The Beautiful Gift of My Black History
I’ve learned to appreciate my parents’ intentional storytelling.
Growing up, I was always keenly aware that my parents were older than all of my friends’ parents. I was born in the late 1960s; my parents in the 1920s. Sometimes it was so frustrating when, my mother, in particular, raised my sisters and me in ways that seemed so old-fashioned. Yet, when I look back with grown eyes, I realize what a blessing it was to have been nurtured with the steady calm, seasoned discernment, and wisdom of two people who’d seen it all.
Although I can’t recall either of them giving me structured lessons in Black history, they gave me something even better. They shared their experiences and told stories that painted a broad picture of struggle and pride — not to mention the fantastical descriptions of early and mid-century New York City and Washington, DC— the places where my parents came of age.
Much of what I learned was anchored in the everyday, ordinary lessons of resilience — the “make do” mentality that was behind my great-grandmother’s rent parties in her West Harlem tenement. Born in 1879, she’d migrated to New York from South Carolina at the beginning of the Great Depression, just before the curtain went down on the Harlem Renassaince.
After moving to DC in his teens, my father shined shoes for five cents at the market on the weekends. Then, there were the evenings when Mom and her five siblings had nothing but sardines for dinner because there was no money for a working stove.
I heard plenty more stories about growing up poor and navigating the de facto segregation that defined our nation’s capital. Yet, in spite of it, a thriving Black middle-class emerged and built a community that included the city’s only amusement park, Suburban Gardens, designed by architectural engineer Howard D. Woodson.
Ultimately, the theme of childhood poverty was replaced by the glamourous life — mesmerizing performances of Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey, Duke Ellington, and others who played the Howard Theater, as well as the venues located along the famed 14th and U corridor, aka Black Broadway. There were matinee movies at the Dunbar Theater and dancing all night at the Lincoln Colonnade.
I heard stories about driving down to Carr’s Beach, a historic Black beach in Southern Maryland, to see Dinah Washington perform while on the Chitlin’ Circuit. My mother, too, was a singer — albeit an aspiring one. She and two of her high school friends started a girl group in the late-1940s, and they even performed at Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater. Afterward, they mingled with celebrities at the nearby Hotel Theresa.
There were also tales of military heroes — my father’s chance encounter with General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., the country’s first Black brigadier general. And there was that life-changing plane ride Dad had with Captain Howard Baugh, a young pilot and member of a group that would later be known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
My father’s own military experience would take him into World War II by way of Camp Robert Smalls, a segregated Navy boot camp named after a formerly enslaved Civil War Naval hero. Interesting Fact: It was here that talented Black musicians turned barracks #1812 into an incubator for musical mastery. Ship’s Company A Band rocked the camp with the velvety sounds of jazz and patriotic, big band numbers. After the war, many of these musicians went on to perform with the likes of Quincy Jones and Dizzy Gillespie.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention HBCUs. I practically grew up on the campus of Howard University, Dad’s alma mater (and mine, too). He also studied at Hampton University during his Navy years, a place he referred to as “next to heaven” because there were so many beautiful young women there who outnumbered the men.
As much as I’d heard these stories over the years — sometimes listening with amusement, other times with annoyance at their frequency — I have to admit that the most impactful lessons regarding the strength and pure awesomeness of Black people came from not one of those stories.
For the most part, I was inspired by simply observing not just my parents, but their parents, too. Both of my maternal grandparents were born in 1900. I also watched my aunts, uncles, family friends, and the proud suit-and-hat-wearing members of the A.M.E. Zion Church I grew up in — all from the Greatest and Silent Generations, those born between 1900 and 1945 — most of whom are ancestors now.
Let me tell you, there’s no group of people more dignified than the Black Americans born into these aforementioned generations (and perhaps, even the previous one). They were brought up at a time when real success was finally within their reach and the cost of failure was steep. Hell. The cost of success was often steep since white America often found a way to dismantle or destroy what was gained.
Black America’s survival depended on its ability to employ a unique type of fortitude, a twice-as-good excellence, and endless ingenuity while looking good in the process. An exhausting way to live, it was. But those generations knew nothing less. It was in their DNA to fight; to get back up stronger every time they were knocked down.
That DNA lives on.
My history is empowering because the ancestors left behind a priceless gift. One wrapped with sacrifices and taped together with opportunities never afforded. And still, the gift is a blueprint — an incredible legacy of hard-fought achievements that were realized in a “sea of oppression.” So while we may not be in the promised land yet, we have clear instructions on how to get there.