Category Archives: Black History BFSA Articles

Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs published the original #metoo in 1860, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself.” Following on the heels of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Jacobs knew the real challenge in writing her story, the first Woman’s Slave Narrative written, would be to be believable to the white women of the North- her intended audience. She feared writing the full truth of the sexual predation she and other slave women had endured would only make white women view her as reaching for sympathy she didn’t deserve- she feared victim blaming. “There are some things that I might have made plainer I know… I have left nothing out but what I thought the world might believe that a Slave Woman was too willing to pour out—that she might gain their sympathies” Jacobs wrote to abolitionist Quaker Amy Post upon completing “Incidents” in 1860. (Harriet A. Jacobs,

Perhaps because of her relationships with white women abolitionists, like Post, and Lydia Maria Child, who would edit “Incidents,” Jacobs knew well the minefield she was tip-toeing through in recounting how slave owner Dr. James Norcom pursued her through his home beginning when she was 15 years old. Norcom preferred to attempt to coerce Jacobs into acquiescing to his desires, which he would whisper into Jacobs’ ear as she attempted to complete her work in the Norcom house. She lived under the constant threat of knowing, at any time, Norcom could become bored with his games, and simply rape her, if he wanted. And it would be her fault, as the exotic savage tempting her good white owner. It wouldn’t matter that she had constantly rebuffed his advances and avoided being anywhere near him. Her escape became another white man, a local lawyer whom Jacobs found a taste of freedom with- in making her choice of lover. She hoped, also, the lawyer would buy her physical freedom, or at least that of the two children they shared. A hope that would go unfulfilled.

Jacobs was well educated by Margaret Horniblow, the woman who had owned her and her mother. Before her mother died, Jacobs was blissfully unaware, as she recalled, of her status as a slave. She lived happily with her family on the Horniblow property, and her education was overseen by Margaret. At age six, Jacobs’ mother died, and she officially became the property of Margaret, who continued to educate Jacobs, until Margaret’s death, just six years after Jacobs lost her mother. At age 12, Jacobs entered the Norcom home as the willed house girl to Horniblow’s 3 year old niece. Because Jacobs had been educated, she was well aware of the precarious nature of her life at that time; and years later, preparing to publish “Incidents,” she was painfully aware of how the pious society of white women of the North would receive a story of two white men lusting after a young black girl.

She had anticipated her audience well. In 1860, it was easier for her white counterparts to focus on Jacobs’ unwavering determination applied to freeing her people, and then educating freedmen, rather than recall her history with her white owners and lover, and her accounts of the treatment of other women held as slaves at the hands of their white women owners; which were cruel beyond contemplation. Indeed, while “Incidents” was a great motivator in both the States and Europe to end slavery, and Jacobs herself was active in gaining strength and support for the Civil War in the North, her story would not be published again until more than 100 years after the initial publication, in 1973.

Jacobs would have two children by Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, the lawyer whom she allied herself with as protection against Norcom. Undeterred by her relationship with Sawyer, Norcom continued to pursue Jacobs, and she continued to thwart his advances. In 1835, 10 years after her arrival, Norcom threatened to send Jacobs and her children to work on his plantation, for the children to be “broke-in” to punish Jacobs. Anticipating Norcom would no longer be a threat to her children if she disappeared, Jacobs made Norcom believe she had run away. Jacobs asked Sawyer to buy his children from Norcom, and to emancipate the children as soon as he could. He bought his children, he did not emancipate them. For 7 years Jacobs lived in a crawl space over a porch storeroom in her grandmother’s home, keeping an eye on her children, hiding from Norcom, until she was finally able to escape North.

10 years after her escape North, Jacobs found both her children and brought them to live with her in Boston, close to the home of her abolitionist employer, and the man who would finally emancipate her, Nathaniel Parker Willis. After the publication of “Incidents” and the end of the war, 5 years later, in 1865, Jacobs and her daughter, Louisa, would go on to open a school for freedmen in Alexandria, VA. Jacobs continued to be active in Reconstruction Era relief work as long as she could, even returning to volunteer in the town in which she had lived as a slave. Jacobs died a free woman in DC in 1897.

