RIP Percy Sutton.

Shamefully enough, I had no clue who Percy Sutton was or why he was important until I stumbled across his obituary on page 3A of my local newspaper.

And though I’m usually wary of venturing into hyperbole, the Rev. Al Sharpton is not too far off in summing up the incredibly interesting and distinctive life of Sutton:

“He was at the forefront of everything you can think of in black America,” Sharpton told CNN. “He was the quintessential black American. He pioneered black business, black media and black politics. He opened those doors and he kept them open.”

Now, I’m not sure where Black America is located on the map – I generally assume it’s close to the Equator, has a lot of palm trees and owes somebody a lot of money.

But seriously, a list of Sutton’s accomplishments only succeeds in making the rest of us seem inadequate.

He was an attorney who represented Malcolm X. He served with the Tuskegee Airmen. He served in the New York State Assembly before taking over as Manhattan borough president. He was a political mentor for the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s two presidential campaigns. He was owner of the first black-owned radio station in New York City. He bought and renovated the Apollo Theater, meaning he’s partially responsible for making Kiki Shepard and the Sandman household names. He taught Jackie Robinson how to hit a curveball.

Ok. I made that last one up.

However, reflecting on Sutton and my previous ignorance of him makes me re-think some of my prior reservations about Black History Month. It sorta reminds me of Shani’s post about John Hope Franklin (if you read the comments, you can see I was saying the same thing about him).

There’s clearly a need to educate people about the contributions of black Americans beyond the “I Have a Dream Speech” and Dr. Carver’s promotion of peanuts. And while I don’t want “black history” ghettoized, I don’t want it ignored either.

I’m just not sure how we get there. Can we fit in a few more references to Sutton in 28 days? Or should we hope that historians eventually see the value in integrating the overall historical narrative of this country?

It’s clear that a month  isn’t enough. But I’m not sure it’s something to just laugh off either.


Joel Anderson —blackink —  writes about sports, politics, crime, courts, and other issues far beyond his competence at BuzzFeed. He has worked at media outlets in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Atlanta and contributed to a number of publications, including The Root and The American Prospect, among many others.
  • The way we do it is to make black history (or women’s history, or the history of places and people other than Europe) part of the *elementary* school curriculum. Unfortunately, even elementary school teachers who love history aren’t encouraged/enabled to go beyond the conventional crap.

    Which is part of where pushy parents like me come in….

  • I will shamefully admit that I’d never heard of him until the other day, when the New York Times ran a front page obit on dude. I was blown away.

    “Good friend! Scholar! Ghetto philosopher! First black man to pilot an aircraft!” (c) Chappelle.

    And I feel you on the Black History Month stuff. I think part of the reason we’ve made fun of it is that it sort of reduced the role of black folks in history to a bunch of trivia. You know, “A black man invented ______” History is way more complicated and compelling than that (which is why I fux with Edge of the West so tough.


    Now, I’m not sure where Black America is located on the map – I generally assume it’s close to the Equator, has a lot of palm trees and owes somebody a lot of money.

    quote of the day.

  • rikyrah

    I don’t know how to feel about this. I learned about Black history from my parents, and reading, ironically, Black publications. My mother and father bought pretty much any book done by or about Black people when I was growing up and shoved it my way. I knew who Sutton was because my father was determined that I would know about Black businessmen and what they were doing.

  • rikyrah

    when I say, ironically, Black publications. JET might have been late with its news, but before it became totally celebrity obsessed, there was information in there, and if you had parents and aunts/uncles that collected JETS – by the decade – there was a treasure trove of materials. I had an Uncle that had saved literally decades of Chicago Defenders, and I used to read them all the time.