The Dynamic Center: Learning to Listen to History
Prior to starting this column, I would like to thank Brandon Crow and Jason Easley for their kind words about my previous column. When a topic hits close to home, it can be risky to write about it. Also, I am always worried about becoming preachy which is not my favored style of argumentation or communication. Most of my friends know me as being pretty laid back so I was worried my last column came off in a tone not natural to me. The praise of the other 411 staff means a lot to me. One might agree or disagree with that column, but I do feel comfortable that my own tone and style was present in its structure.
Understanding history is quite important for comprehending politics and for appreciating/critiquing our contemporary national situation. This past Wednesday, I had the privilege of driving Rev. Cyprian Davis, OSB from southern Indiana to Dayton, Ohio for an award he was receiving. This duty came about by accident, but I made sure to take advantage of the opportunity. Cyprian Davis is a Benedictine Monk, a historian and a teacher. Cyprian Davis is also an African American. He received his doctorate from Louvain in Belgium and is a faculty member at Saint Meinrad School of Theology in Indiana and Xavier University of Louisiana. To be sure Davis has an impressive list of academic accomplishments, but he is an even more impressive person.
This is not all together surprising. His extended family achieved many things. His great uncle had great success in the U.S. military due to impressive service during the Spanish-American War. His son, and Cyprian’s uncle, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. was the first black graduate from West Point. Cyprian explained that the faculty did not want Benjamin to graduate and thus no one spoke to him for four years while he pursued his degree. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. went on to be a part of the Tuskegee Airmen. Pioneering seems to be in the Davis blood.
My father told me prior to making the drive that “Dan, I know you like to talk and share your opinions, but make sure you take the time to listen while you are driving tomorrow.” This was one of those statements that rang so true that only a parent could say it and elicit a smile from the recipient. Had anyone else said this to me, I would have been quite angry.
During our roughly four hour drive, I had the chance to ask him questions and more importantly listen to his life story. Davis grew up in Washington, DC in a ferment of intellectual activity. His father was a faculty member at Howard University. Davis explained to me that Howard as founded after the Civil War in 1867 by the Freedmen’s Bureau. It became a magnet for African American intellectuals. Davis’ father was on the faculty with Thurgood Marshall, a future U.S. Supreme Court Justice. I asked him if he ever met Marshall, and Davis replied that he either had not or did not know who Marshall was if a brief meeting ever occurred.
This was not true of another Howard faculty member, Ralph Bunche who lived on the same street as Cyprian Davis’ family. Bunche was an African American diplomat who championed decolonization and helped hammer out the cease fire of the first Arab-Israeli War in 1949. Bunche received the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his work. During our conversations, Davis commented, “Bunche was truly a great man. He was however bothered because some viewed his approach to civil rights to be too focused on legal action and not outspoken enough.” Davis believed that Bunche was a firm supporter of African American advancement, but that his style was different from that of the more vocal leaders who emerged in the 1960’s.
This leads me to Davis’ own involvement in the Civil Rights movement. Davis participated in the 1963 March on Washington and was an eye witness to history as he heard Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Davis also traveled to protest in Selma, Alabama. Finally, he took a stance against Chicago’s policy of shooting to kill protestors in 1968 after Martin Luther King’s assassination. These actions speak to the courage of a slightly built, dignified, introverted monk and scholar of medieval history. Davis’ quiet and humble demeanor should not be confused for weakness. I have concluded that his life of quiet virtue has given him the strength to confront social ills with great serenity.
Davis wrote The History of Black Catholics in the United States that was published in 1990. Davis recalled asking venerable historian John Tracy Ellis why no work had been done on this topic. Ellis responded that no documents existed pertaining to black Catholics so such research would be impossible. Davis’ narration of what happened next was priceless. He stated, “I did not view this as a defeat because I knew from my training as a medieval historian that documents always exist.” Davis tenaciously reconstructed lost accounts of history by pouring through archives in places such as Saint Augustine, FL and Vatican City. Davis noted that baptismal records, marriage records and death records kept by churches included information about the racial background of the people in a given area. Using this data, he discovered that the Spanish soldiers that helped found and guard Saint Augustine Florida were of African origin. He also discovered that the sometimes draconian popes of the 19th century were quite frustrated with the conduct of United States bishops toward African Americans both before and after the Civil War. In short, Davis’ determined search through archives shed light on an ignored and unexplored aspect of history.
Davis’ recent work has come full circle in many ways. He is the archivist at his monastery and is the preeminent scholar in Black Catholic studies. His notoriety, skills as a historian and experience as an archivist have led him to doing work among male and female religious communities in West Africa setting up and improving their various archival collections.
I was lucky enough to spend four hours asking a few questions, making a few comments and mainly listening and trying to absorb the insights and memories of a man who has lived through and participated in many of the key eras of African American history. How often do I get insights and personal anecdotes about a Nobel Peace Prize winners? How often do I meet a person who participated in peaceful protests in Selma Alabama? How often do I meet people who heard the “I Have a Dream” speech in person? How often do I meet people who have traveled extensivly in West Africa? I was fortunate enough to have this opportunity.
I would imagine that not every person has a relative who was a trailblazer in the U.S. military or has lived in the neighborhood of Howard University at a time in which Thurgood Marshall and Ralph Bunche were on the faculty. However, our elders have lived through a great deal of history. These people have anecdotes and personal experiences that bring history off of the pages and into more full and accurate relief. However, these stories do us no good if we are not willing to listen. These stories also do little if we do not remember them and pass them on ourselves. Developing an ear for history is not easy, but the stories are all around us. We simply must learn to listen. Thankfully, my dad was wise enough to push me toward listening.