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African Americans Seeking Their Dreams

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10.02.17

African Americans Seeking Their Dreams
National Black History Month is traditionally observed in February to connect with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln on the 12th and Frederick Douglass on the 14th.  In recognition of the centennial of the National Urban League, the 2010 theme is “The History of Black Economic Empowerment”.
African Americans have had to overcome many obstacles to their participation in the American dream, beginning with enslavement for two centuries.  Following emancipation, they struggled to find work, education, the right to own property, the right to vote, the chance to move beyond sharecropping and day labor.  Through determined effort, African Americans became landowners, skilled workers, businessmen and women, professionals, educators and ministers.  They started their own unions and professional associations, and preached racial or collective uplift rather than individual self-reliance.  In 1910, a group of reformers, black and white, established what became the National Urban League to address the needs of African Americans as they migrated to the cities of the United States.  Throughout their hundred years, their purpose has been to open the doors of opportunity, economic and otherwise, for succeeding generations.
To trace the paths of African Americans as they seek their American dreams, try these very interesting accounts.
The Gilded Age
“Passing Strange: a Gilded Age tale of love and deception across the color line” by Martha A. Sandweiss is the biography of Clarence King (1842-1901), a hero of nineteenth-century western history. Brilliant scientist and witty conversationalist, bestselling author and architect of the great surveys that mapped the West after the Civil War, King hid a secret from his Gilded Age cohorts and prominent Newport family: for thirteen years he lived a double life--as the celebrated white Clarence King and as a black Pullman porter and steelworker. Unable to marry the black woman he loved, the fair-haired, blue-eyed King passed as a Negro, revealing his secret to his wife Ada only on his deathbed. Historian Sandweiss is the first writer to uncover the life that King tried so hard to conceal. She reveals the complexity of a man who, while publicly espousing a personal dream of a uniquely American amalgam of white and black, hid his love for his wife and their five biracial children.
Harlem Renaissance
Sisters Sadie and Elizabeth Delaney left their home in North Carolina for Harlem, where they were nurtured by the community of artists and professionals and pursued professional lives in dentistry and home economics education.  “Having Our Say” was written as they approached their 100th birthdays.
The 1930s
In “The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the concert that awakened America”, civil rights historian Ray Arsenault describes the dramatic story behind Anderson's concert at the Lincoln Memorial-an early milestone in civil rights history-on the seventieth anniversary of her performance. On Easter Sunday 1939, the brilliant vocalist Marian Anderson sang before a throng of seventy-five thousand at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington-an electrifying moment and an under- appreciated milestone in civil rights history. Though she was at the peak of a dazzling career, Anderson had been barred from performing at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall because she was black. When Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR over the incident and took up Anderson's cause, however, it became a national issue. Like a female Jackie Robinson, but several years before his breakthrough, Anderson rose to a pressure-filled and politically charged occasion with dignity and courage, and struck a vital blow for civil rights. In the 1963 March on Washington, Martin Luther King would follow, literally, in her footsteps. This biography captures the struggle for racial equality in 1930s America, the quiet heroism of Marian Anderson, and a moment that inspired blacks and whites alike.
Segregated Military
As late as World War II, the armed forces were segregated and black soldiers were assigned some of the most difficult tasks by officials who saw them as expendable.  James McBride’s “Miracle at St. Anna”, a novel based on real events, tells the story of four buffalo soldiers of the 92d Infantry Division attacking impregnable German fortifications in the western mountains of Italy.  During the Winter Olympics in Turin, Tom Brokaw interviewed Medal of Honor recipient Vernon Baker, a surviving soldier from that campaign.  Another survivor, James Harden Daugherty, wrote a memoir of that campaign in 1947.  Published 60 years later, “The Buffalo Saga”, has an affecting honesty and immediacy.
The Civil Rights Era
The road to economic prosperity for African Americans has been long and hard.  Black soldiers who were warmly welcomed by the Italians returned to discrimination and poverty after the war.  Women still worked as domestics for well-to-do white families.  This is the setting for Kathryn Stockett’s novel ”The Help”, in which two black maids reluctantly tell their stories to a young white writer in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s.  The writer risks her career, but the maids risk their lives in this racially taut era of the civil rights movement.
Passing Shock
Throughout the twentieth century, racial identity has continued to percolate as a social issue.  Bliss Broyard shares her perspective in her 2007 biography, “One Drop: my father’s hidden life: a story of race and family secrets”.  Two months before he died of cancer, renowned literary critic Anatole Broyard called his grown son and daughter to his side, to reveal a secret he had kept all their lives and most of his own: he was black. His daughter Bliss learned that her WASPy, privileged Connecticut childhood had come at a price. Ever since his own parents, New Orleans Creoles, had moved to Brooklyn and began to "pass" in order to get work, Anatole had learned to conceal his racial identity. As he grew older and entered the ranks of the New York literary élite, he maintained the façade. Now his daughter tries to make sense of his choices and the impact of this revelation on her own life. She searches out the family she never knew in New York and New Orleans, and considers the profound consequences of racial identity.
Beyond Race
The most visible example of the transformation of attitudes about race and identity is the election of Barack Obama to the presidency.  He explores his mixed racial heritage in the thoughtful memoir, “Dreams from My Father”, a book which transcends race and looks forward to the time when racial identity is no longer a limiting issue.  For a fascinating look at the myriad of races and cultures that make up the United States, check out Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s series, “Faces of America”, airing Wednesdays on PBS.
And for these books and more on African American history, visit www.tcplweb.org or call 988-2541.

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