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James Griffin: inspirational, instructive life

Chief James Griffin lived an inspirational and instructive life. From it there are lessons for all of us who strive to make a better world. Chief James Griffin lived an inspirational and instructive life. From it there are lessons for all of us who strive to make a better world. Take heed. His was a life outlined by a deeply instilled personal strength of character, further enhanced by a passionate commitment to serving others. In short, this was a man who was strikingly individual without being mindlessly individualistic. He had a good sense of who he was; first as a human being possessing an inherent dignity, secondly and no less important, a sense of who he was as a cultural being—a product, and an issue of the African American experience.

In the context of American society, Chief Griffin had an intelligent handle on how to navigate the crazy quilt waters of living in the United States. His ability to walk both sides of the street of this nation’s racial divide without losing himself was perhaps the most compelling aspect of his public life. He knew the turf. The Chief understood a great measure of W.E. DuBois’ concept of “double consciousness” which the Black woman and the Black man are challenged to transcend. “… two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” This “peculiar sensation” of being, “a Negro and an American” is what Chief Griffin came to appreciate either by instinct or careful observation. “Double consciousness” is the hand that fate has dealt the descendants of the enslaved population since the inception of the American Republic.

It is important to note that the Chief was a respectful and keen student of history. He is an impressive example of why we should all respect the past, which informs the present. His life shows that history is not simply something that is written in a book, but something that lives within us. And that whether we know it or not, all of the assumptions that we make about ourselves (true or false) is produced by history. And that finally, after gaining insight from history, the thing is not to dwell on history, but rather we should learn how to use it.

Chief Griffin has left us two critical and useful books on local history. His history of Black firemen and Black policemen in the city of St. Paul (circa 1880s) is a work that everyone should read. It is a seminal work, just waiting for some brilliant Black scholar to extend. His memoir, A Son of Rondo, published a little while before his death, is something more of us should do for the sake of our children.

Back to “double consciousness.” This phenomenon which affects African Americans like no other ethnic group can be experienced in both negative and positive ways. Experienced negatively, it can tear you apart: trying to be something that you are not; lying to yourself about who you are; denying your basic identity in favor of layers of identities which are much less meaningful in one’s everyday life. Say, “yes” when you really wish to say, “no”. For those who submit to negative “double consciousness,” life can be living hell.

On the other hand, “double consciousness” can be experienced as a blessing in disguise. It is in this sense that DuBois referred to “double consciousness” as a “gift with a second sight in to this American world.” Seeing or knowing what few members of the larger society seems not to see or know; exposing the critical contradictions that are inherent in American democracy; rejection of the general acceptance of American mythology; above all, to be the pace setters for progressive social change and moral progress. “Second sight” gives Black Americans the built-in advantage of being a powerful force for a more open, inclusive, more tolerant society. Chief Griffin was an active exponent of this “second sight,” that is, the positive and creative expression of “double consciousness.”

It is an objective fact on American life, that Black Americans in order t

December 9, 2002
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