I started writing these words on Jan. 20, 2021, a day of historical firsts: Kamala Harris was the first African American woman to be sworn in as Vice President of the United States of America.
One of the first orders of business for VP Harris, also of South Asian descent (another first) was to swear in the state of Georgia’s first African American and Jewish senators, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, respectively; giving Georgia two Democratic Senators for the first time since 1992. Finally, VP Harris swore in California’s first Latino senator, Alex Padilla.
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Senator Warnock, speaking about the personal significance of the day for him (it would have been his father’s 104th birthday), spoke of a “Covenant we share as Americans.”
That word, covenant, resonated very strongly with me. Why? As a noun, a covenant is “an agreement; contract; compact; or a protocol,” for example. As a verb, a “vow or pledge.”
Most of us have a spoken or unspoken covenant within ourselves, to be the best we can be, personally, professionally and even spiritually, right? Black people, more broadly, have a similar covenant with themselves, in pursuit of excellence and achievement in their lives.
And Black History Month celebrates and acknowledges excellence and achievement throughout the African diaspora.
Celebrating and recognizing such achievement is critically important, vis-à-vis the historical undervaluing and underrepresentation of Black peoples’ contributions to the history of the U.S. and the world.
In the film “Glory and Honor,” I played Arctic explorer Matthew Henson. It was indeed an honor. But Henson’s participation in the discovery of the North Pole has historically been overshadowed by Admiral Robert Peary; the expedition’s commander, who is historically attributed as being the person who discovered the North Pole.
In researching for the film, however, I’d discovered that Peary had suffered frostbite in his toes during the final (and ultimately successful) phase of the trek and had to stop; whilst Henson continued with his Inuit guides (Peary was furious) to the spot that was eventually discovered (controversially, it must be said) to be the North Pole. Consequently then, the question is raised: Who arrived at the North Pole first, Henson or Peary?
Returning to America, Peary was celebrated as a great explorer, enjoyed significant celebrity and was eventually promoted to Rear Admiral.
Henson achieved no such parallel recognition, although in later life, he wrote an autobiography; and his achievements were more widely acknowledged.
My mother emigrated from Jamaica to England as part of a wave of Caribbean emigration to the U.K. in a movement eventually named the Windrush Generation; so-called for the Empire Windrush, the tanker which transported the first group of (mostly) Jamaican men to London in July 1948.
The Windrush phenomenon is relatively well represented in literature, at this point, but there have been no major feature films representing the era, nor anyone in it. Why?
Pursuing a master’s degree some years ago and researching Windrush, I discovered that significant numbers of Caribbean, African and Indian (Asian) soldiers had fought for (and in some instances been highly commended by) the British in World Wars l and ll; and Caribbean women had volunteered, also, in WWll. Few, if any, of their stories are widely known or told, in the retelling of British history.
Recently while playing Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves in a story featuring the Black women and men of the Old West, I discovered someone I’d never heard of, or about, before. Reeves was an extremely highly regarded and respected lawman. It’s even said that the popular 1950s TV character “The Lone Ranger” is based on Reeves.
I also had no idea that possibly as many as one in four cowboys of the Old West were Black. I don’t think I’m alone in my ignorance.
“Da 5 Bloods” is also a story told via the prism of Black Vietnam vets’ experiences in a major motion picture. That’s also a first, a historical corrective, and it’s been deeply rewarding and gratifying to be part of. It’s probably not widely known that, at the time, African Americans were approximately 12% of the U.S. population; yet were upwards of 30% of the fighting force in Vietnam.
If these (albeit personal) anecdotes represent anything, they amplify the importance of history being told, at least in significant part, by those responsible for making that history.
And Black History Month (started as Negro History Week in 1926, by Historian Carter G. Woodson) celebrates and acknowledges excellence and achievement.
Delroy Lindo is a star of stage, film and TV. He has appeared in over 71 films including “Get Shorty,” “Clockers” and on CBS All Access’ “The Good Fight.” Lindo can most recently be seen in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods.”
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