Don't ever let anybody say that you're a footnote

February 09, 1997|By CYNTHIA CHIDEYA

In last week's Perspective, Rodney M. Glasgow Jr., a senior at the Gilman School, pondered his existence as a young African-American in a white-dominated society. Rodney, like many other African-Americans, is troubled by the questions: Who am I? And why have I been relegated to a footnote in history? This week, Cynthia Chideya, a Baltimore teacher, responds in an open letter to Rodney.

DEAR RODNEY,

You and all African-Americans are not just footnotes in history. Your article touched me for the pain of historical invisibility that has been fostered on people of African descent all over the modern world. That young African-Americans must today still search and still anguish over what it means to be black hurts me, a 55-year-old, much more than I can explain to anyone. For I was one of those back in the 60s who believed that racism was being dealt some serious blows and that it would not be as strong and virulent for my children as it was for me.

As a teen-ager, I recall reading of Emmett Till (a 15-year-old black boy) who was lynched in the South for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Of course, at that same time, we know that whites were raping black women with impunity in many parts of this nation. We also know that the Ku Klux Klan was terrorizing good citizens of color (often under the banner of the Confederate battle flag) and this was not limited to the South. Malcolm X's father and others were victims of northern terror.

Rodney, I have so much I want to say to you and to all who have searched for people of color who made history. First, always remember that history is most often written from the perspective and to the glorification of the group from which the writer came. People of African descent have been doers and movers throughout history.

Ask yourself some questions that others have asked but refused to answer in a logical manner. Why do all the truly old statues of Buddha depict a person with thick lips and very tightly coiled hair (called peppercorn by anthropologists and not found among Asian or European groups)? What do the old writings mean when they talk of Aesop with woolly hair? How did the Olmec statues of ancient Mexico come to depict persons with pronounced negroid features? For the answer to that one read "They Came Before Columbus" by Ivan Van Sertima.

The history of African civilizations before the United States is rich in accomplishments. And it is not just a matter of claiming a great part of the ancient civilizations of Egypt (although there are many who erroneously want to take this from us. There is no end to the vicious desire to strip us of achievements anywhere). Many more people ought to learn the glories of medieval Mali, whose Timbuktu awed all the Europeans who visited it. It was known for its social organization and pursuit of knowledge through its universities. The modern world has been shocked by the knowledge of complex celestial systems shown by stargazers in Mali.

Modern scientists also are fascinated with the discovery of archaeoastronomical evidence in Namoratunga in Kenya where non-randomly oriented basalt pillars dating to 300 B.C. suggest an ancient calendar based on detailed astronomical knowledge. Africans were busily pursuing knowledge and developing city-states in East and West Africa and the Zimbabwe ruins (stone structures) attest to of many well organized civilizations in southern Africa. Do you know that 2,000 years ago Africans in what is now modern Tanzania had devised furnaces that reached 1,400 degrees Celsius (2,500 F) and were smelting iron ore into steel at temperatures Europeans did not produce until much later?

Rodney, of course, you did not learn about these and many other things in the history books and encyclopedias provided for American students. What is worse is that we must search to even find mention of African-American contributions over the last two centuries. They throw a crumb or two our way and fail to mention that even during slavery African-Americans were inventors. One of the first patented inventions by an African-Americans was a corn harvester invented by a Marylander named Blair. That was in the 1830s.

From there, the list goes on and on. Our forefathers (and foremothers to a lesser degree because they suffered from gender prejudice) revolutionized many parts of American industry through inventions in such things as sugar refining, shoe making, railway telegraphy and machinery lubrication. I'd bet that few people know that the term "the real McCoy" came about because Elijah McCoy's invention to lubricate machinery without stopping it, thereby allowing for increased production, was so welcomed that no manufacturer wanted to be stuck with an imitation. The owners of some companies insisted on "the real McCoy."

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