Delve into black history to help bury racism

February 04, 2002|By Jennifer Epps

MADISON, Wis. - Friday marked the beginning of Black History Month. As a black American, this month is a time for me to honor the contributions we have made to the United States. So why don't I have any positive memories of Black History Month from my childhood?

Year after year in school, I learned about the same five figures in black history (Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Benjamin Banneker). Each year there was a different grade but the same five people. This tokenism made Black History Month repetitive, tedious and uninteresting to me.

By the eighth grade I began to think, "Is this it? Is this all black people have done?" That was hardly the reaction Carter Godwin Woodson envisioned when he created Negro History Week, which grew into Black History Month in 1970.

Standard American history textbooks slight the contributions of blacks. The few sections that do mention blacks usually refer to the Constitution, slavery and the civil rights movement. There is a 95-year time span between the end of slavery in 1865 and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Are we to believe that blacks made no notable contributions to history during this period? If you trusted your teachers and textbooks, you believed that.

"When your conqueror makes you ashamed of your culture and your history, he needs no prison walls and no chains to hold you," said black historian John Clarke in reference to America's public education curriculum.

This was my experience until my junior year of high school. I resented the fact that I was one of the only people of color in my honors classes, and I tried hard to distance myself from what I felt at the time was underachievement in my race. In many ways, I was ashamed of my blackness.

Then, in my junior year, everything changed. I had a black teacher for the first time. In English class, I read books written by people like me. My class read James Baldwin, Ralph Emerson, Toni Morrison, Angela Davis and others. I learned that America would not have been built or have been able to function without black people.

This country's economic power was built on the backs of enslaved blacks. Even Northern states, where slavery was not legal, relied on slave products for use and exportation. For example, the North was dependent on the rice and tobacco grown in the South using the labor of enslaved blacks.

Blacks designed and built many of our cities and historic buildings. Benjamin Banneker, a black man, designed the nation's capital, Washington, in less than two days after the original white architect quit and took all of his plans with him. Two of the most important structures in the country - the U.S. Capitol and the White House - were built using slave labor.

I learned that many of us would not be able to go about our daily routines without the contributions of black American inventors. We wouldn't have freshly ironed clothes without a black woman named Sarah Boone inventing the ironing board.

We are able to do those "professional"-looking hairstyles thanks to a black man named Walter Sammons, who invented the comb, and a black woman, Lydia Newman, who invented the hair brush.

Buying in bulk would be impossible without John Standard, a black man who invented the refrigerator. God forbid a family member ever needed heart surgery, because without Dr. Charles Drew, a black scientist who found a way to preserve and store blood, and Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, a black man who performed the first open-heart surgery, this would not be possible.

I learned that going home after a long day and relaxing to music would be nearly impossible without the contributions of blacks. Blacks helped create rock 'n' roll, jazz, the blues, two-step, hip-hop, R&B, soul and rap.

Black history is American history. Many of the privileges we enjoy today are a direct result of the contributions blacks have made to our society. And it is important to learn this if we ever sincerely hope to address the issue of racism.

African history builds "pride and self-esteem among blacks. And if taught correctly, compounded with an honest, open-hearted discussion, it will help eliminate racism and prejudice among whites," Woodson said.

This February, I urge you to celebrate Black History Month in the spirit that Woodson imagined. Educate yourself about the true history of America, erase your present prejudices and work toward building an inclusive future free from racism and injustice.

Jennifer Epps, a student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is an intern with the Progressive Media Project. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org, or by writing to Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main St., Madison, Wis. 53703. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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