February is Black History Month, and before we turn the page on the calendar, I want to say thank you to some of the Americans of African descent who have enriched my life.
Thank you to George Washington Carver for his work with peanuts. While he didn’t invent peanut butter, which was my impression-the Aztecs actually did-he is sometimes given credit. He promoted the crop, supplied recipes using peanuts, and developed around 100 products made from peanuts, not to mention his many other contributions as a scientist, botanist, educator, role model, and inventor. I used to sit down with a spoon and eat peanut butter straight out of the jar. I ate my way through high school on peanut butter, Miracle Whip, mustard, and lettuce sandwiches. Okay, now I can hear the collective yuck! out there, but before you knock it, try one: peanut butter on both pieces of unhealthy white bread, mustard on one side, Miracle Whip on the other- and here’s the secret- a thick batch of iceberg lettuce in between. Williams Sonoma recipe inventor, eat your heart out.
I may get hammered for my next choice, and I grieve for the heavy hearts and weary bodies that sought respite and strength in them and gave them life, but I value the Negro Spirituals, or Afro-American Spirituals, as they are now labeled in my church hymnal. Spirituals are filled with lovely harmony and melody, succinct lyrics, are sincere in their faith, and provide hope and comfort when listened to or sung. These songs obviously mean something entirely different to me than to their original composers and the black experience today, but the songs nevertheless provide me with beautiful music to comfort my soul and express my faith.
Seems to me the spirituals must surely have given rise to modern day blues, another musical genre that the black community has given us, and one that I enjoy immensely. Thank you especially to B.B. King, the wonderful Etta James, and Bobby “Blue” Bland for their brand of blues. Blues speak to the unhappy human condition, but by the time the song ends and the soulful harmonies enjoyed, the listener is beginning to smile, shakes it off, and is a bit more ready to face the adversities that may have to be dealt with next.
And then there is the incomparable Ray Charles. From his early R&B albums to his country music arrangements, I have them all. During my high school days I would put a stack of his LPs on the stereo and not drift off to sleep until they had all played. I loved it.
As to other black voices that I love to hear, thanks goes to Tina Turner, The Platters, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, Johnny Mathis Earth, Wind, and Fire, Pointer Sisters, Quincy Jones (am I showing my age or what?) that grace my stereo on many occasions.
And I have to pay homage to Whitney Houston in what had to be her finest hour, performing our National Anthem at the Super Bowl. She didn’t miss a note, didn’t forget the words, and didn’t do anything stupid at the end. The sheer joy and exuberance with which she sang, smiled, and waved to the crowd couldn’t help but make me smile and always brings tears to my eyes every time I hear and see her performance.
Thank you to Ethel Mae, who was the housekeeper for my friend Carol Sue’s family growing up and who always looked after us when necessary, and to the other black women who kept the households running smoothly and the children on their best behavior. Just like the women recognized in the movie The Help, they were brave, strong, and contributed to many a family’s success then, and many still do even now, I suspect.
Thank you to George who was employed by my dad for more than 25 years. I don’t know that I ever knew his last name- kids don’t worry about stuff like that- but I do remember that there were weekends every now and then that George would sort of overdo things. Daddy would get a call on a Monday morning and then go retrieve him out of jail, after which it would just be work as usual. George was a valued employee and friend.
I have no philosophical, profound conclusion to all this rambling. I just wanted to say thank you to the black Americans who have touched my life in some way. Your gifts have been many, and I am glad you shared them with America. And me.