Like many black high school students in the early 1960's, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver were the only black historical figures I had ever heard of. I did not know about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes. Charles Drew, and Jan Matzleger. In time, they became familiar names to me. I deeply appreciated their contributions to politics, science, medicine, literature, and education. I thought that the times had changed and that young black students today knew of the contributions and achievements of blacks in American history. They don't. During the last few years, I have talked with many young blacks (and non-blacks) at local high schools and junior high schools. When I mentioned the names of major black historical figures many of them had no idea who they were. For most, their knowledge of the historical contributions of blacks began and ended with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and even they are nothing more than names to many.
But they're not the only ones ignorant of their past. Many, if not most adults, still don't know that African-Americans played a major part in shaping America's institutions. Black inventors, explorers, scientists, architects, and trade unionists helped construct the foundation of American industry. Black abolitionists, religious and civil rights leaders helped shape law, politics and religion in America. Black artists, writers and musicians gave America some of its most distinctive cultural art forms.
The modern day civil rights movement not only broke down the legal barriers of segregation, it also opened the door of opportunity in government, business and at academic institutions for the poor, other minorities, and despite what the opponents of affirmative action don't say many white women, and men. The cruel irony is that Black History Month has done almost nothing to make the most Americans aware of this.
Seventy-four years ago pioneer black historian and educator Carter G. Woodson initiated what he then called Negro History Week. Woodson wanted to rescue black people's accomplishments from the netherworld of American history and the shroud of slavery and make them a source of pride for blacks and all Americans. Today Black History Month is an established tradition. Politicians designate special days, issue proclamations, and sponsor tributes to notable blacks. TV networks shove in most of their specials, documentaries and features on blacks. When February ends it's back to business as usual and black achievements virtually vanish from the screen, the concert halls, and the speeches of politicians.
The obvious solution to this disappearing act is to make sure black contributions to American society are celebrated every month. But since this isn't done many blacks scream racism. They are partly right. Many Americans are overweaned on white heroes. The crusade against slavery was led by Abraham Lincoln not Frederick Douglass. The great American novel was written by John Steinbeck not Richard Wright. The king of swat in baseball is still Babe Ruth (sorry Mark McGwire) not Hank Aaron. The most renowned American composer is George Gershwin not Duke Ellington.
Yet pointing the finger at racism for America's failure to recognize black contributions is to easy. The painful truth is that many black historians and educators made a big error during their push for black studies courses during the 1960's, and many Afrocentrists repeated the error in the 1990's. They failed to tell how the black experience has enriched the lives of all Americans. Black history was rammed into a tiny cubicle labeled "for blacks only." It was treated by many academics and textbook writers as little more than a sidelight to the "real" history of America. When the furor over equality died down and the assault against black studies began with a vengeance, these courses were knocked away like bowling pens.
Here's the way to end the racist white-out and the exaggerations by some blacks of black contributions to history. Publishers should revise all classroom texts that pigeonhole black achievements into a single chapter such as slavery, civil rights, jazz, and include them in all chapters. School administrators and teachers should make sure that black achievements are laced throughout the curriculum from science and technology to the humanities. Politicians and public officials should commemorate black achievements in ceremonies throughout the whole year. Corporations should regularly feature black achievements in their advertising and promotional materials. When the experience of blacks is accepted as part of all of American society, black history will be what it is and should have always been, American history.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black. email:firstname.lastname@example.org
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