On May 13, Florida Governor Lawton Chiles signed into law a measure requiring public schools to teach black history. The black history law requires lessons on slavery, the passage of slaves to America, abolition, and the contributions of blacks to American society. “The history of African-Americans must not be minimized or trivialized,” Chiles said. “The lessons of history should not be limited to one month or one day on the school-year calendar.”
Like Governor Chiles, I agree that a people’s history should not be limited to one month of the year, especially the shortest month of the year. But more important than the time constraints placed on the learning of black history is what kind of black history the state education department and local school boards will mandate. My concern is that black history is being taught from only one perspective: victimization.
Black History Month has become boring. Every year it follows the same predictable path: Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, Brown v. Board of Education, segregation, and endless stories about the ordeal of slavery. This only helps to promote what Black History Month was supposed to eliminate: the myth that black Americans are historical victims of racism and have never contributed anything to the building of America except through slave labor. The spirit of self-reliance, an integral part of the black American heritage, is curiously given little time and space.
What I have come to call the “other black history” is being left out at a time when it is most needed. The truth is that values like self-help, strong families, religion, patriotism, and nonreliance on government are rooted in black history. These were the values that helped blacks survive, and in some cases prosper, through the worst oppression.
The black history that I learned while growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s conveyed that message. The two people most often mentioned then, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, epitomized the concept of self-help and overcame severe obstacles to make it in America. By the end of the 1960’s, however, a move to draw attention away from these two heroes nearly succeeded. “They’re the only ones we ever hear about” was the complaint then, and they are seldom, if ever, mentioned today during Black History Month. Considered the decade of great progress for black America, the 6()’s were also the beginning of black historical revisionism, which continues to this day.
Young blacks have long asked the same old question: “Why is his story [history taught from the Eurocentric perspective] history and my story [the black experience] mystery?” While the phrase is catchy, it does little to make young blacks feel better about themselves. If standard American history included the contributions of everyone who has helped to make this country great, there would be no need for a separate branch of American history, let alone the celebration of an entire month as a secular holiday.
Consequently, young blacks have become cultural schizophrenics: they are in the United States but do not feel a part of it. This is the residual effect of years of one-sided black history lessons and the rhetoric of victimization. This schizophrenia is manifested in criminal activity, drug abuse, poor performance in school, and a general feeling of alienation from the nation.
The other black history could change all of this. However, it must be taught year round and not just for 28 days in February. The recent celebration of one of my favorite stories in black history is a good example. On March 9 seven members of the Golden Thirteen returned to Great Lakes Naval Training Center just outside of Chicago to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their commissions. The reader will remember that, when World War II began, the U.S. Navy was like all branches of the military—segregated. Black Americans were relegated to jobs such as cooks and stewards. President Franklin Roosevelt, prodded by his wife Eleanor, challenged this racial policy. Reluctantly, the Navy selected some blacks for its officers’ school at Great Lakes. They were segregated and given only eight weeks of training—half the normal period. They rightfully suspected that they were being set up for failure.
So how did they respond? Did they stage protests? No, they banded together as the Golden Thirteen, for the gold stripes they aspired to wear. When the nightly “lights out” order came, they covered their windows with blankets and continued studying. They tested each other. One was a lawyer who drilled everyone on Navy regulations, for example. They withstood the racism, in other words, and persevered through conditions that many young blacks today only read about and will never experience firsthand.
When the Golden Thirteen’s tests were graded, their scores were so high that skeptical Navy officers ordered them retested. When they retook the “culturally biased” tests, the results were even higher, averaging 3.89 out of a possible 4.0—the best class score ever recorded there. They were commissioned as ensigns on March 17,1944, and featured in Life magazine. This is one of my favorite stories of the many that black history holds. It shows an ability not just to overcome racism but to triumph in the face of it. But if this story were told the way black history is taught today, the emphasis would be on the racism and segregation in the Armed Forces of that time instead of on the accomplishments of the black Americans who persevered in spite of it.
The victim-focused approach to black history has produced a victim identity among young blacks. This was very evident in a story told to me by Ezola Foster, president of Americans for Family Values (formerly Black Americans for Family Values) based in Venice, California. Foster was lecturing to a group of young, black, pregnant, unwed girls. They blamed their condition on the legacy of slavery, which “broke up” black families. They went on to describe the United States as a racist nation in which blacks have no hope of making it.
Foster scolded them and explained that out-of-wedlock parenting is a recent phenomenon in the black American experience. She told them how after emancipation family members would spend up to 20 years trying to find their lost parents, children, and siblings (this is believed to be one of the reasons that so many black children were given unique, exotic names—to make them easy to identify if a breakup should occur). She gave them statistics that showed how black Americans once had a higher rate of marriage than white Americans and how in years such as 1938 only eight percent of black children were born out of wedlock.
Then the cultural schizophrenia came out. Since the girls believed the United States to be such an oppressive place, Foster asked them where else they would want to live. Caught off guard by the question, there was momentary silence. Then one girl replied, “I’d like to live in Hawaii.”
