Choosing heroes: a lesson in American black history

IT was February 1955, my senior year of high school. In just four months my classmates and I would step from our cocoons into a world vastly different from the one previous graduating classes had entered. The year before, in May, the United States Supreme Court had handed down its momentous school desegregation decision. The war against segregation was over; all that was left now was ``mopping up'' activity, and we were eager to pitch in to do our share of kicking down the remaining barriers and binding up wounds. All signals were GO! Such euphoria and naivet'e are an American tradition at the end of a lengthy and painful experience. Just as the 4th of July had taken on extra special meaning in the years immediately after the great wars, Negro History Week for us in 1955 was more important than it had ever been. We had the privilege, with exhibits and programs, of honoring black heroes who had contributed to our ``victory.'' It was time to praise the dead, to pin medals on the living.

I was thrilled and proud when selected to serve on the committee that was to plan our school's observance. My job was to write short biographies that would appear under the drawings and photographs of the historical figures that would be displayed in the main lobby. At last I would be able to use my storehouse of adjectives to describe such people as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Ralph Bunche.

Our committee's after-school meetings were chaotic and noisy; ideas burst from our heads like exploding kernels of popcorn. I recorded all suggestions, and assured everyone that I would somehow incorporate all the material in the limited space I was being allotted. I was a writer, wasn't I?

One day one of the members recommended an addition to the exhibit. Maggie, a thin girl who wore her long hair in unstylish pigtails, caused a hush to fall over the meeting when she drew a large photo of Paul Robeson from an envelope. We stared at the picture, then looked at each other in stunned silence.

Maggie was the quietest member of our group, and her soft, clear voice always commanded attention on the rare occasions she decided to speak. We usually accepted her recommendations without discussion, because she, the daughter of a minister, was creative and sensible.

This time, however, we weren't so sure that Maggie was on the right track. Paul Robeson a hero?

Yes, we knew he had been an all-American football player at Rutgers who later became a renowned singer, and had been the first black to play the lead role in a major production of Shakespeare's ``Othello.'' Most of us had heard his recordings, and some had even seen a few of his movies. There was no doubt in our minds that Paul Robeson was an interesting person. But a hero?

We were living in post-McCarthy era America; and as young as we were, we had nevertheless been infected with the anticommunist mania that was still pervasive in the country. All of us knew of Paul Robeson's blatant and shocking communist affiliations, and had often heard them denounced from pulpit and podium. To include him in our exhibit would be inviting community criticism and, worse, the wrath of school administrators.

Maggie stood her ground, though, and wouldn't let her recommendation be dismissed without a fight. We squirmed in our seats as we listened to her calmly delivered argument, but became motionless when her voice suddenly filled with emotion as she asked: ``Why do we always let `them' pick our heroes? Why do our schools always have to be named Dunbar, Carver, or Booker T. Washington? Is it because they're on some kind of approved list? Will we ever be ready to decide for ourselves who our heroes are?''

Such a challenge could not go unanswered. Opposition, which a moment before had loomed like a solid black wall, instantly dissolved. Only one dissenting vote was cast against including Robeson in the exhibit: mine.

As the son of a World War II veteran, I remained unconvinced that Paul Robeson deserved our recognition and acclaim. He hadn't fought for this country, I pointed out, and hadn't stood up for it when it was criticized abroad. (One who intended to someday write the Great American Novel was supposed to wrap himself in the flag, wasn't he?) I ended my protest with a defiant look at Maggie, and declared that I wouldn't know what to write about such an ``unpatriotic'' person.

Maggie looked at me without blinking; but instead of returning my defiance, her eyes were understanding and forgiving. Finally, she spoke in the soft voice that she had abandoned a moment before, and said: ``I've already written it.''

The vignette Maggie had written was the shortest in the exhibit, and at the time I was more than a little resentful of the favorable comments it received. As the years passed, however, and events showed that the struggle for fair treatment was far from over, I remembered with gratitude those few words under that stark, black-and-white photo:

We applaud Paul Robeson for inspiring us to have the courage of our convictions, even when they are not approved by others.

What Maggie taught me was that our heroes must be our own, even if they march to a different drummer. We must be the ones who judge their deeds; we must decide for ourselves whether or not to share their vision.

Hosea L. Martin is a free-lance writer in Piedmont, Calif.

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