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Cliff Notes for Black History Month

If you’re a teacher looking for a lesson plan or a student looking for a topic on which to write a paper in connection with Black History Month, here are some articles that have not been widely publicized.

• In the beginning, Cannabis was brought to the Americas by slaves. “EthnoBotany of the Black Americans“ by William Ed Grimé is a well-researched, succinct book listing 242 plant species introduced and/or used by Black slaves in the Americas. Among them were okra, peanut, akee, cannabis, African palm, blackeyed peas, certain types of yam, and broad beans.

The uses to which these plants were put, according to a chart summarizing Grimé’s research, were: “Medicinal,” “Food,” “Household,” “Relaxation,” “Traps and Poisons,” “Clothing,” and “Superstitions and Religion.” Cannabis was introduced by slaves and used for medicine and relaxation!

There is some evidence that Brazil was the point of entry. “‘Diamba’ and ‘riamba’ are terms [for cannabis] used by West African negroes,” according to a scholar cited by Grimé, “and the same terms are used in Brazil.”

Another researcher found that cannabis use among slaves “was extremely prevalent in Brazil… It was cultivated chiefly in certain regions in the northern part where it was smoked in special pipes which passed the smoke through water or it was sometimes smoked in the form of a cigarette or cigar.”

Grimé’s text was republished in full in Folk Medicine in America Today by John Heinerman, PhD (Kensington Publishing, New York, 1971).

• John C. Merritt, MD, as a young ophthalmologist on the faculty at Howard University College of Medicine in the 1970s, conducted pioneering studies establishing that smoking marijuana lowers intraocular pressure and therefore can be a treatment for glaucoma. “My interest in marijuana’s IOP-reducing properties was twofold,” said Merritt. “First, glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness and improved medical treatments for the disease are critically needed. Second, glaucoma disproportionately affects people of color.” Marijuana in the Treatment of Glaucoma: an Affidavit by Dr. Merritt, describes the case of Robert Randall, who faced blindness in his late 20s and became the first patient to get marijuana from the US government.

James A. Washington former dean of the Howard University Law School, was the Washington, DC, Superior Court Judge who in 1976 presided over United States v. Robert Randall. Judge Washington’s decision to accept Randall’s “medical necessity” argument led to the federal government’s begrudging creation of an “investigational new drug” protocol in the late 1970s. 

• Louis Armstrong discussed the benefits of cannabis so often and so openly that historian Michael Krawitz calls him “the first marijuana activist.” Armstrong was busted for possession (accused of violating the California Poison Act) in November, 1930. He was sentenced to 30 days but served only nine thanks to an influential club owner who had booked him to perform. According to biographer Terry Teachout, “At one point he started writing a book in which he called for the legalization of marijuana, declaring it to be ‘an assistant, a friend... a thousand times better than whiskey.’ He left behind two posthumously published accounts of his experiences with the intoxicant herb in which he admitted to having enjoyed it enormously. The least hypocritical of men, he saw no reason to conceal the fact, known to all his friends, that he smoked pot nearly every day: ‘I felt at no time when ever I ran across some of that good shit, that I was breaking the law, or some foolish thought similar to it’.” Some of Armstrong’s riffs on the subject can be found on line under: “Tight Gage —More a Medicine Than a Dope.”

• Some 500 “tea-pads” were operating in Harlem in the late 1930s, according to a commission established by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (the hero of Howard Zinn’s first published book). Descriptions of these proto-dispensaries by unbiased undercover police are quoted in O’Shaughnessy’s piece LaGuardia/Zinn: “The marihuana smoker derives greater satisfaction if he is smoking in the presence of others. His attitude in the ‘tea-pad’ is that of a relaxed individual, free from the anxieties and cares of the realities of life. The ‘tea-pad’ takes on the atmosphere of a very congenial social club. The smoker readily engages in conversation with strangers, discussing freely his pleasant reactions to the drug and philosophizing on subjects pertaining to life in a manner which, at times, appears to be out of keeping with his intellectual level. A constant observation was the extreme willingness to share and puff on each other’s cigarettes. A boisterous, rowdy atmosphere did not prevail and on the rare occasions when there appeared signs indicative of a belligerent attitude on the part of a smoker, he was ejected or forced to become more tolerant and quiescent.

“One of the most interesting setups of a ‘tea-pad, which was clearly not along orthodox lines from the business point of view, was a series of pup tents arranged on a roof-top in Harlem. Those present proceeded to smoke their cigarettes in the tents. When the desired effect of the drug had been obtained they all merged into the open and engaged in a discussion of their admiration of the stars and the beauties of nature.”

