The following is a guest post by Annette James, a program coordinator at the U.S. Copyright Office.
As I reflect upon the 2021 Black History Month theme, The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity, the word family captures a wealth of emotions. It calls up memories of childhood and retrospection on lessons learned. It brings to mind the sounds and stories cherished by my loved ones. It even brings to mind my hopes for the future. Within the word family, whole universes exist. History is tied inextricably to family. After all, it is our history, and the knowledge we take from it, that ties us all together.
Growing up, my family always had music playing in the background of our daily lives. We were not especially talented when it came to making music of our own, but we had a great love and appreciation for the talent of others. When I started working in the Copyright Office, I was often assigned searches for musical works that were very familiar to me. There were many times that I would call my parents in excitement because I was researching a song that I’d either heard about or listened to growing up. My parents grew up in the 40s and 50s, so my musical memory is long—they were like walking talking musical Trivial Pursuit cards. They LOVE all genres of music, and I still hear some of their favorites playing in the background when I go to visit them.
Reflecting on Black excellence, and my own family’s love of music, I am immediately reminded of the pioneering civil rights activist Paul Robeson, a household name at our dinner table growing up. Mr. Robeson was world-renowned for his amazing bass-baritone concert voice. Most notably, he performed “Old Man River” in the movie Show Boat (1936). In addition to his musical career, Robeson is known for his stellar athletic abilities. He was the valedictorian of his class at Rutgers University and attended Columbia University Law School at a time when African Americans weren’t even afforded equal access to public education. He used his voice to speak out against racism, penning the autobiography Here I Stand in 1958. He was censored for his political activism and blacklisted during the fervor of the McCarthy era.
Paul Robeson’s calls for equality could not be silenced. He also inspired the work of Harry Belafonte, another favorite in my family, with roles in movies such as Carmen Jones, Bright Road, Buck and the Preacher, and White Man’s Burden. He is perhaps most well-known for recording the musical work “Banana Boat Song (Day-O),” which has roots in traditional Jamaican folk music, as well as the hit “Jump in the Line.” Like Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte used his fame to speak up for others. His most important role, in my opinion? That would be his work helping to organize the 1963 March on Washington.
We know, of course, that the fight for equal rights didn’t end there. Nina Simone is another copyright creator whose accomplishments were celebrated in my family, not only for her world-renowned talent as a classically trained musician but also for her role as the “voice” of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. Her anthem from the time, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” was, and still is, one of my favorite songs.
Growing up, my family also spent time together watching movies that featured performances by remarkable Black actors. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the recently deceased legend Cicely Tyson, who often used performance as a platform to address civil rights issues. At the height of the fight for civil rights, she became symbolic of the growing movement for Black women in America. Her riveting performance as the indomitable Miss Jane Pittman in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) was a fictional representation of real America.
In addition to our great love of music and film, we’re all avid readers in my family. As a young woman cultivating my identity during frequent moves throughout my dad’s military career, I often found solace in the works of Maya Angelou. I carried her words with me into adulthood. As a young mother with my own new family, The Heart of a Woman was very inspirational. Ms. Angelou’s determination to instill pride in her own young son rang especially true.
I won’t spoil it for our readers, but even the ending of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings isn’t really an end at all, but rather a new beginning. This past year has taught all of us what many of us have long known: true equity is a promise yet to be fulfilled, and history continues to be made now. Although many photos from that time may be black and white, it’s important to remember Black history doesn’t start, and certainly didn’t end, with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. History continues to happen now. If there is a light within what sometimes feels like a sea of darkness, I would point to the artists that my now-grown children have turned me onto—like John Legend, Common, Childish Gambino, and yes, even Beyoncé—who through their creativity keep themes of social and racial justice in mainstream conversations. Even within politics, there are bright spots, whether it be Stacey Abrams’s pseudonymous novels about love or John Lewis’s comic book trilogy. Most recently, just a few weeks ago in fact, the works of the young poet Amanda Gorman captured the attention of us all and challenged us to keep dreaming of the future.
After all, our future? It’s nothing but the history of tomorrow.