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Many agree while Black History Month is a good start bringing to light the contributions blacks have made in shaping our nation, it doesn’t go far enough.
For one thing, black history, like all history, isn’t stagnant, said William Hughes.
“In the black community our history continues from day to day,” said Hughes, a former school board member. “We always talk about our history and it evolves month to month, year to year. It’s a valued history that should be taught more in our schools.”
Many blacks who try to trace their genealogy run into roadblocks unlike others who came to the United States by choice. That’s in part because for so many years, black slaves didn’t have a last name and legal records weren’t kept in the same way they were for whites. While free blacks had legal rights, slaves did not. They were listed as property. And for so many years, it was illegal for blacks to be literate.
As a result, much of their history is not written, but is oral, Hughes said.
“There is a lot of misconception because a lot of our history, like many other cultures, is mostly verbal - passed down from generation to generation,”
Hughes said. “It’s how you evolved. (But) it’s important to know your history to know what direction you are going.”
Because reading is so important, The Fluvanna Review asked several local black residents to name a book that inspired them.
Here’s what we learned:
Hughes said he’s read several books that have influenced him, including the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, titled, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. He was also influenced by James Baldwin, who Hughes heard speak when he was in school.
“I read a lot of James Baldwin growing up,” Hughes said. “He was condemned in this country for speaking out like Langston Hughes did. James Baldwin was the first African-American back in the ‘50s brave enough to write about the African-American experience. His type of writing was the type that was more visual. He had a way with words. Was also a great orator like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr.” And because of the boldness of his writings…he migrated to France where he wouldn’t be ostracized because of his sexuality.”
Hughes cited Go Tell it On the Mountain and The Fire Next Time as some of his favorite Baldwin works.
Hughes’ son, Heath Hughes, is a teacher’s aide at Carysbrook Elementary. He said he enjoyed reading Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin. Griffin was a white journalist living in Dallas in the late ‘50s when he decided to disguise himself as a black man and travel – mostly by bus – throughout the Deep South. His book chronicles that experience.
Valerie Bradley loves the book, Chicken Soup for the African American Soul.
“It’s a collection of stories from different authors, (such as) T.J. Bishop, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Yolanda King,” Bradley said. “It helped me reading about how people dealt with difficulties in life.”
Bradley said she loves reading and started keeping a list years ago of the books she read.
“I read over 600 books, but then I lost the list,” she said. “I started a new list in September 2012 and I’ve read 75. My husband and I worked different shifts and I don’t like TV that much, so I read. We can’t afford to travel that much, but when you read, it takes you different places.”
Andrea Gaines is the communications officer for the Fluvanna County Sheriff’s Department.
The book she read that most influenced her was Native Son, by Richard Wright.
“I first read this book as a young child, and I was fascinated by its focus on the black experience in America,” Gaines wrote in an email. “I was especially interested in Wright’s style of writing; I was intrigued by how he was able to create such complex yet sympathetic characters.”
Native Son sparked Gaines’ interest in writers such as James Baldwin and W.E.B. Dubois.
“I eventually became a journalist, and I believe that reading Wright’s work at young age helped to cultivate the love for reading and writing that I have now.”
Lucille Brown said a book that touched her was the children’s book The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles.
Bridges was the first black child to integrate a white Southern elementary school,
According to Bridges’ website: “When Ruby was in kindergarten, she was one of many African-American students in New Orleans who were chosen to take a test determining whether or not she could attend a white school. It is said the test was written to be especially difficult so that students would have a hard time passing. The idea was if all the African-American children failed the test, New Orleans schools might be able to stay segregated for a while longer. She lived a mere five blocks from an all-white school, but attended kindergarten several miles away, at an all-black segregated school.”
Bridges was the subject of the famous Norman Rockwell painting, The Problem We All Live With.
What touched Brown about the story by Coles was how her teacher watched from the school window as Bridges was escorted through the jeering crowd.
“When Ruby got to class, there were no other students, just her teacher,” Brown said. “Her teacher asked her who she had been talking to. Ruby said, ‘I wasn’t talking.’ The teacher said, ‘I was watching you and I saw your mouth moving. ‘and Ruby said, ‘I was praying.’ (It touches me) Because she was so brave – just a brave little girl to be a six-year-old and to have that much faith.”
Brown’s son, Luvelle Brown, is the Ithaca City School District Superintendent and a 1992 Fluvanna High School graduate. He was recently named one of the nation’s most “tech savvy” school superintendents by eSchool News, a leading publication for educators.
Luvelle Brown said he learned a lot when he read The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson.
“This non-fiction novel is one of the most beautifully written and impactful books I’ve ever read,” Brown wrote in an email. “The book explores the experiences of three African-Americans that fled the South during what would be called the Great Migration. Previously, I had a very superficial understanding of the fear, passion, and other emotions associated with the African-American experience in the Jim Crow South. While reading Wilkerson’s novel, I felt a connection to the characters, and often felt the same emotions attributed to the book’s characters.”
Brown said he’s done a lot of research in his quest to learn more about his African-American history.
“After reading The Warmth of Other Suns, I realize that my previous knowledge of dates, historical figures, and other details have provided only a superficial understanding and appreciation of the sacrifices that preceded my existence. Having a sense of my elders’ emotions has provided a much deeper understanding.”
James Barlow is the principal of Fluvanna County High School.
A book that meant a lot to him is It Worked For Me. In Life and Leadership by Colin Powell with Tony Koltz.
“I have always admired and respected Colin Powell,” Barlow wrote in an email. “In chapter one of his book, he writes about his 13 rules. In his first rule, he writes ‘It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.’ I particularly like this rule because I have never been a worrier and he is basically saying be optimistic because every day is new, which gives you the opportunity to correct that which was wrong the day before. If a person has confidence, then regardless of how difficult the situation is, they will have the perseverance to get through it.”
Gloria Vest, along with her husband, George, has served Fluvanna County by volunteering for the Fluvanna Volunteer Rescue Squad for 40 years. Vest attends Evergreen Baptist Church and sent along a list of books she and her fellow church members have read.
“These books have motivated, inspired and gave courage. We are proud of their accomplishments,” Vest wrote to the Review.
The books are:
“12 Years A Slave” by Solomon Northup
“The Slaves Have Names” by Andi Cumbo-Floyd, a Fluvannian
“The Book of African American Poetry” by James Weldon Johnson
“Son of a Preacherman” by Marlene Banks
“The Help” by Kathryn Stockett
“Roots: The Saga of an American Family” by Alex Haley
“The African American Book of Values” edited by Steven Barboza
“The Black Poets” by Dudley Randall
“A Picture of Freedom-The Diary of Clotee - A Slave Girl - Belmont Planation, VA 1859” by Patricia McKissack
“Let the Church Say A-Men”, The Pastor’s Wife”, and “The Devil Is a Lie” by ReShonda Tate Billingsley
“Ruth’s Redemption” by Marlene Banks
“Green Wood & Archer” by Marlene Banks
“Be an Angel” by Dana Reynolds & Karen Blessen
“The People Could Fly – Black Folktales” told by Virginia Hamilton
“I Have A Dream – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr” foreword by Coretta Scott King
“Prayers That Move Mountains” by John Eckhardt
“A Book of Courage,” A Books of Thanks,” and “Always a Springtime” by Helen Steiner Rice