• Kareem-Abdul Jabbar’s wonderful book, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” is an appreciation of Jabbar has long been open about using cannabis to treat migraine headaches. The highest-scoring player in NBA history, he retired at age 40 and would have been a great head coach — but he was blacklisted by the owners.

• Today it is hardly news when a professional athlete endorses a line of CBD products. But in 2004, when it ran on O’Shaughnessy’s front-page, it was a big story. The great running back was losing money by taking the stand he did. GlaxoSmithKline had used him as the “poster child” for Paxil, a Serotonin-Reuptake Inhibitor they were marketing for “Social Anxiety Disorder” (formerly known as “shyness.”) Williams told the media, “Marijuana is 10 times better for me than Paxil.” And, “I didn’t quit football because I failed a drug test. I failed a drug test because I was ready to quit football.” When he returned to the NFL to fulfill his contract, Mike Wallace gloated on 60 Minutes that the power of money had prevailed. Williams told Wallace, “My loyalty is to the truth, not to consistency.” 

Ball Don’t Lie honors Rasheed Wallace, Clifford Robinson and Zach Randolph — three great basketball players busted for using marijuana to help deal with the heavy pounding their bodies had to take.

The Naulls Case: The Nanny State vs. Parents’ Rights describes a nightmare that countless parents who use marijuana have faced: Child Protective Services snatching their kids.

The Obama Administration’s Marijuana Policy is an objective look at the record of our first African-American president in his first year in office.

Franklin Nails ‘Decriminalization’  The director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition explains why decriminalization is a meaningless demand.

Dr. Abrams’ recruitment problem — A planned clinical trial of cannabis as a treatment for Sickle Cell disease couldn’t get off the ground because so many Black people knew that it worked (and didn’t want to risk being treated with a placebo when they were in severe pain).

Joycelyn Elders, MD was too honest and outspoken to keep her job as US Surgeon General under Bill Clinton. 

Ignored as Doulas, Acknowledged as Specimens — Deborah Patterson Small forwarded an NPR piece about “black women in the development of modern gynecology, as subjects of experimentation…missing is the role of black women as midwives and nurses whose medical knowledge was passed down from generation to generation.”

• At the upcoming Super Bowl we will again have to endure a strangling of The Star Spangled Banner and glorification of the military. Before the first games of the soon-to-end NFL season, players stood for Alicia Keys singing The Appropriate Anthem. Given that most of the players are Black, why not precede football and basketball games with “Lift Every Voice and Sing?” The first verse is moving, inclusive, relatively sing-able, and doesn’t glorify bombs bursting through air. Fans singing along would be supporting their team “till victory.”

Lift every voice and sing

Till earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise,

High as the list’ning skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on till victory is won.

“‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’“ was publicly performed first as a poem as part of a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, 1900, by 500 school children at the segregated Stanton School. Its principal, James Weldon Johnson, wrote the words to introduce its honored guest Booker T. Washington. The poem was set to music soon after by Johnson’s brother John in 1905. In 1919, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) dubbed it “The Negro National Anthem.” (Thanks, Wikipedia)

YouTube has many renditions of “Lift Every Voice…” Many performers do something special with it. Ray Charles, the greatest piano player ever — backed by the Raelettes in pastel gospel gowns on the Dick Cavett show in 1972 — modifies the words and jazzes it up, dropping the second verse. An abbreviated instrumental version is the theme music for W. Kaumu Bell’s great show on CNN, “The United Shades of America.”

The ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ was first played during the seventh-inning stretch of a 1918 World Series game between the Cubs and the Red Sox in Chicago. US Americans were fighting in World War I and there was such patriotic fervor that Gene Debs, the antiwar Socialist who had gotten a million votes for President two years earlier, was imprisoned for sedition. Fans loved the hideous ballad so much that the team made it a regular feature and ticket sales went up. Herbert Hoover designated it “the national anthem” in 1931.

The words “under God” were added to the pledge of allegiance in the 1950s when patriotic/religious fervor had been whipped up by the Cold War against atheistic Communism. “Under God” broke the rhythm for those of us accustomed to saying “…one-nation-indivisible-with-liberty-and-justice-for-all.”

The singing of “God Bless America” during the 7th inning stretch at baseball games was introduced in response to patriotic/religious fervor following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

The waves of fervor may subside a bit as the years ago by, but the pseudo-patriotic rituals go on forever.

One Comment

  1. Pat Kittle February 9, 2022


    Accurate comments not supporting the author will likely be censored.


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