Tone .Are

_ The Boy Who Fathered History _

In Uncategorized on January 25, 2011 at 3:53 am

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There once was a Puerto Rican boy with a Jewish last name. But “Arturo”, we imagine being hollered out for him from recaito calling in the kitchen.

His Mother’s voice simmering Africanized dialects blending her native colony of St. Croix with the colonized Spanish of the U.S. possessed Puerto Rico; their identity could not be distinguished in syllables.

But if there was one thing which appeared to be clear to those who knew the young man, it was the color of his natural Brown skin; thus, if there was one thing that was to become clear for him, it was that he was Black.
AND THAT,
contrary to the ignorance of those who get an A+ for their ability to draw a distinction between his and their own melanin, was a fact which could never be validated in the simple likeness to a crayon…

It was as a student, that he, like the rest of us, stood the most logical chance to access an identity for his distinctions as a being. But as history tells it, he was to learn biology and the nature of his body; he was to learn mathamatics and it’s relation to resource in his world; he was to learn the imperial languages, and religion and their imposed relevance to him as a colonial subject. …But he was not taught about what it was to be Puerto Rican. And when, as legend goes, he inquired about where Black people like him fit into the education assimilating them into their identity at the time, his teacher responded with news he’d be destined to question.. and inform:

“Blacks have no history, heroes, or accomplishment.”

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My Junior year at St. John’s University never happened. We weren’t a month removed from 9/11/2001 when I showed up to the registrars office to pull myself out; at which point I was informed that I had already been dropped. I had not been on time with filing for financial aid, which was no surprise, coming off having dragged through the Spring, already half certain that I didn’t want to be in school. But like the news I received on that day, there were alot of timely occurrences taking shape around me; occurrences which would stand to signify a great transition in my life.

Some days after 9/11 I was stopped by School Safety in the dark of night for posting a letter I had written, around campus. The letter is vague for me now, as I simply recall it addressing how people of color must stick together in this time. I remember I signed it “Rivera”. Looking back I am a bit amazed at how radicalized I must have already been, to find myself squinting in that flashlight.
Only a year prior I was dying my hair blond, wearing Banana Republic, and rocking an eye brow ring. Only six months prior I was being taught a shameful yet necessary lesson during a spring break trip in Puerto Rico; having been stopped and humiliated by police when one of my classmate friends was caught peeing off a bridge in Isla Verde; and being robbed at gun point only a day later, where we were rolled up on, walking about a mile outside of Old San Juan at 2:30 in the morning.

The workload I agreed to take on as News Editor for the school paper (The Torch), was only additional weight atop the heavy burden of confusion I was wallowing in. There is no particular moment I can think to pinpoint as the start of my enlightenment. I think for People of Color, and certainly, for Black People there is an inherent meter of self determination which clocks us from the earliest moment we recognize ourselves to be ‘outsiders’. Some of us eventually silence it as guilt, some of us empower it as pride. I was somewhere between those two places as the result of an assortment of experiences I was stuck reflecting on. One day a Brother showed up to my dorm suite with a list of CD’s he was burning to hustle some revenue. Scaling down the list my sight stopped to give precedence to a name I had heard circulating, amongst what I would later learn to distinguish as the ‘back packer’ crowd. Mos Def. A couple of months with my head in “Black on Both Sides” and the “Blackstarr” CD and my perception of self was in the process of transformation. But there was a conditioned fear I had yet gotten over, one which would take time, and a greater need to identify love for mine and ours in the midst of my new-found contempt for them and theirs. I was entrusted to write up a story on Maya Angelou when she was invited to speak by Haraya and the Black Student Union. When the Sister whom invited me to the event read the article as a sidebar story, she showed up to tell me off and never spoke to me again. I knew I had to break myself down, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to get the voices in my heart to listen as much as they spoke over me, until I came to confront my inflicted oppression; my compromise for comfort. Centuries of pain were uprooting in me and I couldn’t prevent it, from reaffirming itself in my presence. So I pained with it.

“Can I ask you a question,” I would eventually confront myself, through a conversation I had with a Brother in the private corner of a loud bar room. Enoch was a member of a Black & Latino fraternity, whom had invited me to hang once or twice. “Does it ever come off that, I’m faking it?”