Jacobs understood the value of education in navigating a world built to use, abuse, and erase you. A world willing only to peek at its darkness before hiding it again for 100 years. A world that invests in and profits from victim blaming and silence. Education is our weapon to break the silence, to face the darkness, and emerge from the ashes, together.


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Alex Haley

Alex Haley never suffered from writer’s block. Indeed, he would often write two books at a time, switching between them as his inspiration, or frenetic energy dictated. It was isolation he sought as he boarded cargo ships years after his retirement from the Coast Guard in 1959 as the first Chief Petty Officer Journalist- a rating created in recognition of his literary skill. The Coast Guard now awards the Chief Journalist Alex Haley Award annually. Though Haley did not enter the Coast Guard as a journalist.

Haley began following in his father’s (a professor of Agriculture at Alabama A&M) footsteps, enrolling in Alcorn State University at age 15. But a year later he transferred to Elizabeth City State and at 17 he withdrew from college. At 18 Haley enlisted in the Coast Guard and served 20 years, developing his writing career between cooking leftovers. A career that began with drafting love letters for his fellow guardsmen, whom he referred to as his clients. Portentous of his later work with Malcolm X, Haley would take notes while talking with his “clients” and the next day draw inspiration from the sea as he wrote what he described as “successful” letters for the guardsmen.

When he wasn’t writing, Haley was reading. He luxuriated in the writing of the great men of his time. James Baldwin “could take a comma and make it crack like a black snake whip,” he said during his 1991 University of Washington’s Upon Reflections Interview, “Digging up the Root of ‘Roots.'” He went on to talk about Hemingway; “you felt the fish bite.” Haley would come face to face with one of these great men.

Upon leaving the Coast Guard, Haley was determined to become a writer. He wrote letters to the writers whom he was most influenced by, asking them for help, advice, some direction to set him down the right path. James Baldwin lived 8 blocks from Haley at the time, and he walked down to Haley’s modest home, which became more so to Haley as he sat across from this great man. Baldwin settled in and spoke with Haley as if they were old friends, which, years later they would indeed become. Up to his death, Haley was diligent in replying to young writers’ requests for advice, passing along the invaluable favor he once hungrily received from Baldwin.

Haley is best known for “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” His novel about his family’s history which became a ground-breaking mini-series with 130 million viewers, in 1977. “You don’t try to top it,” he said, “you become a spectator” after you send off the manuscript. He was sincerely humbled by his own work- by the value his fellow citizens found in it. Of course, that doesn’t preclude him from his own opinion; “The Autobiography of Malcolm X, ” he said, “was much better written, from a professional point of view.” Haley wrote X’s Autobiography from notes from 50 interviews, a couple to several hours a piece.

He also interviewed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr for Playboy; the longest interview Dr. King granted any publication or media outlet. Haley had previously made history with Playboy, writing the first interview for the publication; on Miles Davis, in 1962. Haley made a career of interviews and compiling histories. His earnest approach to personal histories encouraged those around him to grant him access. He became friends with his hero, James Baldwin, and he also became intimate with both Malcolm X and Dr. King. Haley said of the two men, “They were two dear friends in that time, him, Malcolm X, and Dr. King. …The two were so similar, had you given either the other’s background, they would have become the other.”

It was this earnest interest in telling the stories of our people that propelled Haley toward greatness with “Roots.” “‘Roots’ really was about a family. And that was- it seems to me- the common denominator that made it universal.” When a book could trace a black family that far back, he said, it challenged others to trace theirs. Haley described “Roots” as providing “understanding” of the Black experience, rather than “empathy.” “The timing was absolutely a major part,” he said. By 1976 the country had been exposed to what was happening, to the effects of racism, people were ready conceptually, he explained. “People were subdued, both black and white, by what ‘Roots’ portrayed,” Haley explained, they became more interested in finding common ground. In 1991, he observed that the people had “been deluded- in historical terms.”

17 years after 1991, perhaps, in remembering Alex Haley, we should do our part in undoing our delusion, and seek out our own histories and find our way to understanding each other again.

Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee raised three children of their own, and generations of Americans. From the beginning, they both wove their activism into their acting. In the jobs they took, the performing of their roles, and their own writing and productions, they taught their audiences about the possibilities of a world of equity. In his own words, from With Ossie and Ruby, Ossie explained, “…we triumphed, thanks to a strategy that assured us the victory: Simply, we learned how to belong to the people for whom we worked – mostly black people. They were, and still are, the audience that never made us rich, but never let us down.”

From the beginning, their work was a reflection of their lives, and the generations of racism and hope that came before them, and the dreams they had for those who would come after. During the McCarthy era, when a communist witch hunt attempted to silence Civil Rights dissenters, Ossie and Ruby were part of the growing number of artists in New York who refused to be silenced by their own government, and instead created conscious-raising art with Jews, like a middle finger to McCarthy. “We felt that we were among people who understood and appreciated what we had to share,” Ossie wrote (With Ossie and Ruby). Their work in the play The World of Sholom Aleichem brought them to Local 1199, Retail Drug Workers Union, a union representing mostly Jewish, Hispanic, and Black people interested in using art to further their goals of creating economic freedom for their members. Ossie wrote The People of Clarendon County for Union 1199, telling the story of the Briggs v. Elliott case, which was one of five argued under Brown v. Board of Education. Ossie and Ruby would continue to work on projects with 1199, the union Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would refer to has his favorite union.

Ossie and Ruby were personally committed to the Civil Rights movement- their lives, and the lives of their children depended on it. Ruby, specifically, was interested in bringing the two seemingly polar opposite Civil Rights leaders, Dr. King and Malcolm X together. Juanita Poitier and Ruby organized an informal summit to take place a year after the 1963 March on Washington (at which Malcolm was present, behind the scenes, Ruby reminds us in With Ossie and Ruby). They invited the luminaries of the movement, Dr. King, Malcolm, Dorothy Height, Whitney Young, Lorraine Hasberry, Roy Wilkins and A. Philip Randolph. Sidney Poitier also attended. Dr. King, jailed at the time, could not come, and sent an emissary. Imagine, the static of frenzied activity, just barely contained in these bodies of those who took up the mantle of their people without questioning, why me, but only asking, how do we move forward? Ruby recalls the discussion flowed naturally, and a plan to formulate a Declaration of Human Rights for Black Americans was made. Malcolm would visit Ossie and Ruby one last time, days before he would unveil the plans he had for the movement, days before he was assassinated.

When they appeared or worked together, Ossie was clearly the more loquacious one; Ruby meted out her words, spending time listening, and considering before speaking. On The History Makers An Evening with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee (10/18/2002), Ruby recalled an ancient regret. She had once asked Malcolm to put his iconic rifle away in a room of her home, rather than leaving it in the rear window of the truck he drove, because there were to be photographers at a party she and Ossie held for Malcolm, and she didn’t want anyone to get nervous, seeing the photos with Malcolm’s gun in them. “Oh God, I think about it now” she recalls, “and I missed all those pictures- because I was intimidated, too. And now that I am older, I feel I am no longer intimidated, I am old enough to do anything I damn well please.”

Ossie and Ruby’s activism only increased as they got older. They took roles in the upstart Spike Lee’s movies, they focused on speaking and reaching out to the next generation, on the ultimate need to educate so we would not forget the dark past and repeat it. For Ruby, this is the natural work of those “65 and older- We have a few brain cells left, a few dollars in the bank- it’s time to make it time again,” she said in 2002, her cadence increasing with the urgency of her words, “We can’t go down the sink hole behind these people who are not worthy of what this country still represents.”

Ossie and Ruby’s legacy is that of education. They educated their children, their audiences, their people, and all Americans; they sought to lift us up, using their art as a vehicle. They never faltered, never let fear overcome or cower them. “We have to make absolutely sure that the materials of our lives are available to them,” Ossie said. And Ruby expounded, “I learned we have to cross-fertilize each other, in terms of thinking. And that the generations coming in do have something to offer and the frustrations that they experience are not to be taken lightly, and we can help, we can change, we can exchange ideas- And we can help save them- I think they’re waiting for us to-” (History Makers 10/18/2002)

Ruby’s words ring as true now as they did in 2002: We can’t go down the sink hole behind these people who are not worthy of what this country still represents. And it’s time now that we save ourselves.

for more on Ossie and Ruby:

and, a bonus clip:

Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua

Of the 130 million books published (estimated by Google) 204 are Slave Narratives; autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs written about Africans enslaved in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Only one Narrative about an African enslaved in Brazil has been published, that of Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua.

