Opinion Reader Contributed

Op-Ed: Black History Month, Perspective of a West Hartford Native

Jimmy Johnson (left) and Sandy Johnson. Courtesy photos

An essay by James A. Johnson, Conard ’60.

By James A. Johnson

“I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal.” –Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

February is the time of the year when we pause to celebrate African Americans triumph over slavery and its enduring aftermath. However, it was Europeans who made the decisions to impose it, formed the policies and laws to protect it and who built a society around it.

Slavery is white history, not black history.

Black History Month is a bittersweet and sometimes cynical celebration. Why do we permit whites to make our history by enslaving blacks for generations by unspeakable violence? The wholesale adoption of slavery is not the defining experience of African-Americans. That theme permeates Black History Month that is generally a celebration of “firsts.”

A few years ago, an article was written that I made history at Conard High School by being elected captain of the basketball team. My election is not a celebration but only to the white author of the article. Instead, the emphasis should have been on my outstanding basketball skills and leadership qualities as captain rather than the color of my skin.

Black survival under that cruel institution together with the continuing political and social efforts to subjugate us is something to celebrate – every day. We are remarkable in our resilience.

African-Americans deserve to be honored for their accomplishments against tremendous obstacles and brutal discrimination. For the most of their history, Black people have had to exist outside of what is known as the mainstream America. This is no longer the case. Nevertheless, racism still constitutes a major component of America’s character.

Race – racism – is in the very threads of the American fabric. It is the essential thread woven into our national character. No matter how we embroider the cloth, it will always be there. Racism is vicious. It is a leaned behavior, built on false premises and fueled by constant cultural reinforcement.

In many cases, African Americans are being honored for what whites ordinarily do. For example, when Jackie Robinson in 1947 entered major league baseball he was characterized as the first to break the color barrier. Like it was an accident of circumstance. This is tantamount to stating that no African-American before Robinson was qualified or had major league skills.

When Ed Driscoll and Billy Julavits were elected co-captains of the 1959 Conard football team and the 1960 Baseball Team did they make history as an unusual tandem? The answer to that question is yes. It is extraordinary for two players to be elected co-captains of two major sports in the same academic year. However, no one ever classified it as a celebration of history.  

Ed Driscoll (no. 55) and Bill Julavits (no. 22). Courtesy photo

However, my personal journey is extraordinary because I did not experience racism at Sedgwick or Conard. My sister Sandy was voted “Most Friendly” in her class. I was voted “Best Dressed” at Sedgwick and Conard by my classmates.

For Sandy and this writer, The Measure of our Success (https://we-ha.com/measure-success-advice-west-hartford-students) can be attributed to having great parents together with a nurturing environment. Nobody at Conard said, here is a nice looking, well-mannered colored boy so let us vote him best dressed. My color was so insignificant that if you took a survey of students, a few might say, in the vernacular of the day, “I do not remember any colored students during my years at Conard.” However, if you add basketball in the equation you will get “Oh yes, I almost forgot about Jimmy.”

About the Author

James A. Johnson is an accomplished trial lawyer. He concentrates on serious personal injury, insurance coverage, sports and entertainment law, and Federal crimes. Jim is an active member of the Massachusetts, Michigan, Texas, and Federal Court Bars. He can be reached at www.JamesAJohnsonEsq.comSandy Johnson was a licensed psychologist and earned a Ph.D at the University of Michigan.

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1 Comment

  • I always thought that Jackie Robinson (and other “firsts”) is celebrated because of his resilience and perseverance to succeed despite the challenge of racism, not because no other African-American before him was considered technically qualified. But your points are well taken. Racism is a learned and vicious behavior. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

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