Beyond the Year 2050: The Coming of a Better Time
With the release of our book, Letters in Black & White, on May 23, we will be publishing several essays and reflections from co-author Winkfield Twyman, Jr. over the next few weeks. We hope you enjoy.
“Blackness is Oppression. Nothing else matters.” — a young teenager, April 21, 2018
Knitting together the different threads of black identity is a lost art. There is more to black identity than oppression.
In 1922, Mordecai Johnson delivered the commencement address at Harvard University. Johnson, the son of former slaves, chose as his topic “The Faith of the American Negro.” From his very first sentence, Johnson framed American black identity as deeply rooted in faith: “Since their emancipation from slavery, the masses of American Negroes have lived by the strength of a simple but deeply moving faith.”
The deeply moving faith was in the coming of a better time. Johnson made no mention of the word “oppression.”
Four years later, the Board of Trustees at Howard University selected Johnson as Howard’s first black president. Johnson brought his vision of the future to the presidency during a time of crisis. Yes, Black Wall Street in Tulsa was burned to the ground in 1921. And, yes, some white mobs lynched black men in the South. There was ample reason for demoralization. But the crisis did not deter Johnson. It was the coming of a better time that called Johnson as president.
The Trustees did not seek a race pioneer who could only see oppression. The Trustees wisely chose a young man of faith, intelligent and eloquent, who saw into the future a better and stronger Howard. In the coming of a better time, Johnson found his purpose and meaning.
Johnson knew a first class institution needed money and he aggressively lobbied Congress for more and more funding. He made enemies among some southern democrats but Johnson did not waver. He had a vision for Howard. Under his leadership, the annual budget increased from $100,000 in 1926 to $8 million in 1960. Johnson knew himself and his vision for Howard in the face of obstacles.
Johnson also knew he needed the best black scholars to bring Howard up in the academic world. Through his shared vision and eloquence and persuasion, he recruited super stars like Charles Hamilton Houston and Dr. Charles Drew to the law and medical school, respectively. No other historically black university could compare with Johnson’s roster of faculty stars at Howard from 1926 to 1960 when he retired.
Why is the black identity of President Mordecai Johnson relevant today for young teenagers? Young teenagers who have never known a slave can learn much from the son of former slaves.
President Johnson was a scholar. He used scholarship to uplift a university and his race. He was a race man in the best sense of the word. Blackness was scholarship, not oppression.
Second, Johnson was a man of purpose. He believed in the power of the individual. Training individuals to discover their best inner powers was Johnson’s vision for uplift. Blackness was individualism.
Third, Johnson was a man of industry. His father, an ex-slave, worked six days a week as a stationary engineer in a planing mill. And on the seventh, day, his father preached before congregants in Paris, Tennessee. Blackness was enterprise in the Johnson home.
Fourth, Johnson was a man who thought about his purpose and meaning in life. He learned these values and attitudes from his mother. His mother, a former slave, dreamed of plans for her son’s greatness from the day of his birth. She was an active and engaged mother who denied her own needs so that her son might have nice clothes and the best education possible. Blackness was faith in the coming of a better time in the Johnson home.
Finally, faculty members plotted against the visionary president on campus in the 1930s. The mediocre are always threatened by a noble presence. Johnson ignored the trolls and remained determined. Blackness was determination for the President of Howard in the 1930s.
A generation that believes Blackness is Oppression, Nothing Else Matters, is a lost generation. Little uplifting will emerge as this generation assumes the reins of power over the coming twenty years.
There is hope beyond the year 2050, however. Young children in the 2030s and 2040s will bristle and rebel against defeatist dogma that all of Blackness is Oppression. They will rediscover lives of the sons and daughters of slaves like Mordecai Johnson. They will question the suffocating definition and understanding of Blackness only as oppression. They will ask why should they live defeated lives if men like Mordecai Johnson were creating institutions over the course of 40 years in pre-civil rights America. And the young adults of the 2050s and 2060s will say “no more” to self-defeating dogma about black identity.
The best close to this essay are the final words of Johnson in his Harvard commencement address in 1922 — “When the Negro cries with pain from his deep hurt and lays his petition for elemental justice before the nation, he is calling upon the American people to kindle anew about the crucible of race relationships the fires of American faith.”
To the coming of a better time.
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