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Celebrate American History

The first time I remember talking about Black History Month was in church in Gulfport, Mississippi. My Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Cager, said that we had to choose a person to portray in the Black History Program. I chose Dr. Carter G. Woodson. I picked Dr. Woodson because I had heard my father talk about him and because my family owned a copy of a book that he had written entitled The Mis-education of the Negro.

Many of you reading this article have never heard of Dr. Woodson, despite the fact that he was the second Black person to earn a doctoral degree from Harvard University. He stood out as a highly intelligent and motivated individual who was compelled to promote the history of his ancestors and his peers. As a scholar, his works challenged popular academic thought that Black people had no culture or history.
He started Negro History Week, the precursor to Black History Month that we celebrate annually in February. Negro History Week was celebrated during the second week in February to coincide with the birthdays of Fredrick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. It is for this reason that Black History Month is the shortest month of the year; it wasn’t chosen to show disrespect to Black Americans, as many people believe.

After eight years of American history and one year of European history in elementary and secondary school, I longed to hear more than the four sentences I heard every year about Black history: “Black slaves were brought from Africa to America. Slave owners were generally benevolent to slaves. In 1865, Lincoln freed the slaves. In the 1960’s Martin Luther King helped Blacks gain civil rights.” That was it.
Nine years of history lessons and I got the same four sentences each year. Some of you reading this had more than those four sentences; some of you had less. At seven years old, during that Sunday school program, I had no idea how important the works of Dr. Woodson were. At age 27, I have a much greater appreciation.

So this Black History Month I implore you, especially those of you who are not Black, to do something different – to celebrate American history. Watch the documentaries and movies about Black history this month on HBO and Showtime. Go out and rent Roots, Amistad or Malcolm X. Go to the COOP and buy a copy of the Mis-Education of the Negro, Up From Slavery, or The Souls of Black Folk.

If not that, then look around you and appreciate the inventions that Blacks brought you such as the three-signal traffic light, a brighter burning filament in light bulbs, and a breathing apparatus later adapted into the gas mask.

Black history is only celebrated in this country in February and it’s not long enough. However during the short time that attention is paid to the achievements of Black people, take the time to enrich your mind about the history that is too often ignored by textbooks.

It took all races, ethnicities and nationalities to make America what it is. Now is the time to truly celebrate that diversity – not through lip service, but through learning. This year celebrate American history… all of America’s history.

February 19, 2002
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