Tomorrow marks the beginning of Black History Month, which I’ve always known to be an annual celebration recognizing the achievements made by African Americans, and their role in U.S. history. But I recently became curious about how this month of celebration and appreciation came into being. After decades of cultural awareness raised by historians and leaders inside and outside of the black community, like Carter G. Woodson and Jesse E. Moorland, and after the protests and marches of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, President Gerald Ford officially recognized February as, “Black History Month” in 1976. After all that we’ve experienced in 2020 and already in 2021, this 45th official celebration resonates with me more than ever before.
In the early inception of celebrating Black History in the 1920s, Carter G. Woodson believed that history was made by the people, not just primarily by great men. He envisioned, "the study and celebration of African Americans as a race, not simply as the producers of great men." He believed that while we should revere Abraham Lincoln and his political push towards emancipation, we should also equally revere and celebrate the hundreds of thousands of black soldiers and sailors, men who fought on the ground, in the battle to bring about the physical change. He urged the black community, and all Americans, to focus on the countless black men and women who had contributed to the advance of human civilization. That belief has really connected with me as I reflect on Black History Month, and I couldn't help but be reminded of my encounters with Markell and Yinka, in Selma and in Washington D.C.
It’s been seven months since I met Markell and Yinka while traveling across the country from Santa Barbara to New York and it's made me think about where we were as a country then and where we are now. When I chatted with them back in June, we were staring down the barrel of racism in a very raw way. George Floyd had just been killed and there was civil unrest across the country. Both young men were taking action and peacefully protesting, saying that the time to unite around systemic racism was now. George Floyd’s death felt like a tipping point. And yet, the murder of Breonna Taylor resurfaced, the careless shooting of Jacob Blake and too many others occurred after George Floyd’s death. During those days, I felt so much shame that this was the America I was living in and it was hard to not feel like it was ever going to change. But another feeling that grew from meeting Markell and Yinka was a kind of lasting awe. Here these two men were, standing alone, peacefully, with nothing but a sign. Some bypassers stopping, some honking their horns in support, but most not giving them the time of day. And yet they believed deeply that their actions could create positive change. They believed that while we have come so far, we haven't come far enough. The many insidious ways that racism continues to play out every day is a reminder that this journey has been a long one and hasn’t reached its destination. That the resilience of the underserved and undervalued is both heartbreaking and remarkable and that it is our moral obligation as a human race to ask for more of ourselves and join the metaphorical or literal march together, to unite a nation and advocate for those who have been sidelined for too long.
We can celebrate how far we’ve come AND we can also understand that we have further to go. We can be proud to live in America, and also be ashamed at some of its failings. Two contrarian views can exist, in fact need to exist. It’s an imperative as we work towards creating what the Founders hoped for... “A more perfect union.”
And so, I’m shining a light on Markell and Yinka again today and retelling their story. And although this story was written seven months ago, the struggles they shared are still present today. We have come far and we have not come far enough. The work continues for all of us.
Markell and Yinka are two men inspired to not only talk the talk, but to walk the walk and their beliefs run deep. I moved to America at the age of 25, without the full understanding of race relations in America. So, I wanted to take this opportunity to learn more. When Jeffrey and I walked the bridge in Selma, AL, our idea of how that would feel cracked wide open. It felt heavy… and I thought the bridge was going to feel like walking over a rainbow with shiny, grand monuments to those who fought for civil rights at the end like a pot of gold. Sadly, this bridge, this city, and the memorials that stand around it are far too inadequate in my view. And I wondered, how can a bridge that has symbolized the fight for civil justice for blacks in America still be named after a man who was a highly visible supporter of the Ku Klux Klan?
On our walk back from the bridge, we met Markell. He was by himself on the street corner protesting for justice for George Floyd. A single person on an empty street in downtown Selma. A stark contrast to the visual of the bridge where, 55 years ago on March 7, 1965 around 600 people led by Martin Luther King Jr crossed this very bridge, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in an attempt to begin the Selma to Montgomery march. Back then, state troopers violently attacked the peaceful demonstrators to stop the march for voting rights. Markell, Jeffrey and I chatted but mostly listened to him for close to an hour. He said, "I'm angry. I've had enough, I've seen enough marginalization, I feel like peaceful protesting has led to no change, I don't feel heard, I don't feel equal, I don't feel valued, I feel there’s no justice and I don't feel like someone like me has a chance." He explained that the annual budget allocated to Selma hasn't changed in 20 years. "How can education, business, healthcare and housing advance in a city that's operating on a budget set in 2000?" In all this despair, Markell is still out there by himself on an empty street in Selma, Alabama in the heat and humidity, believing that one man can create change.
As this week progressed and my outrage grew along with many in the country, we took another detour to Washington, DC to be part of the protesting. It was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that I met Yinka, well away from the protests. Another man by himself standing with his conviction that civil rights are an essential component of America. It was Tuesday, 90 degrees and humid and Yinka had been standing in the same spot all day, every day since Saturday. This is the location where two of the greatest speeches on ideology by Lincoln - his Gettysburg address and his second inauguration speech, are memorialized, and where Martin Luther King Jr’s, “I Have a Dream" speech was delivered. He chose this spot because he believes people need to be reminded that the message of this memorial is incomplete. I was eager to learn more about him and his thoughts.
