my soul that I had to return to Alabama even after I obtained a Harvard law degree because too many people were still being oppressed. The Black history forged by Harriett Tubman caused me to end up in Selma, Alabama for these last 48 years.

  I also became a lawyer because of Black history. I read about Thurgood Marshall sometime around 1955. He had led the legal effort in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that declared that segregated school systems were unconstitutional. I read about him in the newspapers and magazines my mother brought from the homes of rich white folks where she worked as a maid. My mother did not bring these papers for us to read. Rather she brought them for us to use as toilet paper since we had no bathroom in our home. We had to go outside the house behind the chinaberry tree.

  The next time our teacher asked us what we were going to be when we grew up, I stood up and said I was going to be a lawyer. The whole class laughed and laughed, and I cried and cried. In the end, I swore that I would be a lawyer even if it killed me. After I graduated from high school, I was out of school for three years working as a lumber thrower, janitor, stock boy, stock clerk, shipping clerk, and more. It looked like I would not become a lawyer. However, the determination to be a lawyer drove me to Talladega College in Alabama. I graduated and went on to law school. I had never seen a lawyer, not to speak of a Black lawyer. I became a civil rights lawyer because Thurgood Marshall was in my Black history experience.

  I respect the leadership of women. My mother, Ola Mae Sanders, was a strong leader and an inspiration to her community. I appreciated her leadership, but she was my mother. But reading about Sojourner Truth’s determined efforts to lift all people, particularly Black people and women, told me that women could lead as well as men. Her "Aint I a Woman?" speech still rings in my heart. In spite of her growing up in slavery and not being able to read or write, Sojourner was a great leader for the rights of all people, especially women and Black people. Sojourner became a key part of my Black history experiences and helped me to truly appreciate the leadership of all women and Black women in particular. I even married a Black woman who is a powerful leader in her own right. I know the power of Black history.

  Frederick Douglass was born into slavery. He never knew his birth date or the name of his father. He was forbidden to learn to read, but he learned anyway. He escaped slavery and became America’s greatest fighter against slavery and racial oppression. Douglass became a great writer and a great speaker. He used all his gifts to protect and lift Black people, women, and all people. His role in my Black history experience touched me profoundly.

  Frederick Douglass inspired me to stand up for my people and all people. He was beaten many times by the slave master when he had done nothing wrong. Frederick Douglass eventually stood up for himself. He said to the slave master, “You will not beat me this day. You may kill me, but you will not beat me.” The slave master fought with Douglass, but he did not beat or kill him. In fact, Douglass was never beaten again. Black History taught me to stand up for myself and others. I know the power of Black history.

  Black history taught me about the power of White supremacy. It was a reality in the lives of Harriet Tubman, Thurgood Marshall, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass. Black history taught me that.

  White supremacy is powerful and ever-present. It also taught me that Black people can achieve greatness in spite of White supremacy. Black history provides an antidote to White supremacy. I know the power of White supremacy. I want you to know that the power of Black history can overcome the power of White supremacy. I know the power of Black history.

EPILOGUE – We don’t know the power of our history. This is especially true of African Americans. We came from an experience where it was dangerous to claim our full history. When we cannot claim our full history, we cannot tap into our full power. Therefore, we are held down rather than lifted up by our history.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represented District 23 in the Alabama Senate from 1983 to 2018.

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