Welcome to Black History Month. Some would say that’s quite an advancement from back in 1926, when the historian Dr. Carter J. Woodson created Negro History Week. But knock on just about any door anywhere in America and ask the family inside who Carter Woodson was. When they look back with a puzzled look, tell them he is a famous black man.
Kids and parents alike will then ask which NFL or NBA team he plays for. Letting them know they’re off course, the family members, whether black or white, will ask if he played in Prince’s backup band or if he’s with Jay Z or Beyonce’s music entourage.
It’s a sad and pathetic state of affairs when scantily clad Beyonce is idolized while Marion Anderson, the world-renowned black opera singer, gets a question mark next to her name on the Black History Month quiz.
We can’t identify black people who, against all odds, made significant historical contributions, but we’re able to allow our culture to be minimized by the sounds of marching bands.
I’m not at all convinced that we need parades to celebrate my history. The last one I attended (the only one I ever went to) had an inordinate amount of very cute black girls shaking their rumps while swishing their long, store-bought Chinese hair in sync with the rhythm of a fierce drum beat.
Ask the parade-goer standing next to you who Phillis Wheatley was and you would probably get an answer something like, “Uh, I think she’s the one in the third row of pom-pom girls. Yeah, yeah, she’s the one with that long, blonde ponytail.”
And just why should we know who Phillis Wheatley was? One reason we should know of her is because she is the epitome of who we, as black people, are not.
In 1773, Phillis Wheatley became the first African American and one of the first women to publish a book of poetry in the colonies.
She was born in Senegal/Gambia in about 1753 and at the age of 8 was kidnapped and brought to Boston on a slave ship. Although she was in poor health, she was purchased by John Wheatley, whose family educated her, and she went on to write highly acclaimed poetry. She published her first poem in 1767 and her first volume of verse in 1773.
This took place at a time when African Americans were discouraged and intimidated from learning how to read and write. For, as former slave and diplomat Frederick Douglass has written of the words of his master, “Learning will spoil the best nigger in the world. If he learns to read the Bible it will forever unfit him to be a slave. … If you teach him how to read, he’ll want to know how to write, and this accomplished, he’ll be running away with himself.”
Not much advancement has taken place in honoring black history by the increase from one week to a full month.
Our children still can’t read and still don’t know who we, as a people, are.
Too bad we haven’t accomplished what 8-year-old kidnap victim Phillis Wheatley managed to do, which was make the words of Douglass’ owner come true.
Just think, if we were to replace the Black History Month hip-shaking parades and instead focused on that which would make us run away with ourselves, in the years to come, when we knock on a neighbor’s door, no matter the color of their skin, they would know who we are.
Dr. Carter J. Woodson, the black man who isn’t an NBA or NFL player, is someone we ought to know all about, even though he was never in the entertainment industry like Beyonce, Jay Z and Prince.
While never to have worn skimpy clothes (at least not in public) or to have sported long, store-bought Chinese hair, Woodson’s documentation of African-American lives and contributions are the beginning link to learning and appreciating who we are as a people.
Marion Anderson might be said to have paved the way for today’s black entertainers. She was, among many other things, involved in the struggle for black artists to overcome racial prejudice in the United States.
In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to give permission for her to sing to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and President Franklin D. Roosevelt intervened. Anderson performed on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of over 75,000 people and to a radio audience all over the world that was in the millions.
I would say Anderson ran away with herself. And I would further say parents and elders in our communities need to grab hold of our young’uns’ and get them to start running, too.