(left) Crowds gather in front of the Lincoln Memorial during Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech in 1963 (Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) and (right) Yinka protesting in front of the Lincoln Memorial. (photograph by Caroline Diani)
Yinka was Born on the south side of Chicago which is majority black and not an affluent area, but his parents were able to send him to a private school. Being on the outside as a black kid in a white classroom while growing up in a mostly black neighborhood, he’s been exposed to both sides of the coin. It’s the reason he says he doesn't just wear a sign that mentions, "Black Lives Matter”, even though he believes wholeheartedly in the sentiment.
He says, “Race is at the core, but it's a lot bigger than that. Telling people to stop being racist is only one element of what we’re trying to achieve. It’s also about getting everyone to recognize that if anyone is treated less than an American, our American ideals are not being met. It’s really about ideals rather than this siloed and acute idea of justice for black people. I think we need to recast the way we talk about the race issue. I’m getting so tired of people saying that black people are waiting for white people to help them with racial justice. That would be just them helping themselves… when you say you’re helping someone, the subtext is that it’s pro bono. That’s not how it is for black people. We’re protesting and speaking up for the American ideals. Someone just has to read the Constitution to know that we’re talking about American ideals. And white people need to be conscious that for every second those ideals aren’t being met, we’re all losing and not living the American Dream. What I would ask people is that if you think that being wealthy, comfortable and protected by government is living the American Dream, then there are wealthy people living in every single country in the world who are comfortable. That’s not just the American Dream to be wealthy and live in comfort… you can find that in China, Russia, England, anywhere. That’s not the idea. The idea in the Declaration of Independence is, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed’. Until we, the people are treated the same under the rule of law and have the same opportunity as everyone else and, as long as those ideas are not being completed, you can switch out any place in America for other places in the world...we’re just like any other country in the world. America loves to be perceived as exceptional, but there’s nothing exceptional about America unless we begin to embody those ideals."
Einstein is one of Yinka's heroes. He explained that he’s always enjoyed the idea of chiseling away at big human questions like how we can all live equitably, the dynamics behind human behavior, the rule of law, economics, government, policy and politics. So, he studied economics then took a couple of years to travel parts of the world that interested him and, since, has been studying for his Juris Doctor in law at Georgetown. "I figured here I could plug in all my ideas and experiences. And more than any dream to have a law degree or a specific career at the end of this, philosophically, I believe the best way to live is to be a representative of what you think humans should be. I want to strive to live the life an ideal human should live."
He pointed to an issue he believes as true in America. "We align ourselves around systems and institutions that will protect us. America protects white people who have capital. As long as the institution is protecting you, you’re going to support it. It’s a psychological thing… it’s like safety... law and order is a soothing thing for white people with capital… someone is protecting them from the 'boogie man' and that holds value.”
And this is essentially the same idea that Markell expressed in Selma. Markell had a different upbringing than Yinka and is on the other end of the spectrum when it comes to education and economics. They live in two politically opposing cities. And yet they share so much - both cities are rich in history surrounding civil rights. And Markell and Yinka have the same heart and the same core value and ideal that was set into motion with the Constitution, the words spoken by Lincoln and the activism of Martin Luther King Jr. To quote Martin Luther King Jr from August 28th, 1963, who stood where Yinka is standing in the photograph above, "In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the 'unalienable Rights' of 'Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.' It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds’."
(photograph by Jeffrey Doornbos)
Yinka said, "There’s something so ironic and symbolic with how George Floyd died. People I know in the black community say it frequently that when they’re in America, they feel suffocated and that they can’t breathe because of the racial tension, but, as soon as they leave the country to travel, the energy changes. Your spiritual breath is shallow, you’re not able to fully realize your full expression in the same way you are when you go to places in the world where there isn’t the insidious racial tension. Even though I’ve had a great education at an elite law school, work for a law firm, have some money and am about to get my Juris Doctor and go to Paris to get a masters, I can still feel the tension. But as soon as I touch down in another country, I feel like I can breathe because I’m out of the boiling pot of America."
When I think about the idea of the American Dream being incomplete, I wonder how many people have left this country to pursue a life in a country where they feel that they can fully express themselves and be emboldened by the dream. People who are brilliant thinkers and luminaries like Yinka. We can’t afford to lose them.
I've been struck by two thoughts on this journey. The first being the notion of challenging the idea that, to just be wealthy and comfortable means you’re living The American Dream. I'm incredibly blessed and grateful for all that I've achieved here in America, but I wonder, how can I truly be content with what I have if I know there are so many others who aren't being given equal opportunity or equal justice? The second, and most important is that I often wonder about what difference my solo actions make in the scheme of things. But having met these two men, I've been inspired to take action. Their solo acts of protest have activated in me a desire not just to hold up the mirror and explore my own biases and preconceived ideas of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but to explore ways of doing my part to complete the American Dream.