“This little light o’ mine, I’m gonna let it shine” are the opening lyrics to one of my favorite songs from childhood, perhaps the first song I ever learned. I was four or five years old. Fittingly, the Sunshine Band was the name of our youth choir in which I participated, at the small New Metropolitan Baptist Church, led by Pastor Gregory Sawyer, on the east side of Knoxville, Tennessee. As a member of the Sunshine Band, I took pride in screaming that first line, albeit off-key, during choir rehearsal on Saturdays without an audience. What I lacked in harmony I made up for in effort. I associated enthusiasm and volume with great singing, but I was also a nuisance. “Don’t outshine the band,” our choir director, Ms. Linda, instructed me. I hadn’t learned idioms and figurative language at that point. “But wee tha Sunshine Band, don’t wee pose to shine?” I hadn’t learned sarcasm either. “Don’t be sassy,” she warned me. I didn’t know what “sassy” meant, but her tone was clear.
Still, when fourth Sundays rolled around, I grew nervous. On this particular Sunday morning, as mother spread thick layers of grease over my round face—this was a daily routine, but this Sunday she preferred more gloss, more shine—I closed my eyes in frustration. To my mother, Vaseline was the universal shield to protect her children from any disease. This home remedy was medical, motherly, and for me, miserable. My mother hummed “This Little Light of Mine” as she wiped the tears from my eyes before they ruined her work. Later, as I stood in the chancel before a church packed with Black elder women wearing fancy hats and fluttering paper fans, the only face I saw was my mother’s, her lips mouthing “This little light of mine. . .”
Although the historical origin of the song is vague, the inspirational tune has been beloved for generations. More important to my own identity, though, is the song’s association with my earliest memory of the transformative power of education. True, performing in the Sunshine Band was the beginning and end of my short-lived singing career. Upon reflection, however, I recognize that the Sunshine Band taught me three important lessons: first, I was not called to sing; second, every voice has a role in achieving harmony; third, no part is greater than the whole.
For my elementary education, I attended the all-Black Green School, named after Black physician Dr. Henry Morgan Green. The legacy of Dr. Green resonates in Knoxville. Unfortunately, my Black-named school did not avoid Confederate influence; it was founded and established by John McMillan Brooks, former Knoxville mayor and Confederate Army captain. What’s in a name? 109 public schools were named for Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and other Confederate icons, many of which served a majority-Black student body. It was during this period that I first learned about America’s Founding Fathers: that George Washington never told a lie, for instance, and Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity flying a kite. But I wasn’t totally ignorant of Black history. My father and my Uncle Sherman dispelled as many of these myths as possible, but their informal home teachings paled in comparison to a formal curriculum that required us to “Remember the Alamo” through the lens of Tennessee’s war hero David “Davy” Crockett. We learned a segregated history in a segregated school.
In 1993, I transitioned to Green Magnet Math and Science Academy, which ninety years after its founding as an all-Black school was just beginning to matriculate its first wave of white students. This was also the first time I ever saw white students, in any capacity, in my classroom, since nearly all of them had come from affluent areas of West Knoxville, which were in predominantly white districts. Because a lottery was used to determine which Black students joined the magnet program, a school already segregated by race and poverty was now further segregated by chance. I won a lottery space in the magnet program, but my fellow classmates were not as lucky. The education odds were in my favor, at least for now.
The majority of our school’s students were on free or reduced lunch, so it amazed me to see so many new kids with packed lunches or paying for their own food. They carried wallets for their dollars and lunch boxes for their lunch. I vividly remember asking my mother to buy me a lunch box so I could fit in with the rest of my class. And I wanted her to pack it with a Lunchable and a Capri Sun, not thinking for a moment how this added expense might be a burden on her. All I thought about was that the rules had changed. Fitting in now required a plastic lunch box with an action figure plastered on it for all to see. The going wisdom is that a change in a person’s environment may well change their behavior. But what happens if that person’s environment changes while the conditions remain the same?
I took my first course in Black history at North Carolina Central University, a Historically Black College and University in Durham, North Carolina. My interest in this discipline was a response to W. E. B. Du Bois’s question, quoted on a poster that hung on the wall of an elective class during my freshman year of college: “Don’t you understand that the past is the present; that without what was, nothing is?” I majored in political science and dreamed of becoming a politician, but every freshman was required to take a world history course to graduate. I passed the class and vowed never to go back. Up until that point, I embarked upon the study of history under the misconception that most history began with Western thought. “What’s the point of history?” I wondered. But later, in courses like African American History with Dr. Freddie Parker and Black Political Power with Dr. Jarvis Hall, and through my own research in the James E. Shepard Memorial Library, I learned otherwise. In my junior year, I added history as a second major. The rest is, as they say, history. Or was it?
I learned that Africa was the cradle of civilization. I learned our histories included a great deal more than we were usually told. For instance, the largely untold story of Civil Rights legend Ella Baker taught me through her activism that desegregation was “bigger than a hamburger or even a giant-sized Coke.” Sitting at a lunch counter was a means to freedom, not its end. Black freedom was determined by Black resistance at the grassroots, and it was watered by the salted tears shed for the unjustly murdered. In 1955, when fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman—just three months before the Montgomery Bus Boycott inspired by Rosa Parks—it was Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, who chose an open casket funeral for the world to see how white hate had destroyed her baby boy’s face. Freedom was not granted by white enslavers from the top down. Seeds of freedom were not spread by benevolent white planters, for “Southern trees bear strange fruit.” In 1939, Billie Holiday, singing Abel Meeropol’s lyrics for the first time at Café Society in New York City, described the “blood on the leaves, blood at the root” in her controversial performance. I learned those Black masses at the bottom not only fought their white planters to survive but also competed with the shadows cast by trees of bondage for sunlight—toiling in the shadow of that bondage. “Where the elephant war,” goes the African proverb, “the grass suffers.” Like the grass, generations of oppressed people were the casualties of white supremacy. But the responses to those actions weren’t limited to the twentieth century. I discovered that enslaved Africans had long fought for and had an abiding faith in their pursuit of freedom, which was why they fled to parts of this country that recognized them as citizens instead of chattel. And Harriet Tubman, after all, had carried both a shotgun and a Bible.
My interest in history grew into an obsession with documenting political movements so that they would never be perceived merely as moments. Over the course of four years, I worked for five political campaigns and comanaged one. These campaigns included but were not limited to Wanda Bryant for the North Carolina Court of Appeals; Justice Patricia “Pat” Timmons-Goodson for North Carolina Supreme Court; Erskine Bowles for United States Senate; and Beverly Perdue for North Carolina governor. In addition to campaign work, we registered thousands of students to vote and led thousands more students to march to the voting polls. These were historic yet difficult times. On the surface we celebrated the victories of Obama and Governor Perdue, the latter as North Carolina’s first female governor; but beneath, we suffered great loss. Donice Harbor, who’d recruited me to work for Perdue’s campaign and was one of her most trusted allies, who was an active member of the NAACP and a fellow graduate of NCCU, my alma mater, died of cancer eight -months after we made history. It never occurred to me that Donice was undergoing chemotherapy during the campaigns. I sat at her deathbed saddened by her imminent passing. But I was inspired by her last words to me: “Don’t dim your light for anyone, AJ.”