by Ernie McCray
I’m enjoying the honor of helping organize the African American Male Intergenerational Conference that will be held on June 5th and 6th at the Educational Cultural Complex.
The experience has made me think of all the identities I’ve answered to in my 71 years. I entered the world a little colored baby boy and before I could say Jack Robinson, voila, I was a Negro.
But, like so many of my race back then, I wasn’t particularly excited about who I was or wasn’t identity-wise, until we, my people, ourselves, chose to be black. Oh, did we ever run with that, taking our struggle for equality to the streets to a “Say it out loud, I’m black and I’m proud” rhythm and beat.
Hope coursed through our veins as we got our people out to vote and got those who were in our corner elected with our vote, as we climbed high up ladders of success both in the public and private domains.
Then, with the passing of a few years, we evolved into African Americans and I’ve always liked the ring of that. Jess B. Semple, one of Langston Hughes’s memorable characters, spoke to the homeland part of that Identity when he said: “They drug me over here from Africa, slaved me, Jim Crowed me…” And it was America where they drug him to so, to me, African American defines our ethnicity rather adequately.
But who are we, really, we African Americans? When we gather together at ECC I hope we explore that question ever so deeply. The theme of the conference, “From Boys to Men: Understanding our Legacy and Responsibility,” demands that we – in honor of our ancestors – clarify and refine and take who we are to some higher place.
In tribute to the likes of Frederick Douglass, a slave who discovered that learning how to read and write was his pathway to freedom, we have to find ways to help our children value learning as much as they treasure the air they breathe.
I mean if they don’t become active learners how will they ever: shed the overly negative and hedonistic images assigned to them on BET and MTV; deal with health problems like AIDS and diabetes that are affecting more and more of their lives; prevent babies from having babies or curtail the drive-by shootings that leave them wounded or dead in their hoods; love and respect and trust each other so they can not only survive but carve out careers for themselves and create businesses that can bring economic stability to their imperiled communities?
I’m sure our keynote speaker, Reverend Art Cribbs, will help us put such crises in perspective. A lifelong learner he has embodied a spirit of love and a pursuit of justice and hope in all his life endeavors – as a: playwright, a newscaster, a promoter of the arts and culture, a husband, a father, and a highly respected former pastor of the Christian Fellowship Congregational Church in San Diego.
Knowing him I’m fully confident that he’ll set the proper tone, especially for a workshop the faith community is conducting that will focus on my earlier question: Who are we, we African Americans? In answering that question I hope we define ourselves as a people who are proud of our heritage and willing to continue our ancestors’ long arduous journey on the road to human dignity.
I’m hoping we come out of the gathering ready not only to dedicate our talents and skills to the betterment of African Americans but also to our nation, as a whole, so that it can fulfill the dream that it says it embraces: full and equal opportunity for all.
When Jess B. Semple made his statements about being drug from Africa, he did so from the perspective of an angry Harlemite who wanted to snub his nose in vengeance at the white world, to which Langston Hughes said: “What Harlem ought to hold out to the world from its windows is a friendly hand, not a belligerent attitude.”
If this conference inspired its participants to commit to such a loving sentiment it would, at the same time, add a wonderful nuance to the very concept of being an African American – making our identity more promising and hopeful in a world that needs all the love it can get.