Ray Garman - Written & Spoken Words

"Teaching History"

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"Teaching History" was originally given as a speach for a Black History Seminar at the Philadelphia Prison System.  The Commentary piece has been adapted from this speach.

Teaching History

  By RF Garman

  Copyright 2007 RF Garman 



The way we think about ourselves, the context of history, the overlay of our perceived values, is expressed in our national celebrations.  These events are the marking points of cultural evolution and the source of pride which reflect the growth of our humanity.  The emblems extend beyond our national borders.  They are the signposts of what we are, set out for all to see.


We elevate certain cultural markers and identify these as core values.  We give them names.  For a few, we set aside a day or a month.  We feel proud of what we overcame and exclaim, “This is at the center of who we are.” 


Each year we celebrate February as “Black History Month”.  We service a mixture of congratulations and self-condemnation with holidays marking Dr. King and Lincoln.  We focus school topics and community events.  We trace the lineage from slave culture through progressive programs and race relation improvements from the 1860’s.  We laud successful people of color as if this constitutes freedom and growth.  All the while, we turn our eyes.  We are afraid to examine the new sacred cows which take us back from whence we came.  Uncle Tom re-appears, masked in economic prosperity.  We are silent with our questioning of relevance and meaning.  We allow the slave culture to re-emerge, only more insidious than the shackled form, its nature, today, is voluntary.


Carpet-bagging, made modern, hides the true nature of the bitter pill swallowed in squeeze cheese to conceal its true nature.  A cure to independence and freedom is marketed and sold by Uncle Toms who reach for the almighty dollar, forsaking all else.


The voice of rap, hip hop, of the urban warrior, markets itself from the ghettos to middle-America and back again.  It is a culture in which lives are given up, education and integrity exchanged for guns, a badly phrased sentence and a disrespectful moniker accepted as if it were a compliment.


The Uncle Toms have convinced us that the dollar is greater than the soul.  They sell our future, the youth of our country, into this, the newest apparition of that same old evil.  Large numbers of bright, capable people become sub-minimum wage laborers wearing blue behind the bars of ever increasing and growing plantation prisons privatized to perform profit-making manual labor.  And when there are enough, locked away forever under 3 strike rules, then, America, the outsourced capital of the world, will reclaim its labor force, newly sweatshop competitive.


Smart people sold into slavery by a commercial enterprise fronted by people of color who, for pieces of silver, have made their lives simpler and the lies easier to digest.  When will we say enough is enough?  When will we reclaim our dignity and our future? 


When will it be no longer cool to carry a gun, to call a woman bitch, to refer to ourselves as nigga?  Slave life is here, today, packaged and sold as commerce which says its ok to drop out of school and to speak some dumbed down version of colloquial English.


Young people encouraged to drop-out, to carry a gun, to sell drugs, to tolerate prison, wear this path as a badge of honor while facing death or long-term incarceration.  How is it cool to work an eight hour shift for $1.50.  Who in their right mind would tolerate such treatment?  And yet, our urban culture superstars sell it like patent-medicine to the very market who cannot afford it, today or in the future.


The voluntary slaves line up each and every day in cells and on blocks, waiting to eat their daily portion, placed upon trays, prison pressed and issued.


These are the new shackles of the reborn, the modern slave, and no one is willing to acknowledge what is plainly right before us.  Commerce and the material lure Black America, seducing with sneakers, hoods and guns, delivering a message without responsibility, concern or recompense.


When we review Black History we have the opportunity to point not to our differences, but rather to our similarities.  If we are honest enough, strong enough, we can begin to invest in our future, as humans, our oneness brought out with the comprehension of the negative examples.  Our choice could be, not to replicate these behaviors.


The alternative, however, should we continue to fool ourselves, drugged, in a fog of dead presidents, division and strife will magnify the prejudices of all complexions.


Dr. King gives to me, pigment challenged though I may be, just as he gives to people of color and as he learned and lived, rainbow hues combined to teach agape love, just a little more today than yesterday.  Black history is an exact example of how not to treat one another, how not to blame others and why not to sever bonds within a community.  Black history teaches the tragedy of human failings of all colors, and the supremacy of aspiration.  And yet, as if we lost the message, we are surrounded in a sea of black-on-black violence and imprisonment.


We are all directly and indirectly potential addicts, potential inmates, potential victims and potential oppressors.  It is the destruction of the family, the distance of fathers from children – the dishonoring of each other – the language of disrespect woven into the fabric of pseudo-cool, this is why our young men and women live a continually diminishing lowest common denominator of civilization.


Our common enemy is the urge to market and sell products, of all types, to populations who cannot afford to pay their rent, to adequately feed their children or who cannot provide safe home environments and neighborhoods.  Materialism is the heart of the real enemy, not just the products and not just the language.


And the salesmen are crafty, sexy, their destruction subtle as well as obvious.  The enemies tempt us with the oversimplification of self-gratification inundating culture with images of excess, encouraging appetites and consumption.  Our very being is threatened as we are damaged by the dual dangers of an exploitive promoter that would sell $50 t-shirts to a person who cannot afford it and a legal system that then locks up a man who sells another product to pay for the addiction resultant from the materialist appetite.


And still, babies keep having babies, who keep going away to wear blue and return to die or wear more colors dark, upstate browns – walking ghosts.


Our enemy is the de-humanizing trend that locks us up, brothers of all colors.  The antidote is education and the spiritual strength to appreciate all that we have in our soul and not just what is in our pocket or on our feet.  To put aside the hate, the obstacles created by differentiation, to teach, to learn, to feel love and empathy for one another, this will lead us to the key to conquer the plague of self-absorption and materialism.    No one needs 20 pairs of sneakers.  We all need an extra hug, not an extra thug.


That forgiveness is the only way should be clear.  Recognition that more material, more money, more things will not take us to the promised-land seems obvious.  We must speak, but also listen.  Let us put aside the differences that set us apart in order to recognize that crack cocaine and violence have unified us in a way that Martin, Malcolm and Mohamed could not. 


Look to the enemies, those who make money from peddling well packaged hate and violence.  Look to the enemies who fill the minds with images of guns and clothes and fancy cars, who feed the ever un-satiated hunger, the selfish urge for more material things.  These are the ones who proffer the premise of the crafty versus the wise.  These are the Uncle Toms who corral and coerce and fool their followers into believing it’s not cool to be an intellectual. 


Look to and hold responsible, those who would sell music rife with violence, disrespect and division.  Seek out the sellers of sneakers and T-shirts as well as the cocaine salesman – make them accountable for these insatiable appetites, the greed that they foster and which festers in our minds and neighborhood stores as well as the neighborhood street corner.


Look to our interwoven history, throughout the world, to learn, to teach, to accept that violence cannot succeed and money does not solve life’s problems.


We are all, human in a sea of change.  Recognizing this, can we rise to teach the reasonable relationship of hard work and meted measured rewards?


I am, and continue to be, though I don't always understand why.