We Need to Talk About Black History

It’s so much more than slavery, MLK Jr., and rap’s founding fathers.

Jeremy Helligar

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U.S. President Richard Nixon presents Harlem Renaissance maestro Duke Ellington with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969 (White House Photo Office Collection)

It’s eight p.m. at Zula Sound Bar in Cape Town, and dinner with Brendan, a thirty-year-old white man from Pittsburgh, is about to turn into an unexpected history lesson.

Brendan has temporarily relocated to Cape Town for a two-month internship after spending three years in Cameroon with the Peace Corps. He’s engaged to a Cameroonian, so he has every intention of returning, although he realizes the wind (and the Peace Corps) could eventually blow him and his husband-to-be anywhere.

Tonight, though, his mind is on Johannesburg. His Peace Corps internship is sending him on his first trip there next week, so naturally I’m inclined to offer my glowing impression of my favorite South African city. The artsy Melville district is a must-do, I insist, especially Sophiatown Bar Lounge, easily its best hot spot.

“There was a live jazz band, and the crowd was mostly black and beautiful,” I say, describing the night I walked into Sophiatown to order takeout and left hours later with one of my most indelible South Africa memories.

“I felt as if I’d stepped into a time-travel machine and ended up in the Harlem Renaissance,” I say.

Crickets. Brendan looks at me, his expression suddenly blank and impenetrable. He was right beside me on Memory Lane, and now he’s thoroughly lost.

“The Harlem Renaissance?”

“Yeah, I’m serious. It was like I was back in the 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance.” I’ve mistaken his strange expression for incredulity.

“What is that? I’ve never heard of it. Was that in Harlem?”

I try to hide my shock as I explain to him the black artistic movement of New York City’s roaring twenties, the iconic one that gave the world Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, Cotton Club, and so many of the writers who influenced the writers who influenced me.

I mention none of them, only Langston Hughes, anticipating a flicker of recognition. Doesn’t everyone know Langston Hughes?

Nothing. I’m taken so completely off-guard that I never bring up the Apartheid Museum, site of my most defining…

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Jeremy Helligar

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj