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Blog: A Tale Of Two Cities

Dr. Eugene Stovall

Oakland, California February 12. 2014

All over America, February is the month dedicated to the celebration of Black History. In San Francisco and in Berkeley two notable Black History Month celebrations have already taken place.

The San Francisco event was held at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts ___ a beautiful venue ___ with lots of food and nearly 400 black people in attendance was presented by the Executive Roundtable and sponsored by Ernst & Young. But contrary to its announced purpose, this event did not celebrate any historic contributions made by black Americans nor did it discuss any of the significant political or legal contributions made to the American mosaic by black people. Not even the Executive Roundtable’s printed program provided any visual commemoration of Black History or black people. The Executive Roundtable merely used this occasion as an opportunity to sell a black audience on the idea of corporate service by recognizing those black executives who had risen to the inner circles of corporate power. The Executive Roundtable’s Black History celebration showcased five of the infinitesimally small number of Negroes who are fortunate enough to be chosen by mentors ___ now they are being called “sponsors” ___ to be promoted into the ranks of top corporate executives. These Negroes were being recognized for hobnobbing with the directors, CEOs and other multi-millionaires and doing their bidding.

In his keynote address, YBCA’s Director of Performing Arts, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, did not extol Black History. Rather he raised not a few eyebrows even in an audience filled with black “corporate ladder” climbers when he said that his efforts and the efforts of his team of artists, writers and influence peddlers were aimed at bringing about a cultural renaissance of art and music in what he hoped would be the post hip/hop era. Joseph proudly keynoted the evening’s theme announcing to his audience that: “When the directors of the Yerba Buena Arts Center, first saw my performance, they knew that they needed ME on their staff. And when they interviewed ME, behind ME, they had a picture of [guess who] … ME.”

Joseph’s keynote was not lost on any of the other panelists of black corporate executives. Each of them tried to outdo the others in reciting their tales of accomplishment their individual corporate plantations. Each tale was a celebration of the ME. One panelist even admitted that, at an earlier stage in his career, the “Uncle Tom” label concerned him. But his “sponsor” __ then known as his mentor __ counseled him to seek his own personal success and let the others take care of themselves. Another panelist told about a “mistake” he had made during his career. He had prematurely celebrated a promotion that he learned about through his access to top-secret information while serving as an officer in the Air Force on a classified military installation. All the panelists echoed the keynote of me, Me, ME! Sadly this celebration of “black history” was nothing more than a fit of self-congratulations by individuals who had long since shed their racial identity for corporate success. It was not a celebration of Black history but of black “tokenism” and with the black unemployment rate running at 50% for black males, it’s message was: I made it, why can’t they?

Two days later, the Community Theater hosted Berkeley’s first Black History Month celebration. Presented and organized by the Berkeley Juneteenth Association, this event sought to educate and heal the Berkeley community and its surrounding environs by bringing peoples of different cultures together in a celebration of joy and friendship. Ken Tramiel, president of the Juneteenth Board of Directors and organizer of the Black History event sought to promote social growth and community cohesiveness by involving peoples of color in a set of unique historical, family, business and cultural activities celebrating Black History. The Juneteeth Board of Directors aggressively brought together participants from everywhere. Dancers and singers from Berkeley High School, educators and lecturers from the University of California and other local colleges, gospel choirs and even a film producer all played essential roles in this celebration of black people’s contribution to the American mosaic.

Berkeley’s program was divided into four parts: The Creation, Enslavement and Freedom, The Civil Rights Era and The New Generation. One of the highlights of the day was Doug Harris’ film about William Byron Rumford, the black assemblyman from Berkeley, for whom California’s Fair Housing Law is named. In addition, all sorts of vendors were given an opportunity to sell their wares including my own, Oakland Publishing Company, LLC.

The highlight of the day for me was when, out of the crowd of black history celebrants, appeared my classmate from grammar school, Peter LaTorre. Pete had driven all the way from Patterson, California, in the rain, to support this wonderful community event. Pete, who is still recovering from the emergency heart surgery that he underwent while visiting his family in Italy, drove the hundred miles from Patterson to Berkeley because, as he said, he believes that people of goodwill, everywhere, must support each other. So he came to Berkeley to support me and buy a couple of my books. And so it was on a rainy Saturday in Berkeley, that my good friends, Ken Tramiel and Peter LaTorre, and many, many others celebrated Black History Month, demonstrating that ___even though we live in a time of darkness ____ the basic humanity and goodness of an energized community is fully engaged against political wickedness and corporate greed.