By Wiley Henry
MEMPHIS, TN — John Burl Smith hasn’t given up the fight. He’s just using a different tactic, a different course of action. Now he speaks and writes about the plight and triumphs of Black people rather than organize protest marches.
A founding member of The Invaders, a ‘60s-era militant group boasting Black power in Memphis, Smith has cobbled together his experiences and perspective on the Black man’s journey in his new book, “The 400th: From Slavery to Hip Hop.”
Published by Nelson & Nelson Press, LLC in July (2021), the 950-page book is perhaps Smith’s crowning achievement since joining the Black Power Movement decades ago.
If not his crowning achievement, the book is certainly a literary feat for Smith. As with any book that traces the history of a people – as in the “400th” (1619-2019) – or major events throughout history, thorough research is required.
But first comes the idea before the story is written, which, for Smith, had been simmering ever since he was old enough to discern the way Black people are treated in this country.
“I’ve always been baffled by the fact that we as a people never had a story that seemed to explain who we were, why we were here, and why it seemed we could never change our status as a people.”
As a child, Smith said stories that were relayed to him about his great great-grandfather were bandied around by his great grandfather, whom he’d known and talked with and, “unlike most people,” forged a relationship.
“And the stories they told, and the way they told them [just] didn’t match with the history that I was always exposed to in history books and movies and things,” said Smith, calling this a “duality” that just didn’t jibe.
While the Black Power Movement was Smith’s foray into activism, writing has become his forte, his mode of expression, and a passion that keeps him working at the grindstone.
A blurb from “The 400th” summarizes the Black man’s plight on his meandering journey throughout history: “The unending love story of a people who fell in love with being themselves.”
Or is it the love story of a people trying to mitigate the harsh reality of pain and suffering at the hands of the white man, the book’s nemesis or antagonist? There is a villain in books of this nature.
There are pitstops in the book – from one era to the next – that leads to a modern-day art form (hip hop), which encompasses the collective experiences and sighs of being Black in America.
Smith conveys in the book the power that Black people possess collectively, as a bloc per se, even after undergoing the torrent of slavery and grappling with age-old racism, discrimination and disparity.
He didn’t start out with the idea of writing a book, he said, but 400 years in this country morphed into one. Why? “We needed to celebrate, commemorate all our ancestors that had given their lives and efforts to get us here,” he said.
There is much more within the pages of this book: eight categories, Smith said, “that’s responsible for our survival.”
• Family and Building Communities: Slaves had to build families and communities in order to survive, he said.
• Education and Communication: “We needed to be able to understand the written language,” he said, “and be able to communicate the written language.”
• Entrepreneurship and Entertainment: “Entertainment has produced more wealth for descendants of American slavery than any other enterprise,” he said.
• Political and Cultural Development: Smith said, “Politics is really the last thing we have been able to get into…because it is power in the U.S.”
“The 400th: From Slavery to Hip Hop” is a history book of sorts written with candor from a Black man’s perspective. Smith said he wrote the book for high schoolers and college students.
“My concern is to get young people to understand the level of power that they actually have,” he said.
John Burl Smith can be reached by email at email@example.com.