“I’m just an old historian who only wants one thing, the truth,” said preeminent African and African American historian Carroll “CR” Gibbs, “fussing” with a somewhat heavy heart.
I couldn’t wait to catch up this commemorative week with “CR” or “Brother Gibbs,” as I call him – following his lead whereby he refers to those he addresses first by using the honorific of “brother” or “sister.” I sought his insight because I was certain that this would be an extremely busy and exhilarating time for him, with all the special events, concerts, lectures, panels and activities leading up to the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King’s seminal “I Have a Dream” speech.
Oh, and there’s that Oprah movie, too. And, dare I mention music mogul Russell Simmons’ disrespectful disaster when he allowed a vile video of abolitionist Harriett Tubman to be posted before he had to apologize and take it off the Internet.
Gibbs was indeed very busy and fired up, but not so much in a celebratory mood.
He was feeling so conflicted about the King commemorative events – and the Hollywood box office hit The Butler -- that he said, “I haven’t decided whether to go to the march yet.”
What? That’s like Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) missing a D.C.
Statehood rally like the one planned for Saturday on the mall before the main march.
“How are you going to honor the King of ’63, and not honor the King of ’68 when he was at the zenith of his work?” he said. King was a much better leader and more focused by the time he made his Riverside speech of 1967 against the Vietnam War when he was “in full flower,” Gibbs said.
To focus on the last, ad-libbed words of the 1963 speech is to do the civil rights icon “a disservice,” and Gibbs does not want to be a part of revisionist, watered-down misinformation intended to make people comfortable. “He did more than dream. He had plans.” But, Gibbs noted, “It’s easier to prop up the oratory than the practical suggestions” King made.
The latter-day King had honed his challenges on economic injustice and international advocacy in part against warfare, Gibbs said, and today King would be speaking out, for example, against drone warfare whether the president was Black or White. “If you’re going to invoke his words, you have to keep his legacy of actions alive.”
You have to understand that the professorial Gibbs is a man with a mission who eats, sleeps, dreams and talks about African history across the diaspora every opportunity he gets to set the record straight. He has devoted decades of his life freely, as a labor of love, to researching, documenting, writing, lecturing, traveling and guiding tours about all manner of artifacts, books, memorabilia, and structures having to do with the contributions our African ancestors have made not only to this country but to the world.
Now retired from his federal government job, he frequently appears before classrooms and in church halls still carting his “old school” projector and slides. My students always beg the dramatic Gibbs to give encore lectures.
But don’t invite Brother Gibbs to give one of his fact-packed lectures if you want the white-washed or comfortable version of history. He admits that some audiences don’t invite him back. He frequently speaks out against “disrespectful and untrue” Hollywood-ized docudramas like Lincoln, Red Tails, The Great Debaters, The Help, and now “The Butler,” not only for their blatant historical inaccuracies but also for their “unexplained” and questionable inclusion of gratuitous negative stereotypes and dysfunction that are solely manufactured for box office sales.
“Folks like me keep wondering why Hollywood likes to make movies about those brothers and sisters who witnessed history instead of those who made history,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs bristled this week that so many biographical changes were made about the life of Eugene Allen, upon whose service in the White House The Butler movie was supposedly made, that they had to change the name of his character. “This is not the story of Eugene Allen,” Gibbs said. Allen’s wife was not a boozing, philandering cheater as portrayed by Oprah, they only had one son who was not a militant and who did not die in war; and there is no evidence that Allen ever met King.
“But Lee Daniels is the brother who brought us Precious,” Gibbs pointed out and added that the filmmaker did not include the telling scenes from the original book in which the main character pays homage to Louis Farrakhan and Harriet Tubman.
African Americans, like my students, are so hungry for historical and contemporary images and experiences that replicate a past in which their proud people were present and often leaders in movements that changed the course of human history for the better. But we have to be careful to recognize, and pay attention to the work of humble but honored historians like Carroll Gibbs, to discern the tale for entertainment or appeasement from “the truth.”
Veteran journalist Adrienne Washington writes weekly for the AFRO about relevant issues in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia. Send correspondence to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.