By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
What shall I tell my children who are black
Of what it means to be a captive in this dark skin?
What shall I tell my dear one, fruit of my womb,
of how beautiful they are when everywhere they turn
they are faced with abhorrence of everything that is black.
What can I do to give him strength
That he may come through life’s adversities
As a whole human being unwarped and human in a world
Of biased laws and inhuman practices, that he might
Survive. And survive he must! For who knows?
Perhaps this black child here bears the genius
To discover the cure for…cancer
Or to chart the course for exploration of the universe.
So, he must survive for the good of all humanity.
He must and will survive.
I have drunk deeply of late from the fountain
of my black culture, sat at the knee of and learned
from mother Africa, discovered the truth of my heritage.
The truth, so often obscured and omitted.
And I find I have much to say to my black children.
I will lift up their heads in proud blackness
with the story of their fathers and their father’s fathers.
And I shall take them into a way back time
of kings and queens who ruled the Nile,
and measured the stars and discovered the laws of mathematics.
I will tell him this and more.
And knowledge of his heritage shall be his weapon and his armor;
It will make him strong enough to win any battle he may face.
And since this story is so often obscured,
I must sacrifice to find it for my children,
even as I sacrifice to feed, clothe and shelter them.
So this I will do for them if I love them.
None will do it for me.
I must find the truth of heritage for myself and pass it on to them. For it is the truth that will make us free!
Excerpt from the poem, What shall I tell my children who are Black? by Dr. Margaret Burroughs, published 1992.
The woman who would eventually become Dr. Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs and establish the “DuSable Museum of African American History” was born Margaret Taylor on November 1, 1917 in St. Rose, Louisiana. In 1922 when she was five years old, her family moved north to Chicago as millions of African-Americans from southern states were doing at the time. In the case of the Taylor family, they fled after a relative was kidnapped and murdered by a gang of White men. Known as “The Great Migration”, the period between 1910 and 1960 saw a mass movement of African-Americans from Jim Crow southern states to northern states. In the southern states where Jim Crow laws ruled and segregation was a fact of life African-Americans could not vote, were forced to accept menial jobs working for White people and were at risk of being brutalized, maimed or killed if they did not “know their place”.
African-American children were forced to attend schools that were housed in little more than tumbledown shacks and accept third and fourth-hand school books after the books had been used and abused by White students in well-kept schools. Many African-American children in those southern states were forced to leave school for many months of the year to help their families pick cotton to sustain their livelihood as tenant farmers (sharecroppers) where they dwelled on land owned by White farmers.
Two White American professors in the 2011 book The Muse in Bronzeville: African-American Creative Expression in Chicago, write about Burroughs’ early life: “Educational opportunities were scant, as black children missed large parts of each school year to pick cotton or chop cane. In 1922, sometime after a gang of whites kidnapped and murdered a family member, the Taylors moved to Chicago. They moved many times always searching for better living conditions. Moving up meant moving south as the Black Belt expanded slowly, block by block, into formerly all-white neighborhoods. When the family moved into a house on Sixtieth Street, a transitional area, racial taunts were hurled, bricks were thrown through windows and finally their front porch was firebombed.”
Obviously it was not a “bed of roses” for African-Americans even in northern cities like Chicago but at least they did not have to live legally segregated lives.
In her 2003 autobiography Life with Margaret: The Autobiography of Dr. Margaret Burroughs, she remarked that although she attended an integrated school in the northern city of Chicago the lack of information about Africans in the curriculum negatively affected her academic achievement. Burroughs wrote that while she attended “Englewood High School” she would doze off in class until the teacher mentioned something about African-Americans and she would become fully alert when there were discussions about the accomplishments or failures of African-American women.
After graduating from Englewood High School in 1933 Burroughs attended the Chicago Normal College (now the Chicago State University) where she earned a teaching certificate in 1937 and in 1939, an upper-grade art certificate. In 1939 Burroughs co-founded the South Side Community Arts Center to serve as a social center, gallery and studio to display the work of African-American artists. She also married the artist Bernard Goss in 1939. They divorced eight years later.
In 1946 Burroughs earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art Education from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Master of Arts degree in Art Education in 1948. In 1949, she married Charles Gordon Burroughs and in 1961 they co-founded the “Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art” in their home at 3806 South Michigan Avenue. The historic building had at one time served as a boarding house for African-American Pullman porters and other African-American railroad workers.
The Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art was the first of its kind; an African-American self-governing museum designated to collect, interpret and preserve the achievements, experiences and history of African-Americans. In 1973, the museum moved to its new home at the former South Park Commission headquarters in Washington Park at 740 East 56th Place.
The museum also acquired a new name with the move; it was renamed the “DuSable Museum of African-American History”. The name DuSable was chosen to honour African-American, Haitian-born Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, who is recognized as the founder of Chicago when he settled there in the 1760s. This information about DuSable was published in the March 18, 1996 edition of the Chicago based African-American Jet magazine: “Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable was born in San Marc, Haiti, in 1745. His mother, an enslaved African woman, was killed when he was about ten-years-old. His father, who was his mother’s ‘owner’, sent DuSable to be educated in France, then later employed him as a seaman. Du Sable was 20 years old when he was shipwrecked near New Orleans and had to go into hiding for fear of being enslaved on U.S. soil. He eventually made his way to the area now known as Chicago and was the first African settler as well as the first ‘non-native’ settler in that area.”
The museum which appropriately bears DuSable’s name remains the only independent institution in Chicago established to collect, interpret and preserve the achievements, experiences and history of African-Americans. The museum became a centre and resource for teaching about the African Diaspora as well as African-American history and culture. African-American communities and groups in the USA (including Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia and Los Angeles) have replicated its model. The museum expanded in 1993 with a 28,000 square foot addition named after the late Mayor Harold Washington (he became the first African-American Mayor of Chicago in 1983) featuring new galleries and a 450-seat auditorium.
On its website at http://www.dusablemuseum.org/about/history, the description of the museum includes: “The DuSable Museum is proud of its diverse holdings that number more than 15,000 pieces and include paintings, sculpture, print works and historical memorabilia. Special exhibitions, workshops and lectures are featured to highlight works by specific artists, historic events or collections on loan from individuals or institutions.”
Dr. Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs, who transitioned on November 21, 2011 achieved what she wrote in her poem What shall I tell my children who are Black? She wanted to: “find the truth of heritage for myself and pass it on to them. For it is the truth that will make us free!”