Dictated to Irish abolitionist Samuel Moore in Canada in 1854, Baquaqua’s Narrative is the only known Narrative of the approximately 5.5 million Africans brought to Brazil as slaves (4.8 million of whom survived the travel). ( Of the 10.7 million Africans who survived the Trans-Atlantic Trade (12.5 million were traded), approximately 6,000 Slave Narratives, including broadsheets and about 2,500 oral histories have been recorded, according to Marion Wilson’s 1964 dissertation, “The Slave Narrative: Its Place in American Literary History.” Baquauqua’s account is thus incredibly unique and valuable, and tragically brief, at just 20 typed pages, and with much commentary by Moore.

Brazil has been as reluctant as the United States in facing it’s dark history; Baquaqua’s Narrative was published in Portuguese (Brazil’s official language) for the first time at the end of 2015. The country has only mandated the teaching of Black History in schools since 2003.

There is no national mandate for teaching Black History in the United States. Only seven of 50 states have mandated Black History education in public schools. (King, LJ “The Status of Black History in U.S. Schools and Society” Social Education, 2017, National Council for the Social Studies). More embarrassingly, in 2014, the Teaching Tolerance project by the Southern Poverty Law Center graded 20 states as “failing” in their education standards for the civil rights era, and in five states civil rights education was completely absent. Of the 388,000 Africans traded to the US approximately 150 Narratives have been published.

Baquaqua’s Narrative depicts an Africa in which slavery is fairly common place between peoples of varying origin- slavery was used as a punishment for those who broke the rules of the kings of the lands they were living in. Prisoners of war also became slaves, and were often ransomed to their families, if they were of sufficient means. The treatment/status of those enslaved within Africa as described by Baquaqua was comparatively highly preferable to what he experienced in Brazil. The enslaved in Africa could one day be the master, and the master become enslaved, depending on which side won that day. This was not true in Brazil, where the enslaved had no chance of gaining their freedom.

After having been betrayed by his own people and sold into slavery to a rival army (a not uncommon practice), Baquaqua was sold to an African trader whose business it was to sell enslaved persons far from the individual’s home. Baquaqua was bought and sold several times as he was marched through Africa, finally to be placed in the hold of a slave ship. Before he was shipped by river to be sold to a slave ship bound for Brazil, Baquaqua fell into despair, “When we arrived here I began to give up all hopes of ever getting back to my home again…at last, hope gave way; the last ray seemed fading away and my heart felt sad and weary within me, as I thought of my home, my mother.”

In his narrative, Baquaqua seeks to educate those whom he sees as ignorant to the obvious fact of the humanity of the enslaved African. He is at times imploring, “Some persons suppose that the African has none of the finer feelings of humanity within his breast, and that the milk of human kindness runs not through his composition; this is an error, an error of the grossest kind; …the same impulses drive them to action, the same feelings of love move within their bosom the same maternal and paternal affections are there, the same hopes and fears, griefs and joys, indeed all is there as in the rest of mankind; the only difference is their color, and that has been arranged by him who made the world and all that therein is… therefore why should any despise the works of his hands which has been made and fashioned according to his Almighty power, in the plentitude of his goodness and mercy.” At other times his incredulity and sarcasm comes through, “Oh! friends of humanity, pity the poor African, who has been trepanned and sold away from friends and home, and consigned to the hold of a slave ship, to await even more horrors and miseries in a distant land, amongst the religious and benevolent.”

Baquaqua converted to Christianity in Haiti, after gaining freedom in New York where abolitionists forced the courts to interview the enslaved on trade ships harbored. He traveled to Canada when Haiti began drafting for militia. He dictated his memoirs, and looked to the future of humanity through the lens of his new, cherished faith, “Oh! Christianity thou soother of man’s sufferings, thou guide to the blind, and strength to the weak, go thou on thy mission, speak the peaceful tidings of salvation all around and make glad the heart of man, ‘then shall the wilderness be glad and blossom as the rose.’ Then will slavery with all its horrors ultimately come to an end, for none possessing thy power and under thy influence can perpetuate a calling so utterly at variance with, and repugnant to all thy doctrines.”

