We’re now in the first week of Black History Month. As a child, I loved hearing the stories of Black people who were the first to do this or first to do that. I loved the artwork the teachers posted in the classrooms of famous Black Americans: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriett Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Shirley Chisholm, etc. I learned about Sojourner Truth, Benjamin Banneker, Lewis Latimer, Matthew Henson, George Washington Carver, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall and many more.
Granted, I didn’t learn as much about Matthew Henson as I did about Lewis and Clark, or as much about Lewis Latimer as I did Thomas Edison, but I learned enough to give me a good start to research and learn more if I desired. And, I’m that person who desired to know more. I minored in African American Studies in college, and for years I only read books by Black authors about Black people. It was my attempt at balancing my educational universe since teachers always assigned books authored by white people. I also wanted to make sure I supported Black authors. One day I realized I was missing out on good books regardless of the author’s race or ethnicity, and I started reading good books, period. Black authors are my default, though.
While my teachers gave me a good launching pad, I noticed something during my children’s school years: they learned about the same Black people I learned about, but not all of them. The number had been whittled down to just a few — Dr. King, Harriett Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth — or so it seems. If the teacher was especially astute or more liberal, he or she would sprinkle a few more and maybe a few notable figures of the time. But, the list really didn’t grow as much as it should’ve given the accomplishments of Blacks throughout the diaspora.
Much to my son’s chagrin, I was that parent who would call his elementary teacher and express my criticism of her lesson plans for Dr. King’s holiday and Black History Month.
I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating, Black history is American history. Everyone should be aware of our contributions to this country.
While I never want to take anything away from anyone who contributed to the improvement of Black people, more than just the few names I’ve mentioned above had an impact (or are impacting) the culture. And while we tend to focus on “famous” national people, lest not forget local people who worked tirelessly for Black people in Indianapolis or Indiana. How many people know who Andrew J. Brown was or why there’s a street named after him? Or why a building on Fall Creek Parkway as well as the transit center downtown are named after Julia Carson?
Those are just two names, and that’s not even scratching the surface. There are countless people who may not have buildings or streets named after them, but they’ve contributed greatly to our history and inspire greatness in others.
Black history is all around us. Let’s not leave Black History Month to a few historical figures. Our culture is bigger than that. We should pressure our schools and teachers to step outside of the “Top 5” or “Top 10 in Black History,” but we can’t wait for that to happen. We have to delve deeper as well. A great place to start is knowing why we celebrate Black History Month in February. It’s 2020 and many still don’t know and haven’t taken the time to find out. Larry Smith answers this burning question in his current column.
The people who should be the least ignorant about Black history are Black people.