Editor's note: Azna Amira is a writer for Northfield Patch and attended Carleton College in the late 1960s. This is a personal essay from her about Black History Month.
When eminent black historian Carter Woodson instituted Negro History Week—which later became Black History Month—there was a desperate need for it.
Woodson, who overcame poverty and illiteracy to earn a Ph.D in history from Harvard University, recognized the need of a people who had been written out of our country’s history books to have an awareness of their contributions to society.
Ironically, now that reams of research have been done and black history is taught even in grade school, it appears that interest is waning. I would have wept for joy at the amount of information young people can today find on the Internet alone. I’m told that even on college campuses, black students avoid such courses because they don’t want to hear about a painful past, and white students think the subject has nothing to do with them.
Both are sadly deluded because:
• Every ethnic group needs to know its role on the stage of world history: the good, the bad and the ugly, if only so it can celebrate the good and forgive the rest.
• Slavery and its aftermath is the 600-pound gorilla in the American family’s living room, demanding to be acknowledged. What was slavery but a decision to sacrifice many lives, deemed inferior and thus expendable, to benefit an elite few? Maybe the plantation system merely morphed into the corporate system.
• The peculiar institution damaged the putative oppressors as much as the oppressed. Surely that “me first” sense of entitlement so prevalent today is at least as damaging to our society as feelings of disenfranchisement.
Our great nation has a ways to go before it lives up to the promise of its Constitution, or its motto, E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one. Until we are committed to healing, our future will continue to be shaped by our past and its great promise remains compromised.
But these days we so are distracted by the economic recession that we blithely bury any honest discussion of race under “politically correct” shibboleths such as “post-racial.” (Having a black president does not means that racial problems have disappeared; it merely provides an excuse to pretend they are not there).
Look no further than the brouhaha about excising the “n” word from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Young people, black and white, casually fling that word about with impunity in rap music and on the street, yet a major publisher wants it removed from a work of art that brilliantly illuminates its troubled genesis.
Such head-in-the-sand approaches to complex issues has become all too common of late; if young people understood the human context of this great American novel, no one would be flinging that word around, neither in ignorance nor in anger—or for profit.
Those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it.
Recognizing that the role of black people in American history and world history was either being ignored or misrepresented, Carter Woodson led the scholarly charge and wrote many books, but they were hard to find in libraries. From my parents’ generation through my own, the only way to learn the truth about our past was via the efforts of black church and civic organizations like the Urban League and the NAACP, or through family oral histories.
I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s steeped in media images of black people that were distorted and derogatory stereotypes: slow-witted Steppin Fetchit, and hysterical Prissy from movies like Gone with the Wind, or jovial Uncle Remus and silly Amos and Andy from TV. Black people were America’s comic relief.
High school history was no help.
We were set to memorizing the dates of wars, while absorbing fraudulent images of slaves happily singing spirituals to the old folks at home in Dixie. George Washington Carver was given a grudging nod, not as a great scientist, but as a black boy who had a clever way with peanuts. It would have given our self-esteem a boost to know about Benjamin Banneker, Dr. Charles Drew or even Crispus Attucks, but l knew of no black heroes back then.
Forty years ago, when I asked one of my history professors at Carleton College why he’d made no mention of black people in his course, I was told that “my people” had never done anything worth recording.
That, of course, has changed. Beginning in the 1970s there was a veritable explosion of diversity studies.
Today, at Carleton and on many other campuses, there are departments and course concentrations for the study of myriad minorities, including gender. Nevertheless, only by pursuing a graduate degree in African and African American Studies did I begin to get a complete picture of our place in history from ancient to modern times.
It is frustrating to see so little enthusiasm for this precious knowledge that so many of us had to struggle to acquire, and to hear talk of dismantling black studies due to lack of interest and dwindling funds allocated to education. I was sad when I heard that venerable, traditionally black Howard University planned to dissolve its department of Black Studies as an austerity measure. But when I learned that the university’s new president meant to abolish no courses, but only the department, I realized that this cloud might have a silver lining.
Each one of us and our families and our institutions—especially our schools—are now obliged to re-prioritize our choices in light of new economic realities. Perhaps this is a good time to place black history not in ghettoized “departments” within our schools or in brief intervals on our calendars, but squarely in the mainstream of American education—where it belonged all along.
Black History Month and departments of Black Studies sprang up to fill a vacuum. It would be good news if the time has come to teach black history as an integral part of American and world history—not as an optional adjunct to it, and not just for one month of the year.