by Jonathan Gramling
|Black History Reflections
Back in the early 1970s, I found that although I was for equality and equal opportunity, I didn’t really know the story of Black people at all.
And my ignorance made me a potential pawn in the racial politics of American society, much like some of the minions of Donald Trump.
And so I got involved in Project Self-Help and Awareness, which took college students to Mississippi to work on projects like planting crops
or putting running water in old houses. And we also worked in Head Start programs. This was in rural, Black-majority counties in Mississippi,
places like Greenwood and Blackhawk.
And I remember sitting around at night and sometimes drinking a beer and listening to the elders talk about the civil rights movement. And I
grew to understand that each local community had to have its own civil rights movement to allow the local Black community to stand up to
centuries of oppression. If people didn’t stand up locally, then the movement came and went because no lasting change had been enacted.
And then at UW-Madison, I took a slew of Afro-American Studies classes that delved in literature with most of my classes being taught by
Dr. Findley Campbell who was also pretty politically active with the International Committee against Racism and the Progressive Labor Party.
Again I felt I really didn’t know. And so when the opportunity presented itself, I decided to attend Alcorn State University in Lorman,
Mississippi. A dear friend of mine, Eddie Young from Itta Bina, MS came along with a couple of friends to stay with me during their spring
break and then they invited me to visit Alcorn when UW-Madison was on break.
And so, I headed for Alcorn State University in August 1975 and stayed for two years. Alcorn had some wonderful professors who taught
history and literature and I soaked in the knowledge about Black culture, writers and history.
And I also learned some things about myself. I had a good heart, but that didn’t mean that I hadn’t been impacted by growing up in a race-
conscious society. And so I had to unpack some of the stereotypes and untruths that I had picked up along the way, sometimes being
surprised and saying to myself, “Where did that come from?” And I did this while I was a speck of salt in a shaker of pepper.
And there was a time when I thought I was going out of my mind and I made a trip to Tuscaloosa, AL where my future sister-in-law was
getting her Ph.D. And I met a friend of hers by the name of Akbar. Back then there were relatively few African Americans attending Alabama.
And I must admit that we shared a little weed and talked and talked. And we realized that we were having mirror-image experiences, his as a
Black man at a predominantly white university and me a White man at a predominantly Black university. And it blew my mind and it was just
one of those moments of truth that I will never forget.
I remember waking up and getting ready to go to class and looking in the mirror as I washed my face and saying to myself, “Wow, you look
so pale.” And I realized how my sense of normalcy had changed and I understood a little bit better the psychosocial influences of race.
And I understood the horror of slavery just a little bit better as well. In January 1977, the mini-series Roots premiered during my last semester
at Alcorn. And a group of us got together each night to watch and discuss it. There were Black and White professors in the group along with
some Black students and myself. It was an incredible mini-series to watch the first time and it was pretty impactful on all of us.
But what was most illuminating was how the climate on the Alcorn campus changed. For about two weeks, I felt somewhat isolated — there
were only 3-5 White students on campus — as it seemed the campus as a whole absorbed and digested their story as told in Roots.
And while I am sure that oral history had passed down stories of enslavement from one generation to another, Mississippi’s schools definitely
didn’t tell the story, especially from the point of view of the Africans who had been enslaved. And I felt a subtle, perhaps subconscious.
Anger that many people felt as they became woke. It’s not like anyone was mean to me or threatened me. It was just in the air. And I know
students were reevaluating me as a human being and as a White person.
That was a moment in Black history that was challenging to me, but I am so grateful that I went through it surrounded by my fellow
students. It gave me an understanding of American history that I will never forget.
As with everything else this year, Black History Month has taken on a different tone this year. In years past,
there would be celebrations like Delta Sigma Theta’s Heart & Soul Scholarship Fundraiser to go to. And there
would be different talks on Black history to go to at the Wisconsin Historical Society and other events. With
COVID-19, things have gone virtual for the most part.
And so, The Capital City Hues has taken a little different approach to its Black History Month coverage. In
some ways, we have waxed philosophically with our theme of Sankofa, a Ghanaian word that essentially that
you look to the past to understand the present and plan for the future.
And from experience, I know that it has been a struggle for African Americans to tell their story in enough
settings with enough frequency that America would finally learn from its past, not to speak for African
Americans to learn their own history outside of the plentiful stereotypes that have been offered through the