By KALYN MENIFEE– February is a time when black people come together to celebrate and show off our cultural muscles, a time where we get a little more recognition in the media as something other than rappers, basketball players, and other often used stereotypes. During this month however, other races seem to oversaturate it and turn it into ‘Martin Luther King and Ruby Bridges Week” and miss all the rich history that the black community has, while cramming every time Martin Luther King even said the word ‘colored’ into a week-long bonanza just to get it over with. Ironically enough, it seems that people of other races somewhat ignore the rich culture the black community has instead of listening and learning about the trials and tribulations of the black community during black history month.
Black innovations have helped the United States since its founding, and it does the community a disservice to pretend we only play sports, rap, and get shot – and an even bigger disservice to pretend that the only and biggest advocate for black people was Martin Luther King.
A trans woman by the name of Marsha P. Johnson, threw the first stone at the infamous Stonewall riots in 1969; an African-American, fed up with the autocratic systems in place telling her who she could and couldn’t love began a movement that would have rippling effects even today. In the 2015 movie Stonewall however, she and her Puerto Rican drag queen counterpart Sylvia Rivera are completely erased, and were instead replaced by a white actor with a cheap haircut that would be better fitting in a backyard remake of the famous musical Grease than a historical fiction movie about the start of a nationwide LGBT movement.
Angela Yvonne Davis, leader of a branch of the communist party in the 1960s wrote Women, Culture, & Politics and was one of the most prominent female activists of her time and had radical views about black people and black culture and taught them to any person who would lend an ear. She went to both Brandeis University and the University of California where she was a member of the Black Panther Party, but she also spent her time with the Che-Lumumba Club, which was an all black branch of the Communist Party. She then taught at the University of California, where she faced struggles because of her affiliation with Communism, but still works there today.
As well as activism, black people pioneered forms of music, such as jazz, blues, and rock and roll, as well as R&B and soul music. The creator of that classic rock and roll sound, many may not believe it, or even want to, was a black woman by the name of Rosetta Tharpe. Rock and roll was an illegitimate lovechild of blues. With its fierce rhythms and charged lyrics, it was an evolution of gospel music used in the time of slavery. A pioneer of rock, Little Richard told Time in 2001, “There wasn’t nobody playing it at the time but black people — myself, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry. White kids started paying more attention to this music, white girls were going over to this music, they needed somebody to come in there — like Elvis.” Black people had these and other genres perfected down to every last note.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a self-taught guitarist who successfully crossed over from gospel music to rock ‘n’ roll. “If you look back at the most influential musicians of the 20th century, she’s probably in the top 10,” Bob Merz, a Pennsylvania-based writer and publisher who once organized a benefit concert to pay for a memorial for Tharpe, told NPR. Elvis got much inspiration from her, as well as any musician that dared call themselves a pioneer of rock and roll.
Jimi Hendrix, the most innovative and stunning electric guitarist to ever grace a stage with his music, was (guess what) a fan of rock and roll and blues growing up. According to Biography.com: “In many ways, music became a sanctuary for Hendrix. He was a fan of blues and rock and roll, and with his father’s encouragement, taught himself to play guitar. When Hendrix was 16, his father bought him his first acoustic, and the next year his first electric guitar—a right-handed Supro Ozark that the natural lefty had to flip upside down to play.” He was in the military for a few years, but later went into a full career of music under the name Jimmy James and played backup for many of the prominent rock musicians of the time. He later changed his name once he became more recognized. Released in 1967, the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s first single, “Hey Joe,” was an instant smash in Britain and was soon followed by hits such as “Purple Haze” and “The Wind Cries Mary.” He became a hit overnight and the world fell to his feet. After riding high for two more albums, and many more singles, Jimmy tragically died from drug complications in 1970.
There can be no mistake that black people are proud of their culture, built on such sturdy roots to come out of a situation that is the equivalent of a genocide to our values and traditions, and who have built another culture all our own that others envy and copy, even with the struggles we have. One can only say that the black community is more than resilient, it is thriving in the harshest of environments.
[Photo by Sister Rosetta Tharpe courtesy of wfmu.org]