When I was a small child, I was taught that the continent on which we live was discovered by Christopher Columbus. For a long time, I had the hardest time remembering if he was Italian or Spanish (in fact, of course, he was Italian but sailed for Spain). I remember I had a hazy image of a humongous, dark, uninhabited rocky terrain – and cold, very cold – that was just sitting there for what might have been an eternity until one day Columbus bumped up against this desolate place and CLICK! the lights came on (picture one of those closets with sensored lights that automatically come on when you open the door), cities popped up, and some years later, I was born. And so we created a holiday to celebrate good old Chris for having made all of our lives possible. In some ways, he seemed like a creator.
Of course, this is not the way it happened. Fast forward to my kids at the same age. They learned about Christopher Columbus, too. But they learned he was just one of many characters who paraded across our continent. There were First Nations who built sophisticated homes and tools and art, and who sometimes suffered – I remember my children’s great concern about the Trail of Tears. There were pilgrims and others from Europe searching for religious freedom, and blacks, some who were explorers, most who came as slaves.
My children drew pictures of those early days – not the dark boulders I had envisioned but towering green trees, gold and blue maize, bison, and people of various colors and styles. The image my children carried around was not that we owed our history to one great (European) man but that many people, many cultures got us to where we are and who we are today.
The origins of Black History Month go way back before my children’s early education. The idea began as Black History Week in February 1926, organized by Carter G. Woodson, the second black man to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. This was extended to a month of study in 1976.
Of course, a lot has changed even since 1976. Technological progress had brought black artists and athletes, scientists and even a President onto our screens on a regular basis.
The question is: Do we still need Black History Month?
I can’t answer this question with a definitive Yes or No. But I can say without a doubt that we need to teach our children our history as a nation. And that history needs to include the role played by African-Americans in all of our history’s many facets. Why?
There are many.
To me, the most compelling reason to study the past is to shape a better future. I’ll harken back to a past blog post about cookie-making. My daughter stubbornly set about making cookies without regard for the baking that had come before her. She was not aware that others had tried the minimalist flour/water combination that led to tasteless rocklike cookies time and time again. She was not aware that somewhere down the line, someone had added baking powder with wondrous results. And that scattered through history, some bakers hit upon recipes that resulted in cookies heavenly enough for the gods. And that many times, these results were actually preserved in writing for future generations to learn from. When she finally acknowledged that there was a lot to be gained from baking history, she was able to piggy-back on this to create her most delectable treats.
We, as a people, have the same potential to learn from past mistakes and build on past glories. Someday, I hope we will not need to set aside a month to remind us to include the black past as part of our teachings. Until then, Happy Black History Month!
Share your favorite stories from black history.