City Hall kicked off its annual Black History month celebrations with a talk by Los Angeles philanthropist and former Xerox Corp. VP Bernard Kinsey about the importance of debunking myths about the absence of blacks in American history. And Mayor Ed Lee, who had just met with five dozen unemployed black construction workers from the Bayview, revealed how, when he was growing up in the projects in Seattle, his neighbors were black, and an African American named Darnell was one of the most loyal patrons of the restaurant that Lee’s father was trying to make succeed.
“And when my dad suddenly died of a heart attack, Darnell was the first person to offer my brother a job at his gas station,” Lee said. “So, this is not just about recognizing African American history, but recognizing what they did for us, and making sure that no there are jobs and we protect the family structure. I know what it is to be helped by the African American culture.”
Lee’s recollections of Darnell came less than an hour after he met with Aboriginal Blackmen United, a group that represents unemployed construction workers in the Bayview, to discuss how its members can get hired at UCSF’s $1.5 billion hospital complex at Mission Bay and other local building sites.
At that meeting, ABU President James Richards thanked Lee for getting UC to clarify the details of its voluntary local hire plan at the Mission Bay hospitals.
But he warned that the fight is just starting. “We’ve got the unions to deal with,” Richards told Lee, referring to the reality that the unions also want their members to get work at the UCSF site.
Lee said he'd do his best to help.
“The African American community in San Francisco has not got its fair share,” he said. “I can’t say that everyone in the room is going to get a job, but I’ll open up doors and do my best."
And then Lee confirmed that local hire is one of his top five priorities.
“My top priorities are the budget, pension reform, the America’s Cup, finding a good police chief and local hire,” he said. “I said that directly to every union leader yesterday. Some unions will be there, others will resist.”
ABU's Richards said the need to have a G.E.D. to get into the city's ob training programs is a barrier to employment for many in the Bayview.
“We have a lot of people, who are not able to get into CityBuild because they don’t take folks anymore who don’t have their G.E.D,” he said.
And he warned that the city’s black community is in crisis.
“I know there is a budget crisis, but this is a life crisis,” Richards said. “Young people are dying and it’s not even newsworthy any more.”
Lee suggested ABU work with the City to avoid the need to hold protests at construction sites in future,
“Let’s plan together, so you don’t have to go to all the sites,” Lee said. “I am for people getting their GED. But if someone has evidence that they are making an attempt to get their GED, we need to reward that with jobs. So that the GED is not a barrier, it’s a hope.”
And then Lee was off to attend his next round of meetings, which included the city’s Black History month event, where speakers noted that during Bernard Kinsey’s career with Xerox, he helped increase the hiring of blacks, Latinos and women,
Kinsey told the audience that he and Shirley Kinsey, his wife of 44 years, share a passion for African-American history and art. And that their world-famous Kinsey Collection, which contains art, books and manuscripts documenting African American triumphs and struggles from 1632 to the present, is currently on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C, and a number of pieces are at the San Francisco African American Historical and Cultural Society. He noted that the posters of African Americans in the Civil War were reproductions of some of the art in those exhibits.
Sup. Malia Cohen noted that about 200,000 African Americans participated in that war. Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who represents the city’s Western Addition, where redevelopment triggered massive displacement of the black community in the 1960s, noted that eight members of the current Board of Supervisors, who selected Lee as the city’s first Chinese American mayor, are people of color.
“This is true representation,” Mirkarimi said, noting that the fact that the city's African American population continues to drop (reportedly down from 6 percent to 3.9 percent, according to the 2010 Census) to “is a reminder that even the most forward-thinking cities have a lot of work to do.”
And Kinsey urged African Americans to start describing their ancestors as “enslaved.”
‘It will change how you look at your ancestors,” he said, “You don’t have a clue about what they sacrificed to get you to where you are today. We don’t tell you the ‘ain’t-it-awful’ story about slavery. We tell you the story of how we overcame.”
“You need three things for a successful life,” Kinsey added “Something to do. Someone to love. And something to look forward to."
Kinsey said he and his wife have espoused two life principles, ‘To whom much is given much is required” and live “A life of no regrets.” And then he told a story about an eagle who was raised by a chicken.
The eagle ended up ashamed of his feathers, because the chickens never told him he was an eagle because they were afraid he’d end up ruling the barnyard.“He even grew up ashamed of his daughters,” Kinsey said.
Eventually, the eagle met another eagle, who told him the truth. "You ain’t no chicken," the other eagle said.
"And this is the message," Kinsey said. "Don’t think chicken thoughts, or dream chicken dreams. Think like an eagle."
He warned the audience to be careful of buying into myths that would have them believe that African Americans played no role in building the U.S.
“There are stories that made America and stories that America made up,” Kinsey said. “And too often, the myth becomes the choice.”
And then he concluded by expounding on “the myth of absence.”
‘”African Americans are not seen, not because of their absence, but because of the presence of a myth that prepares and requires their absence,” Kinsey said. "And the manipulation of the myth changes the color of the past. It’s no accident that the dominate images from the past are white. And many of us have swallowed the pill.”