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The swag side of black history

OPINION

  • Former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington with Oprah Winfrey
Former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington with Oprah Winfrey (Chicago Tribune file photo )
February 07, 2012|By Grant Yanney, For RedEye

February always has marked a special time for me on the calendar. Not because my mom celebrates her birthday this month. And no, I'm not talking about Valentine's Day, even though we all have to give Cupid props from time to time. February is Black History Month.

When I was in college, I used to get really into it. One year I changed my Facebook profile picture to a different black leader every day.

Why the excitement? It's something about history that gets me charged up. All history, really.

As a shorty, I took a picture with then-Mayor Harold Washington at a Halloween party. I'm saving that picture to one day show my son or daughter. Imagine telling your child about meeting the first black mayor of the third-largest city in the country. That's a cool story. Everybody has a story, and I've always appreciated hearing lessons from the past.

Knowing where my people come from, for example. Like many of Chicago's black folk, a lot of my family has roots in the South. My dad was born and raised in Ghana. When I studied abroad, I was able to walk inside a slave castle that many of my ancestors traversed before their passage across the Atlantic. It was sobering. Polarizing even, but it was a life-changing experience.

Knowing where you come from can humble you. It also can empower you and inspire you to fight mediocrity. I can't knowingly be wack when I've come from black excellence.

Madam C.J. Walker was a self-made millionaire long before Oprah. Before Dr. Cornel West was lecturing and penning books, scholars such as Dr. Carter G. Woodson and Dr. W.E.B. DuBois were stimulating progressive discourse among the masses.

I'm speaking about leaders here. Truthfully, I wish there were more. Too many youths are content being followers in these streets. Too much swag and not enough striving.

But my generation is going to be all right. We're going to groove! The 20-somethings of the world just need to be cognizant of the struggles of those before them. Work hard. Strive for the betterment. Be able to endure hardships and remember how we felt when we got through them.

It pains me to see people give up. Common, one of my favorite rappers from the South Side (the best side), said it best on his song "Nag Champa": "If you're not gonna respect self, at least respect the heritage."

Many of our ancestors carried gargantuan boulders on their tattered backs, but they still walked—with much character, I might add. That's another reason why this month is so important. It's just a reminder. Another reminder to transcend. A memento to be great. Not great for a month, but to excel all the time.

There are many young folks who know they can be great just like all the luminaries we celebrate this month. We need to exalt culture every day. Pay homage. If it helps, leave race out of it. Just study greatness in general.

Be great yourself and remember you walk with kings. Happy Black History Month.

GRANT YANNEY IS A REDEYE SPECIAL CONTRIBUTOR.

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