John Cumbler and American history’s 238 shades of gray

Recently, I took a break from the sometimes hellish grind of life to have a few strong cherry stouts and some of the best jerk wings in the city at Cumberland Brews with one of my idols — University of Louisville history professor Dr. John Cumbler.

During our latest drinking session, Cumbler captivated me with stories of his recent visit to Tanzania. His African exploits were mind-blowing — or maybe it was just the way he told the stories. Cumbler’s narratives are like that. Ah, the pictures he paints! It’s the same when he talks about history. Whether it’s the founding of the country, the Abolitionist movement or the evolution of American labor, you feel like Cumbler was actually there as he pulls you through time with him. The man is riveting!

So, I’m sitting there listening to Cumbler as I have for years, and it hits me: “Man, I gotta write about you!” In typical, modest John Cumbler fashion, he takes another drink, smiles and says, “I don’t know if there’s much of interest to say about me, Ricky.” So untrue! A few days later, I remember it’s Black History Month. I think, “Damn, I can’t write about Cumbler — I have to write a mandatory Black History column.” Then it hits me — I can do both!

I met John Cumbler more than a decade ago during one of the many times I pissed some people off. Cumbler approached me on campus, introduced himself and said, “If this university tries to do anything to you over this, I want you to let me know. I swear to you I’ll fight with you.” I thought, “This cat’s got cajones.” What an understatement!

If I had needed him, John Cumbler would certainly have been there for the battle. In fact, he’s spoiled for a righteous fight all his life. He is a decorated professor — writing six books and gathering a treasure trove of awards over the years. He’s won Louisville’s Distinguished Teaching, Research, and Trustees awards. He also won the John Adams Distinguished Fulbright Professorship and spent time teaching in the Netherlands as a result. The man even beat two forms of cancer and is trained to rescue large sea mammals and turtles. What? He fights for people and freakin’ turtles? Yep! Badass!

If you talk to Cumbler, he probably won’t mention any of that stuff. He’s more into rapping about the time he thought he was going to die riding in a car with Black Panthers during a campus protest or the harrowing work he participated in during Mississippi’s Freedom Summer back in the day. He is talented, committed, fiery, brave and humble. And, oh yeah, I forgot to tell you, he’s white. The man is a modern John Brown in many ways — denying his own white privilege and pledging himself to the humanization of the world. That’s why I affectionately call him John “Brown” Cumbler.

Americans tend to explore most things in as shallow and superficial a way as possible, including history. In our willful ignorance, people are content to create false binaries that cast groups and individuals as absolute villains or heroes. This world gives us cinematic caricatures like “Django” on the black side and good white folks rushing in to save helpless blacks in “Mississippi Burning” or “A Time to Kill” on the other.

If Black History Month does anything, it should remind us that real history is much more complex. Since America’s founding in 1776 (and before), there has been a long and noble list of men and women of many hues standing up and fighting to change the world. American history is not starkly black or white. When we really study it, we find 238 years and shades of gray defined by warriors of conscience partnering across lines of race.

We are incomplete if we study the Negro Convention Movement and not the American Anti-Slavery Society. Frederick Douglass may not have become the Douglass we remember without William Lloyd Garrison. We cannot mention Martin Delany without acknowledging Theodore Parker. Angelina and Sarah Grimké fought just as Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells did. In the words of Audra Lorde, they all knew, “Your silence will not keep you safe.”

My friend John Cumbler stands in that warrior’s tradition. As he nears retirement, I tell him what he told me years ago: “If I’m shooting, I want you loading.”

Have no fear, stay strong, stand on truth, do justice and maintain, John “Brown” Cumbler — MAINTAIN!

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