Every February, the school librarians take out the same autobiographies. They start with George Washington Carver and his bag of peanuts. Then they move on to Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. After that, they finish with Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement like that’s all that black people are.
Black people are more than a twenty-eight-day blip that starts with slavery and ends with the Civil Rights Movement. And if you think that that’s all there is to Black History and that Black History isn’t your history, then sit back, settle in, and let me paint you a picture with my words.
Let’s travel back in time, way back to the origins of man. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the oldest evidence they’ve found of people comes from Kenya. But I know what you’re thinking. If we all came from Africa, why aren’t all people black? That’s an easy answer.
As early man migrated across this beautiful world of ours, something interesting happened, evolution. In Africa, the extra melanin kept our ancestors’ skin safe from the sun’s rays. It’s the reason why I get darker in the summer but don’t burn and peel. Those early people who traveled North didn’t need the extra melanin. It got in the way of them creating the much needed Vitamin D from the sun’s rays. As we know from Jurassic Park, “Nature always finds a way.” Our northern brethren dropped the gene for the extra melanin and voila, lighter skin.
Why isn’t this taught during Black History Month?
Why aren’t we starting the month with a lesson that teaches children we are all the same. We’re all human descended from the same part of the world, and the only difference between us is our ancestors’ migratory aspirations. Most of us have to wait until World History 101 in college to learn those facts, twelve years too late. By the time most of us hit college, we’ve already formed the idea in our heads that we are different even though we’re the same species. We’re all human.
But let’s not stop there. We’re on a roll.
One of the most annoying things about Black History Month are the people schools choose to focus on. Now I’m not going to knock Harriet Tubman or Martin Luther King Jr. They are important, but we can do better.
Why aren’t children learning about Black History like it’s apart of our history? Black history is the history of everyone. I took a film class in high school that never even brought up the name Spike Lee. And speaking of the ’90s, where would any kid of any race who grew up then be without Brandy, Toni Braxton, Snoop Dog, Tupac, Usher, Luther Vandross, Bell Biv Devoe? That list could keep going. Where would we be without the glorious words of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Octavia Butler, Langston Hughes, and last but never least, Maya Angelou?
Let’s stop for a minute to recognize that black people are responsible for an entire movement called the Harlem Renaissance.
And that’s just music. Kara Walker, Basquiat, and Jacob Lawrence are only a few of many whose influences can still be felt in the art world. There isn’t an aspect of society we haven’t touched or made better because we were a part of it. Educators are expected to cram all of that history in twenty-eight days because Black History needs to be separate and not equal.
In every part of our Great Nation's history, there were black people and other people of color there.
Did black people fight in the American Revolution?
Yes. According to the History Channel, between 5,000 and 8,000 African descendants participated on the Patriot side and another 20,000 for the Crown. They weren’t forced to either. They signed up willingly because they were treated better. The Rhode Island Regiment was an integrated revolutionary force.
How about the Transatlantic Railroad?
According to the California History Society, thousands worked on it and helped operate the trains once they started running.
World Wars 1 and 2?
Yes, and Yes. According to the Historical Society of Delaware, twenty thousand black soldiers signed up the day war was declared for World War 1 with a total of 700,00 by July 5, 1917. They signed up even though they could not fly planes and could only serve in the Army.
For World War 2, The History Channel says that almost 1.2 million black people signed up to fight even though they faced discrimination abroad and at home. When students learn about World War 2, they should also learn about the Tuskegee Airmen and the rise of Hitler, the Holocaust, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
When it comes to inventors, we know Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, but Lewis Latimer, reinvented it to last longer. But not all inventors are historical. We tend to focus on the vast contributions of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, giants in their own right in the I.T. industry, but you wouldn’t be able to watch your Netflix in color if it wasn’t for Mark Dean. And the next time you’re driving home from work and look up at the stoplight, you can thank Garett Morgan for that invention.
There’s a lot of history that black people have contributed to. There’s a lot of history we have been a part of. At every point in the history of America, black people were pitching in. We are a country that was built on the backs of slave labor. We are a country that has taken for too long without giving credit where it’s due.
I understand the need for Black History Month, but in the 95 years since its inception as Negro Week, what have we taught ourselves and each other about our culture and contributions?
If Black History Month was a successful enterprise, then white children would be able to rattle off the names of people like Bessie Coleman in the same breath as Amelia Earhart. But they can’t, and that’s the real shame of it. History education in this country is whitewashed. The history of America is whitewashed. Black people are more than slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. To only teach that does our young people a disservice and only continues to perpetuate a belief system that we fight to rid ourselves of.
I hate Black History Month because it doesn’t do enough. It is not a celebration of our past, present, or future. Morgan Freeman said it best, “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.” The sooner we as a people come to terms with that and accept it, the better off we’ll be. Until that day comes, I’ll continue teaching as many people as will listen that we are more than slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, and there wasn’t a moment in our history or an invention or a movement that we weren’t apart of or helped shape because that is the real history of America.