Dick Gregory

Dick Gregory was the first black performer to sit down and be interviewed, as a white performer would be, after his set on The Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar in 1961. On August 19, 2017, upon hearing of Gregory’s death, Dave Chapelle told his audience in Radio City Music Hall he would not be standing on that stage had it not been for Dick Gregory. For the second time, a black person changed US history simply by demanding their right to take a seat. Dick Gregory paved the way for comedic geniuses like Chappelle, Chris Rock, Bill Cosby, and Richard Pryor; all who used comedy to shine a light on the absurdity of racism.

Dick Gregory, born in St. Louis, October 12, 1932, is certainly best known for his biting and witty comedy, a talent he found after he was drafted in 1954 from Southern Illinois University. He returned to the University after his service, then soon continued to pursue a career in comedy, working for the Postal Service during the day. His big break came when Hugh Hefner saw him perform at the Roberts Show Bar, and hired him for the Playboy Club. It was during this time Gregory caught the attention of Paar at The Tonight Show who eventually personally called Gregory to ask why he had so far refused the invitation to appear on the show. Gregory told Paar he would appear only if he were treated the same way as the white entertainers, and invited to sit down with Paar after his routine. Gregory and Paar made history.

Gregory’s career turned to one of activism and service in the 60’s. He was moved by the myriad social injustices he observed in the world, beginning with racism in the states and expanding out to include the Iran hostage crisis, Northern Ireland IRA prisoners, and poverty in Ethiopia. In the United States, Gregory joined with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma in 1963 to speak before Freedom Day. He was arrested after speaking, but was released and joined the march the next day. In 1965, Gregory was shot in the knee helping police restore order after the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. He was not afraid to put his body and life on the line to promote social change. In 1978, a self-proclaimed and outspoken feminist, Gregory joined with the heavy hitters of his day, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Margaret Heckler, and Barbara Mikulski and 100,000 people to lead the National ERA March for Ratification and Extension down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Gregory employed public fasting as a tactic in his fight for social justice. His first fast in 1967 was in protest of the Vietnam War, and lasted for 40 days. At the end of the fast he was 97 pounds. In 1968 he fasted for 45 days in support of Native Americans. In 1969 he fasted for 45 days protesting the defacto segregation of Chicago public schools. In 1970 he fasted for 81 days to bring attention to the narcotics epidemic sweeping inner cities. And, in 1971 Gregory began a 3 year stint without consuming solid food  During this time, he also ran 900 miles from Chicago to DC to again protest Vietnam.

In 1968 Gregory, every thinking outside the box, ran for President against Nixon and to bring attention to the problems with the two party system. He garnered 47,000 write-in votes. He also narrowly escaped being jailed by the Treasury for printing money with his face on it to promote his campaign. In his book, Write Me In, Gregory writes sarcastically about the absurdity of the Treasury’s threat of arrest, “Everyone knows the black man will never be on a US bill.” Dick Gregory was intent on using all tactics at his disposal to force social justice issues. He was tireless in his pursuit of a peaceful existence.

In a 2001 Interview with Democracy Now! Gregory explained the title to his then latest book, Callus on My Soul, came from the experience of poor black people, who could not afford good shoes and thus developed calluses- “a callus will wear out a shoe before the shoe wears out the foot that was made by God.” Gregory wrote about the strength created by growing up black in the United States. Callus was the second autobiographical book Gregory wrote, after the wildly popular nigger, published in 1964. He has written or contributed to 25 books. His last book, Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies, was published posthumously, September 5, 2017.

After a lifetime of growing up in and fighting the most egregious, bombastic- for its unapologetic openness- conspiracy known; institutionalized American racism, Gregory’s later years were fraught with the specter of conspiracies from every corner. Starting with his first protest in high school, fighting for the replacement of aging black high schools in his district of St. Louis, Richard Claxton Gregory’s life’s work was standing between the people and the governments that held them hostage- in chains or in poverty- he lived in and left this world as a warrior.