Op-Ed: Reflections on Black History Month
This month, I devoted almost all of my Facebook status messages to Black History Month. This wasn’t an intentional project. The first day, I posted a picture I took at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati of Henry “Box” Brown, who escaped slavery by mailing himself in a box from Richmond to Philadelphia. My motivation in choosing Mr. Brown was simple: before I visited the Freedom Center, I had never heard of him; I figured many of my friends probably had not heard of him either. Also, he escaped slavery by mailing himself in a box! In my opinion, this is one of the greatest escape stories of all time.
The second day, I posted part of Malcolm X’s biography – the part where he taught himself to read. I read this excerpt in an English class in my very first semester of college. The reason that this particular section has stayed with me is because of Spike Lee’s biographical film X. You may remember that in X Mr. Lee used a surrogate “figure” who represented different people from Malcolm’s life to help him with his transformation from street hustler to activist. Part of this help came in the form of reading – he told Malcolm to read the dictionary from cover to cover. Malcolm’s autobiography tells a completely different story, one that I find far more inspirational – he wanted to communicate with Elijah Mohammed, but felt that it would be inappropriate to speak to him using the kind of language he would use out on the street. So, he got the dictionary on his own, read through it and learned how to write from it. Again, my motivation in posting was simple: Malcolm X did something inspirational and amazing on his own accord that I figured many people probably didn’t know.
The whole thing just snowballed from there.
Although I never said it outright, I hope that those friends of mine who read my posts understood the point that I was trying to make, a point that I learned from reading A People’s History of the United States and Lies My Teacher Told Me. Black history, like general American history, is taught with an emphasis on heroes. The result is a rather boring recitation of names of people who were “the first Black person to” engage in a particular activity, and the extremely short version of history that starts with the first slaves being brought over, skips to the Civil War, jumps to the Civil Rights Movement, and hops directly to President Obama.
History is far more interesting than the short version indicates. The first group of Africans brought to the Americas rebelled and escaped to freedom within six months. Slaves rebelled so often (over 250 reported incidents) but were also so important to the Southern economy that the Southern States would not join the Union unless protection was built into the Constitution. These protections included, but are not limited to, a Northern promise to return fugitive slaves to their owners and the Federal government’s promise to use the Militia to put down “Insurrections.” Even with so much protection for slavery written into this founding document, people of all races can read it and see protections for their own freedoms within it, even if that wasn’t what the Founders intended.
But wait, there’s more: some escaped slaves returned to slavery; some free Blacks owned slaves (usually family members, who got to live as free persons); in the 1860s, White people saw Black people as honest and trustworthy; by 1880, Whites saw Blacks as being criminal (thanks to bad publicity on the part of those who realized that they could make a profit from free prison labor). Despite all of this, one can easily find examples of cooperation between Blacks and Whites (especially those in similar situations) from the beginning of slavery to the present day. I am convinced that if history was taught with context and detail, the portion of people with racist attitudes whose opinions are informed solely by what they see on Cops and Jerry Springer will start to fade away.
Malcolm X once stated that Black self-respect and respect for Blacks from all other races would only come about if Black people made a concerted effort to educate ourselves, run our own businesses and otherwise establish ourselves in the same way other races have. There is no question that since his death we have come a long way toward achieving this goal. However, we are still overrepresented in jails and unemployment while simultaneously being underrepresented in colleges, law schools, and the upper levels of businesses across the country. Petitioning the Court is a slow process. Petitioning the Legislature is quicker, but is also a slow process. Direct action – tutoring a child; creating programs that teach people their legal rights, how to build wealth, or how to read to their children; and showing Black people that there are times when obstacles to success are all in the mind — are all ways that we can move quickly toward this goal.
I challenge anyone reading this to not shy away from making hard decisions where race is involved. Regard the people you meet as individuals. Try to understand those people according to their values, rather than imposing your own beliefs on them. Take some time to learn history that is not simple hero worship. For those who privately hold racist opinions and choose to take this challenge, I can’t guarantee that taking these actions will change your opinions – I can’t even guarantee that you will like the people you meet. What I can guarantee is that taking these actions will make it harder for you to base your opinions about people solely on their race. But you never know, you may make a new friend. And if I am that new friend, I will be happy to clear up any misconceptions about Black people you may have. ☺