I’ve been here 350 years but you’ve never seen me.
Black History month has provided an opportunity for another reader response. Today, I wrote the following reply to a review of The Listeners by Gloria Whelan at Rhapsody in Books:
Teachers and librarians,
While this book looks lovely please remember that children need contemporary and fun books about black people. Black History should encompass more than slavery.
You say Black History Month and most kids think slavery and school lessons. The last thing they think is fun. We’ve made plenty of history since the Civil War.
And while I don’t want to scare children, I’m not sure I want children focusing on happy times during slavery. If we’re going to talk about slavery as a way to teach a lesson then we need to be clear why it was ugly and I think we can do that without playing up slaves laughing and dancing.
Yes, February is Black History Month and like many of my friends, I have ambivalent feelings about the month. I didn’t plan any special events or columns for either blog. I’m black 365 days a year. I invite readers all year long to recognize the contributions of black folks and at the tender age of forty-five this year (2/9 in case anyone is wondering) I’ve grown weary of the rehashing of the usual suspects. Before you say my remark is blasphemous or irreverent let me explain.
Black history doesn’t start and end with slavery or Civil Rights but every child in public school at least is indoctrinated with tales of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Mary McCloud Bethune, Martin Luther King, Jr., George Washington Carver, Madame C.J. Walker and W.E.B DuBois during the month of February.
What would happen if we asked the average child if they knew who Mae Jemison, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Carol Ann-Marie Gist or Dr. Ben Carson is? Could you answer me if I asked you who Dr. Charles Drew, Clara Howard, Bessie Smith or Dudley Randall was?
Okay, so you’re thinking, “Well educate us.” I did think about writing a post about why we need to educate children and adults about recent historical black figures and relevant contemporary figures and then I opted not to. Why? I’m going to call it
minority fatigue. I’m tired. I’m tired of being the default spokesperson. I’m tired of the task of teaching folks about black people and other POC issues that they could very well learn on their own if they’re interested. I didn’t wait for someone else to sound a clarion call for me to recognize the world is larger than my own backyard. I sought out what I think matters. I asked questions and made it my responsibility to learn.
It is impossible to pretend that you are not heir to, and therefore, however inadequately or unwillingly, responsible to, and for, the time and place that give you life.
Those who went before us didn’t struggle and die for us to revere them but for us to continue to achieve and to build a legacy for future generations so I’m doing what I can and my work doesn’t begin and end in February so when I read the umpteenth book review about slavery, I groan. I don’t want us to forget. But it’s been more than 300 years, people. It’s time to update what you know about your fellow Americans.
What does Black History Month mean to you? Do you only revisit slave narratives and Civil Rights? Can you name any iconic figures not associated with these standard time periods?