The “back then” of Thurston’s [Queen Thurston who grew up in the 1940s childhood in West Oakland] memory is just one thread in the fabric of African-American history that the nation began commemorating Tuesday as part of Black History Month. The United States and Canada made it official in 1976, when Negro History Week was expanded to a monthlong period of observation and remembrance of the struggles and achievements of African-Americans. Other calendar dates are set aside to celebrate Mexican, Filipino, Tibetan, Jewish and Irish histories.
Black History Month events are scheduled throughout the Bay Area over the next four weeks as churches, bookstores, museums and community centers such as the West Oakland Senior Center, where Thurston is a member, do their part to reactivate this chapter of the American story.
Perhaps never before has the African-American story been so fraught with contradictions. President Barack Obama’s election shattered a moral and racial barrier, and it crystallized centuries of African-American progress. Black history is now, more than ever before, American history. At the same time, however, black America is a fragmented notion. Disparities between the wealthy elite, the growing middle class and the disenfranchised urban poor are starker than ever.
Oakland, a bastion of proud black history, is also an epicenter of its fragmentation. According to a study released this week by the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., Alameda County is the second-deadliest county in California per capita for youths ages 10 to 24, trailing only Monterey County. This is particularly true for young African-American men, who are 14 times as likely as their white counterparts to die violent deaths, most often by handgun.
Increasingly, experts say they think the best way to mitigate this violence is to emphasize to youths the importance of elders, mentors and a sense of place in a larger history. As Black History Month begins, elders in the community are speaking about what they have learned–and what they can offer.
A common refrain among an older generation of African-Americans in Oakland has to do with the slow erosion of the social webbing that bound their communities together as children.
“We respected our parents to the utmost,” said Sandra Johnson Simon, a 61-year old lifelong resident of West Oakland, “Nowadays, to me, it seems like a lot of these kids don’t understand the definition of family.”
She [Elizabeth Webb] began to teach herself the African-American history that she had never been exposed to in Detroit, where she grew up. She belongs to the Black History Committee at her Berkeley church. In addition, she’s in charge of tracing her family’s genealogy.