By Bhakti Larry Hough
If you’re tuned in to history, it does something to you, consciously or subconsciously. To engage it becomes an emotional, mental and spiritual exercise even if you are approaching it from an academic perspective. You realize that it is a part of you, you are a part of it, and it has something to say to you.
I am reminded of this as we observe African American Heritage Month (or Black History Month) 2019.
I’m not quite sure when I came to this realization. Perhaps it was around age six when my father, the late Rev. Glennie L. Hough, told me the story of Larry Doby, a native of Camden and a distant relative of ours. Doby had made history in Major League Baseball (MLB) by following Jackie Robinson as the second African American to integrate Major League Baseball and the first to integrate the American League. Robinson, the first to break MLB’s color barrier, had integrated the National League. Even at that age, I can remember having a deep feeling of pride in having a biological, racial, and geographical connection to a historical figure that excelled and became a shining example of possibility for people of all backgrounds. Standing a little more than four feet tall, I felt much taller.
Or perhaps this realization of history came to me at my great-grandmother Blossom Chavis Hough’s knee in the late 1960s and early 1970s as she shared stories of what life was like for African Americans living under the Jim Crow system in Darlington and Lee counties in the first half of the 20th Century. The first time I heard the name Ben Tillman (the former SC governor and senator) was when she uttered it as she shared with me what could only be described as the fear that African American people who knew about the virulent white supremacist felt. What I learned about Tillman later put meat on the bones of the information she shared with me. My own learning confirmed her story and drove home the critical importance of the firsthand stories our elders, witnesses to history, pass down to us about earlier times.
I am grateful for what my father and Grandma Blossom shared with me. That’s because despite Black History Month and the many other major local, state and national efforts to appreciate and honor African American history, there are still some aspects of it, including preservation of historic buildings, which many African Americans don’t appreciate to the degree that I wish they did. That may be a result of slavery and having been divorced from our history and the understanding and appreciation of it as a life-giving, life-preserving and empowering force. As rich and powerful a history as we have and the lessons and empowerment we can gain from it, I found as a charter member and former chairman of the SC African American Heritage Commission, that it is often dismissed and ignored by many of us. This has created in me a greater sense of urgency as a keeper of the culture and lay historian who has over my 35-year career in mass media used my platforms to expound African American history.
Therefore, as important as it is for all people to appreciate all history, it is critically important that we as African American people take responsibility for our history and not become unwitting accomplices in our own mediocrity, malaise, and sometimes failure by helping contrary forces dismiss and erase inspiring evidence of our perseverance, resilience, trials and triumphs, and greatness. A physical, social, intellectual, and cultural landscape devoid of the tangible and intangible expressions and creations of our ancestors ensures our youth see and feel no legacy of power and greatness to be inspired and motivated by and to build upon. We cannot afford that. The stakes are too high in a world where, despite major advances, so many African American youth are wandering aimlessly in the dark, ignorant of their history despite the efforts of many of their elders to show them the light that knowledge of that history could shed on their paths.
That having been said, I am encouraged and grateful for the long way that we have come in celebrating and analyzing our history and insisti that the state and nation do the same. I am happy that there are African Americans and people of many backgrounds who appreciate and seek to commemorate and celebrate African American history and culture. These people are a vibrant community of cultural values that transcends race, ethnicity, class, and geography. It’s a community that understands the contemporary relevance of history and its ability to enlighten, educate, inspire and provoke thought.
It is important and a positive reflection on our nation that we have the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, the International African American Museum which will open in Charleston next year, the Mary McLeod Bethune Birthplace and Park near Mayesville, and many other sites that document, interpret, and illuminate African American history. It is exciting and reassuring that there are African Americans and people of all backgrounds that have made vocations and avocations of various facets of African American history. After all, African American history is nothing more than American and (in our state’s case) South Carolina history that reflects African American heritage. There are persons, organizations and institutions that appreciate it for no other reason than that and want to be sure that it enjoys its rightful place in national, state and local historic narratives. Were it not for the various kinds and levels of work, support and assistance of non-African American people, organizations and institutions in African American history, the state of affairs would be dismal, indeed. Especially because of the vast resources required to do the work well and right. Black History Week and Black History Month exist because it was necessary to set a flawed historical record straight and give African American people and their journey their rightful place in it. I pray that there will come a day when a Black History Month won’t be necessary for that reason. But I don’t think we’re there yet. In the meantime, I celebrate the great progress that we have made and my ancestors who were determined to endure and survive the ultimate in inhumane treatment and indignity so that I could be here today to write about their resilience, persistence, trials and triumphs, and greatness.
African American history is an awe-inspiring story of overcoming what appeared to be insurmountable odds that anybody can be moved by. It is American history – the good, the bad and the ugly – and belongs to all of us and has lessons to teach all of us, whether we admit it or not.