Black History Month — Remembering Every Black Man and Woman’s Contributions, Part II — Refocusing Our View of History

Note: We began writing this series in time for the February 1 beginning of Black History Month. It has “marinated” as a draft this long because of our desire to tackle what could be controversial issues without causing unnecessary offense.

Refocusing Our Concept of Black History — and U.S. History

Appreciating the Full Breadth of Black American Contributions

Did you know that the first heart surgery performed in the United States was performed by an African-American?

We didn’t either, but it’s true — it was performed by Dr. Daniel Hale Williams in 1893.

Steam engine lubricant, stop lights, even improved lawnmowers are all inventions given to this country by African-Americans.

Black History Month has done much to bring attention to many Black Americans whose individual contributions tended to be overlooked, but we also should never forget the hard work of all of the ancestors of this country’s Black Americans.

One America, One People, Unhyphenated

There are those who say the time has come to end Black History Month and fully integrate the African-American story into all history and social studies curricula — year-around.

Rochelle Riley says it eloquently:

I propose that, from this day forward, we stop telling the tale of two Americas and instead document and celebrate the full and storied, multicultural and multidimensional story that is America in all of its colors, geographies and passions, in all of its ups, downs and exhortations. …

It is now time that American history be American history every day, that Americans be Americans all the time and that we stop learning and living and celebrating separately.

We aren’t personally quite ready to advocate abolishing Black History Month, but the quote expresses a wonderful approach to history. It’s one used by my son’s high school U.S. History teacher, Darlene Donnegan. She includes the perspective and activities of African-Americans throughout her class as she guides it through the tableau of American history.

Ms. Donnegan has been kind enough to offer her thoughts on this series, for which we thank her.

When such teaching is universal, Black History month will indeed be unnecessary. We also hope for the day when we won’t be referring to African-Americans or Black Americans — but just Americans — because we will have truly become a color-blind society. That day has yet to arrive, though the election of President Obama is a huge step in that direction.

History Is More Than Bios of Famous People and Facts and Figures About Major Historical Events

Another important refocusing of history is required.

Without regard to race, it’s important to teach and learn about the lives of ordinary people, not just the most famous and successful and the major historical events. This brings history to life and has the potential to attract much more student interest, I suspect.

Ready for Harvest, by South Carolina artist Alice Huger Smith<br>Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association


Ready for Harvest, by Alice Huger Smith
Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association

The Horror and Shame of Slavery Should Not Prevent Acknowledgment of the Full Scope of the African-American Contribution, Including That Made by Slaves.

Can Good Come From Evil?

How do you say “we must give proper credit to the role of slave labor and African-American culture in America’s development during the Colonial and Antebellum years” without sounding like you’re saying slavery was somehow a good thing?

Some will say you can’t do it, and I respect that view. But in my opinion, you can — if you put it in the proper perspective. Good things can come from bad things. That seeming contradiction is in itself an important history lesson.

Many other historical events were also morally repugnant (e.g., wars, reigns of repressive rulers responsible for millions of horrible deaths), yet shaped our world and as such are important parts of history.

Towards a More Positive and Multidimensional Black History Perspective

Modern Germans teach WWII and the Holocaust. They must. We teach slavery. And we must.

But what is the impact of such instruction on the students? What thoughts and emotions are brought up by including extensive study of U.S. slavery and subsequent repression of and discrimination against Black Americans?

It would be easy to evoke anger and resentment on the part of African-American students — and perhaps even feelings of inferiority and victimhood.

And other students may be uncomfortable with the subject, seeing slavery as nothing but a blotch on this nation’s past. “White guilt” may be evoked.

All very unpleasant reactions, potentially hard to discuss, especially in a diverse classroom, but in my opinion necessary to a realistic understanding of our world — how it is and how it became that way. And far superior to treating the 200+ years of slavery in America as just a shameful occurrence we wish had never occurred and want to forget.

A multi-dimensional view of Black American history — all of it, including the African cultures from which slaves were captured — can go much farther and develop a greater appreciation for the achievements of Black Americans, doing so in a way that leaves a positive imprint on both black and white students.

Understanding the varied roles of Black Americans — both slave and free — in the early American economy and culture, and their pivotal contribution to building it, can be a positive experience for all students — and a necessary one because history is more continuous than discontinuous. Without discounting the importance of the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation, all students should learn to appreciate the continuities — for better and worse — of American life and race relations before and after these momentous events.

Cultural and Artistic Expression in a Continuous Line From Africa to Hip-Hop

I love jazz and blues. Most Americans — of all ages and colors — enjoy these musical forms and/or their many derivatives such as rock and hip-hop.

American popular music without African-Americans is unimaginable! So much of this American music is clearly rooted in African music and music made by slaves in the Caribbean and U.S. — in a continuous development through and beyond the slave era that exemplifies how vibrant and creative African-American culture has been since the beginning, and how much it has contributed to American life.

The use of blue notes and the prominence of call-and-response patterns in [blues] music and lyrics are indicative of African influences. The blues influenced later American and Western popular music, as it became the roots of jazz, rhythm and blues, bluegrass and rock and roll.

According to Gerald Early, Professor of English and Afro-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis:

The current revisionism of the subject of Africanity in American life and the depth of African cultures is very much related to the fact that in the past, American whites have made the charge of an African cultural nothingness, in part, to project onto blacks their own fears about themselves as a rootless people….

It is now believed that Africans have had a bigger influence on western culture than previously suspected — not only on the cultures of the Caribbean and Latin America which has always been acknowledged, but on the culture of the United States….

It is now noted that African cuisine, certain African words, African styles of dance and religious practices, African styles of architecture and art, and aspects of African music have had deeper impact in the United States than previously admitted.

This is a highly affirming and positive message. Eliminating that dispiriting and bleak image of cultural (and economic) “nothingness” during the slave era — in both white and black eyes — is essential.

From Shame to Pride

Dr. Waldron H. Giles, Ph.D, in a 2006 article entitled “Slavery and the American Economy,” similarly addresses the importance to African-American pride and self-esteem of recognizing positive products and aspects of African-American life in the slavery era — despite the negative emotions deservedly evoked by contemplation of that oppressive period of history:

Slavery raises a host of negative images for black people; so much so, they fail to realize the tremendous economic contributions they made, albeit forced, to the development of the United States into a world power.

This lack of realization stems from the national shame of slavery and the concomitant national denial, which in reality has become a weak defense mechanism. To a large degree blacks and whites have bought into this denial, albeit for different reasons.

Dr. Giles says African Americans will benefit from focusing national attention on the reality of the African-American economic contribution to American success, rather than the shame of slavery, because this will “end the impotence produced by this shame and … undo those stereotypical images of laziness, ignorance, criminal behavior, and incompetence.”

However, Dr. Giles also pointedly observes that in spite of their tremendous contribution, “blacks continue to vie for respect and acceptance by the very country that they practically own via a down payment with their own blood, sweat, and tears.”

This brings us full circle to the present and future — addressed in the third and final post in this Black History Month series.

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