He didn’t need me to elaborate on the question. Enoch knew exactly what I was heading at. Since coming to St. John’s I had linked myself with the white crowd. Whenever a Latino or Black American Brother or Sister came into the fray, I would be cool with them so much as I gauged they were cool with me, but there was a sense of abandonment I would feel should my white friends begin to latch onto that Brother/Sister more than me. And from that would grow a sense of resentment against my own, Brown, peoples…

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It would be some time before I ventured to look into the Puerto Rican Studies program at Hunter College, but when I was eventually prepared to declare myself ready to return to school that’s exactly what I did. I didn’t need training to be a Journalist I convinced myself, Journalists get on via their work ethic; I didn’t WANT a career for a career’s sake, my passion for writing, I assured myself, would eventually bring me a livelihood. All I wanted for the time being, was to nurture the knowledge of self I witnessed growing in my face and glowing on my hands. I needed to know my history.
It’s a journey which I may have never brought to pass had it not been for the decision to enroll into a Black History class that Fall Semester of my Junior Year that never happened at St. John’s.

Lost in the turbulence and gone in the time since, to my regret, is his name (although something rings about Mr. Cliffords). He was an Elder. For the few weeks I WAS in school, his presence grew on me to be that of a Journeyed Man. He wasn’t simply an educator. His face was weathered and his voice, his words, choppy and low. He delivered unapologetically, and it wasn’t as though he was instructing. He almost seemed to come in the room and just chat; inquiring more about our personal day to day and bringing up current events than engaging us on any heavy text book matter. On the first day he passed out a syllabus of readings and assignments, yet the classes to follow, for as long as I remained, broke from such academic convention. I felt a natural allure to his narrative, as he spoke of having been around, living up in Harlem during the Renaissance times, and gave accounts of how Bumpy Johnson used to cut people. For a good while I was apprehensive to speak, feeling invisible in my beige skin and unsteady cool. Then came the day he ensued lulling up and down, between rows as was his manner, to come this time, to a stop before me.

“You ever hear about Arthur Schomburg,” he asked, to which I shook my head for a timid no. “You look like Arthur Schomburg.” He finished.

There was no discussion on Arthur Schomburg to follow, and that was the extent of my interaction with him that day. I simply sat, giving my eyes to him as he moved about the room offering occasional references and allusions to others, as he had to me. I sat, scribbling the name into my notebook, I had to get to a computer and find out who this “Schomburg” was and whether I truly did look like him.

Later on that day I did my research, and while I couldn’t see how “Mr. Cliffords” saw any resemblance, I could see the method in his genius. For Arthur Schomburg has become as much apart of me as my people have, and as I have my people, since that fateful event.

As a Puerto Rican born in New York It had never occurred to me that Puerto Rico had a history much less that I am a product of it.. Soon I’d learn about colonization and forced migration, about Pedro Albizu Campos and Luis Munoz Marin (whom my elementary school was named after, yet I had not been taught about), even about Puerto Ricans who’ve made history in New York, from The Young Lords Party to the Nuyorican Poets Movement. I would learn that as Puerto Rican, I am likely to be of mixed ethnicity consisting of African, Taino Indian, and Spanish European ancestry; which came across to me like a slap upside the head when I thought of how my Grandmother is a Brown Woman with course hair and my Great Grandmother custard white. ….I would learn about myself.

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Boy did Arturo Schomburg prove his teacher wrong!
After studying “Negro Literature” in the Virgin Islands, he traveled to New York City where he came in immediate contact with the Black experience here. He declared himself “Afroborinqueno”/”Afro Puerto Rican”, and began to live into his vision to both free Puerto Rico from U.S. Colonialism & to educate himself and in turn, the Black Man on his rich and significant history in America. If our teachers weren’t going to do it, he was!

Over the course of his research, Schomburg gathered 10,000 historical writings and artifacts which provided a foundation for the Harlem Renaissance, and established him as a mentor to such seminal historians as John Henrik Clarke. It is a contribution so great it has earned him from some, the label: “Father of Black History”

I think about how still today there are young boys and girls whose histories are not taught them in school. How as a result we grow into roles which have been ascribed us; into avatars of ourselves, customized to know what we need to know, to get up and to go work running this system day in and out. I think about what a chance turn my own life had to take for me to learn about myself, and how the reality is, 99% of us will never see through the matrix. But one of us counts for something… after all, the fate of our whole history hinged on a little Black Puerto Rican boy with a Jewish last name, to save it from disappearing from the face of the earth.

Through that one little boy, I had my rebirth.

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– Tone Are

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