The other black history would have helped these young girls. For instance, the girls had surely heard of Rosa Parks, the brave black woman who refused on December 1,1955, to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white person as was required by law. Her refusal started the Montgomery bus boycott, which in turn spurred the civil rights movement.
But if you know the other black history, it is clear that much more happened. Rosa Parks was not the first black woman who decided to resist the order to surrender her seat for a white person. According to Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters, in March of that same year, 1955, there was another woman, Claudette Colvin, who did the same thing. When Claudette Colvin was told to give up her seat, she responded with such profanity and vulgarity that it embarrassed the white and black people on the bus. She was arrested, like Rosa Parks was later in the year, but the difference is that Parks went to jail in the quiet protest that came to symbolize the civil rights movement.
The black leadership of Montgomery made a decision. They had been looking for an opportunity to challenge the oppressive regime in the city, but they decided that Claudette Colvin was the wrong symbol. Not only had she conducted herself in a manner that was unacceptable to them, she was also pregnant and unmarried. The Montgomery leaders, who wanted to start their protest from a moral high ground, did not want a vulgar-tongued, unmarried pregnant woman to be the symbol of their budding movement. They advised Claudette to pay her fine, because she did not represent the kind of person that the black community of Montgomery wanted to highlight.
Moral excellence, moral strength, and moral principles were once the foundation of black life in America. This is the black history that is seldom mentioned during Black History Month. If a girl got pregnant out of wedlock, her parents would send her somewhere where folks did not know her until she had the baby. That is the way it was. No girl could get away with blaming her pregnancy on the legacy of slavery.
Actually, blaming slavery for anything is only a recent method of excusing failure. In fact, when slavery was still legal, slaves did not use bondage as an excuse to be nonproductive. Black preachers never used slavery to justify negative behavior. Black leaders never used slavery as a rationale for immoral and antisocial behavior, even when slavery was a recent memory in the late 19th century.
The young black Americans who are so angry today are upset about things that happened to their ancestors, not to them. Young blacks today have never had to sit in the back of the bus. They have never been denied access to public accommodations because of their skin color. They have opportunities that their forebears never dreamed of attaining, but they are enslaved in a way that those who preceded them never were.
Imagine, if you can, that from the moment you were born all you heard—in church, from your “leaders,” from the mindless garbage called rap music—is that America is racist toward your people, that people have it in for you, that no matter what you do they are going to stand in your way at every turn. That would certainly fill someone with a lot of rage if he were to believe it.
That is exactly what is happening to young blacks today. They do not know the other black history, which would put all of the rhetoric of victimization to rest. And as long as young blacks are made to believe that their shortcomings are solely the result of an ingrained racist predilection in American life that seeks to circumscribe their potential, the rage and the self-destruction that goes along with it will continue unabated.
Afrocentrism, the black American offshoot of multiculturalism, has been prescribed as the answer to this lack of pride and self-esteem among young blacks. The theory is that once young blacks learn that they come from great, ancient civilizations, their self-esteem and behavior will improve. This is merely the latest in a series of gimmicks to get young blacks to feel better about themselves. Many Afrocentrists even argue that black children learn differently than white, Hispanic, or Asian children and that they therefore need a different kind of education. All of this is seriously flawed. Afrocentrism clearly promotes fantasies and takes liberties with the facts.
What is needed is not historical fairy tales about Africa but the other black history that took place here in America. The history of black Americans is a rich one that needs to be promoted as a past of perseverence and accomplishment, not one of sullen fatalism, which saps creative energy.
The best medium for conveying this is the black press. The black press used to be a lightning rod of correction to the black community. Black newspapers like the Chicago Defender, which I grew up reading, used to take a leadership role in the community. Now, the Defender and other black dailies, weeklies, and monthlies have little if any role in the shaping of values in the black community. Values have disappeared from their pages altogether and have been replaced by hype and entertainment.
One newspaper, the Buffalo American, long had at the head of its editorial column a behavioral guide entitled “Oath of Afro-American Youth.” The oath began with “I will . . . ” and included a pledge “never to bring disgrace to the race by deed or act.” It went on to talk about respect for others, the community, the laws of the nation, and family. It urged people to forgo bitterness in the struggle for freedom.
Today, there are 214 newspapers and 64 magazines serving the black community. Nearly all are locked into a “white folks did it to me” mentality, forfeiting a greater role in the recovery of black dignity and ignoring the other black history. This is why the black news media must begin to reclaim the bully pulpit it once held. There must be more useful information and less of the “feel good” news, the endless rantings about racism and conspiracy theories, and the reporting on the square footage of some black celebrity’s house. The black press is the best source for focusing on the other black history. It has the power to rebuild the moral fiber of the black community by letting it be known that the current chaos is just that—current—and not something that was always a part of our history. It must redraw the now-blurred line between right and wrong, recover the concept of morality, and reestablish it as a part of black culture. We always hear about the power of the media. Well, the black media can once again be powerful if it is willing to take a risk and buck the Establishment.
It is unusual for a group of people to have to go back in order to go forward, but that is the state of black America today. By focusing on the values that allowed us to survive through the worst of American oppression, the other black history can be a source of moral and spiritual rejuvenation for black America.
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