BY HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – Friday marked the inaugural banquet of the forming St. Petersburg chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, otherwise known as ASALH.
The St. Petersburg Yacht Club, located at 11 Central Ave., was filled with members and perspective members celebrating black history and what needs to be done in the community to ensure that African Americans are on an equal playing field when it comes to economic status, education and respect.
ASALH was founded in 1915 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in response to the lack of information on the accomplishments of African Americans. Woodson is known for establishing Negro History Week in 1926, which became a month long celebration in 1976.
“It is important that we continue to learn from scholars, particularly scholars who are activists,” said Imam Askia Muhammad Aquil, ASALH Chaplain. He feels that it is necessary for African Americans to work toward being as competitive as possible in the global marketplace while learning how to cooperate and work together. “We need to build a society and a world that reflects the compassion, the equality, the human dignity that we all should want to see and that we should work together to bring about.”
The mission of ASALH is to disseminate information about black life to not only other cultures, but to the younger generations of African Americans who have grown up to enjoy voting rights and a life outside of segregation. With the movie industry cashing in on movies such “Selma” and “12 Years a Slave,” activist Dr. Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich feels that groups such as ASALH are needed to counter the misrepresentation or misunderstanding of African Americans as portrayed on the big screen.
“Movies are entertainment,” she said. “African Americans who are not old enough to have been there during the Civil Rights Movement need to understand what really occurred.”
Keynote speaker Dr. Richard Joseph gave his perspective from an African scholar’s point of view. Joseph is the John Evans Professor of International History and Politics at Northwestern University. He focuses on African governance, political economy and democratization and was brought in by ASALH to mark the importance of the St. Petersburg chapter.
Having been a teenager during the Civil Rights Movement, Joseph experienced firsthand what it was like to march and protest for the right to vote in America. This Oxford educated professor has taught at universities around the world but admits that until he traveled to Montgomery, Ala., to take part in volunteer efforts to assist the marches and to conduct voter registration drives, he was ignorant about the struggles of black Americans.
“I never fully understood the tragedy of the black experience in the United States until I spent a few months in the summer of 1967 smack in the Mississippi Delta,” he said.
Joseph recalls waving down Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in order to speak with him on the movement only to reflect later how easy it had been for him to get so close to civil rights martyr. The courage it took for Dr. King to go from city to city, street to street knowing at any time one shot could ring out and it would all be over.
Joseph insists that the Civil Rights Movement was only half accomplished as today America is still struggling with cohesiveness. The professor, who has given lectures all over the world, went so far as to state his beliefs that Malcolm X was the closest leader, in his opinion, in detecting the true pulse of the movement before he veered off course and introduced violence to his cause.
“I believe there has to be a nationalist black revolution in America of black people regaining a sense of dignity in themselves, in their color, their features, their cultures and in their humanity,” said Joseph. He believes that black Americans of today should not be afraid to confront certain aspects of the African American reality, as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, along with others in their day did.
Joseph stated that he feels Americans of all generations, classes and ethnicities are more equipped today to confront what lies beneath slogans such as, “Black Lives Matter,” “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe.” But he warns such confrontation will not occur on their own and the conversation between the races needs to begin in order to overcome black marginalization, multi-generational black poverty and social pathologies among disadvantaged blacks.
“You cannot have half of your incarcerated population consisting of one ethnic group, who represent 14 percent of your general population,” he said pointing to the fact that more blacks are jailed in regards to their overall population than their white counterparts.
Joseph sees a role for the ASALH and other civic organizations to play in St. Petersburg and around the world in order to meet the challenge of reversing black stereotypes and reestablishing a peaceful civil rights movement.
“The uplifting in African Americans today and the breaking of the attitude of practices transmitted across generations will require a massive investment in education, job training and cultural initiatives,” said Joseph who explained that children of educated persons put their children on the up escalator starting from interactions in the cradle.
He further stated that the global economy should not dictate the rise or fall of African Americans but that with the Civil Rights Movement, affirmative action and many other social efforts having come and gone, it has left behind communities of deprivation often defined by color and race.
Joseph argues that intervention is needed to get black Americans back on board with their fight for equality. “These activities must involve the designing and implementation of African Americans themselves.”
The evening continued with a question and answer period and Joseph promising to continue the lively discussion at a later date.
Poetess R. MonaLeza wrote and performed a special poem to mark the occasion called “The Fabric of a Story.”
The Fabric of a Story
A little girl sat on her Grandma’s knee
and pointed at a quilt on the wall;
Me Maw why isn’t that on your bed?
Well child, it was made to remember the dead
You see long ago our ancestors
weren’t allowed to read or write
so we used cloth, needle and thread
to tell a story without a word being said
That quilt is a history of your family tree
of marriages, births, passing on, and being free.
A little boy sat on his Grandpa’s knee
and swayed to music on the record player
Paw Paw no one plays records anymore,
Well child they sure do have memories I adore
You see music came from freedom songs
Sung in the fields and the churches
to make the struggles of every day
keep the sadness and fear away.
Along came The Duke, Holiday and Nina Simone
shaping modern music and giving it tone.
A little girl sat on her Mother’s knee,
touching the pages of a heavy book.
MaMa what do these words say?
Well child, they tell stories through poetry.
You see, all those patches on the quilt
could finally be put to paper with pen
this way we could learn about our past
and make sure our history would forever last.
Poems from Gwendolyn, Maya and Langston Hughes,
would touch hearts and give beauty to the blues.