February is Black History Month, and Spare Change News vendor and writer Chris Mesfin took some time out of his day to explain to me the importance of the month, not only for him and his community but for the whole of the United States.
For Chris, black history involves understanding the past and taking steps to change the effects of that past, which continue in the present. He shines a spotlight on two women, in particular, who’ve helped him do this; he sees them as his teachers: “I celebrate black scholars like Dr. Joy DeGruy and Dr. Francis Cress Welsing. Dr. Joy DeGruy helps black people understand the things we do. She helped me understand my community.
“[As for] Francis Cress Welsing—she died recently … She made me see that until you understand the systems that are in place, you can’t understand a lot that happens. They’ve helped black people understand their plight better.”
The importance of black history month becomes particularly clear when you understand the difference between what Chris calls “real” history and the history taught in high school textbooks. Although he points out that history “has no color,” he believes that America still hasn’t dealt with its history of racism—in particular, slavery and its lasting effects—so this month is an important counter-balance to that. It’s meant to tell the truth about America’s past, help people heal from trauma, and offer a vision of the future.
Chris sees racism as based in power and privilege. This means that it’s white people—not black people—who have to face up to and change their racism. However, black communities can also benefit from understanding the past and changing the present. “What black people have to understand,” he says, “is that black lives matter, but we have to straighten out our own communities. Black people have neighborhoods but not communities. On a mass scale, money needs to go back into black communities.”
If Chris could travel anywhere, he says he’d go to Africa and the Nile. “[I’d] see the rich history that’s there,” he says. “The history I never knew. I’d take the journey to teach people about the history that’s been twisted up.”
Interestingly, he also sees a connection between white supremacy, militarism and some people’s irrational “clinging” to guns at all costs. “Until we face our own evil—[people like] Dylan Roof,” says Chris, “Americans can’t think about fighting evil outside, like terrorists. [People who] want to keep their guns—they fear people doing something to them in response to the evil they do themselves.”
With the presidential primaries in full swing, I’m curious to know which of the presidential candidates speaks to Chris the most—and to the issues he’s so passionate about.
“I believe Bernie Sanders always expresses that corporate America has all the wealth,” says Chris. “They control everything and that system needs to be checked. He’s more willing to fight for that change than Hillary. The real power, though, is in the legislators—the GOP. Every time you turn around, they’re doing budget cuts. They want to go around the world fighting for freedom, but their own country is in turmoil.”
On a smaller scale, Chris puts a lot of faith in the Homeless Empowerment Project, the publisher of Spare Change News, and its ability to help people in his community. “I always try to encourage people … That’s what the Homeless Empowerment Project should be—to help vendors be the best they can be.”
He ends the interview on a personal note: “[My greatest achievement] is understanding what I need to do in life and that I awoke from the sick mind I had. Some people stay asleep their whole life. Like so many of my people, they die in poverty.”