January 1, 2020 / The New York Times
A basketball star took a sabbatical to help free a man she believed was wrongly convicted. Residents of a neighborhood in Mobile, Ala., sought to raise the sunken Clotilda, the last slave ship to reach the United States, as a way of reconnecting with their ancestors. Chinese railroad workers were finally recognized for the pivotal role they played in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.
At a time when disinformation, hate crimes, inequality and white supremacy seem to be on the rise, stories like these helped amplify the voices of the unheard and raise awareness about efforts across the country to curb the rising tide of racial injustice. They were stories about bravery and celebrating difference. They were stories that provided a little dose of optimism.
Firsts for the First Americans
It was a year of firsts for many Native Americans. Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, became the first Native American to hold the post of poet laureate, and the Cherokee Nation sought to send its first delegate, Kimberly Teehee, to Congress.
“Molly of Denali” became the first nationally distributed children’s series with a Native American lead, according to PBS. An exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art shined a light on over a thousand years of art made by Native American women. And the Navajos, one of the largest tribes in the United States, shattered long-held stereotypes of “cowboys and Indians” with their country music circuit.
That wasn’t all. In San Francisco, Indigenous people from the United States and Canada gathered to commemorate the 50 years since dozens of Native Americans occupied Alcatraz Island to defy a government they said had long trampled on their rights. “I do it for my grandchildren, for the future generation,” one participant said.
Diversity in State Politics
The current House of Representatives is the most racially diverse in history, but across the country, other local governments are becoming more diverse as well.
In Boston, voters backed progressive women and people of color to usher in a City Council more diverse than any in the city’s history. Montgomery, Ala., a cradle of civil rights, elected its first black mayor, Steven Reed. The country’s youngest black state legislator, 19-year-old Caleb Hanna, was elected in West Virginia.
And even where there is racist resistance to this change, elected leaders are pushing back and finding support. After Shahid Shafi, a Muslim immigrant, won a county Republican Party leadership role in Texas, his critics tried to have him removed on the grounds that his religion disqualified him for the job. Mr. Shafi survived the challenge.
“There has just been an outpouring of support,” he said.
A Black Art Renaissance
For the first time, New York City Ballet’s “Nutcracker” had a black Marie. She was played by Charlotte Nebres, 11, who said she was inspired by Misty Copeland, the first female African-American principal at American Ballet Theater.
“When I saw someone who looked like me onstage, I thought, that’s amazing,” Charlotte said. “She was representing me and all the people like me.” This was among several milestones for black artists in theater and dance and fine art this year.
“Slave Play” opened on Broadway and quickly became the subject of much discussion. The play, written by Jeremy O. Harris, has been called “one of the best and most provocative new works to show up on Broadway in years.” It has also caused a roaring debate regarding how Americans go about confronting racism in their daily lives.
Elsewhere in the arts, Lonnie G. Bunch III became the first African-American to lead the Smithsonian Institution and Ashley James became the first full-time black curator at the Guggenheim. Museums took steps to acknowledge the role of slavery in the lives of some of the nation’s most revered figures and American opera companies explored questions of race, identity and the criminal justice system.
Faith and Devotion
Many immigrants share a growing fear of deportation amid the Trump administration’s crackdown. In a sign of unity and support, Catholic bishops recently elected Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, a pastor to many immigrant communities, as their leader.
A rising number of American Catholics are of Hispanic descent — about 40 percent — and Archbishop Gomez himself is a naturalized United States citizen born in Mexico. And he has vowed to defend immigrants. In September, he celebrated Mass during a three-day, 60-mile walking pilgrimage in solidarity with families separated at the border.
Other signs of unity and support were made with an eye on the past. Pope Francis put Augustine Tolton, an enslaved African who escaped to freedom during the Civil War and became the first black Catholic priest in the United States, on the path to sainthood.
When Father Tolton was a young man, no Catholic seminary in the United States would admit him because he was black. He studied in Rome instead, and eventually made his way to Chicago, where he ministered to the poor and built the community at St. Monica’s Catholic Church, which served African-Americans.
And two seminaries, Princeton Theological Seminary and Virginia Theological Seminary, began to confront their historical ties to slavery by pledging to create reparation funds.
When the Toronto Raptors became the first team outside the United States to win an N.B.A. championship, the streets of the city were filled with turbans and hijabs and the sounds of diverse accents.
The multicultural fan base reflects a team led by Masai Ujiri, an English-born Nigerian who is one of the few African executives in North American professional sports.
He brought on players like Serge Ibaka, who once found himself on the streets in the Republic of Congo, surviving on leftovers from a restaurant. This year he completed a fairy-tale journey, returning to that restaurant with the N.B.A. champions’ trophy.
“My story. My past. I don’t want to forget that,” he said in an interview. “I want to think about it and be reminded of it so I can be thankful and appreciative of everything.” His teammate, Jeremy Lin, became the first Asian-American to win an N.B.A. title, helping to defy stereotypes about Asian-American men.
Morehouse College Gets a Surprise
His jaw plummets, his eyebrows jump to the brim of his graduation cap, and his eyes dart from side to side like he is searching — somewhere, anywhere — for comprehension.
That was the reaction of Henry Goodgame, a Morehouse College administrator, when the billionaire Robert F. Smith’s announced that he would eliminate the student debt of the class of 2019 at the private, all-male, historically black college in Atlanta.
“Shackling them with so much debt leaves so many clouds out there,” Mr. Goodgame said, alluding to the Morehouse College seal, which shows a rising sun above the clouds. “Now the clouds have rolled back, and the rain is gone. There is a clear path to success.”
At a time when historically black colleges and universities have faced financial troubles, Mr. Smith’s gift helped affirm their lasting value.
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