February is now known as Black History Month since many young intellects used their influence to institutionalize the shifts from a week to a month and from Negro history to black history, so as we celebrate a people who have said — and will continue to say — “YES WE CAN,” let us remember that Carter G. Woodson’s main desire at that time was to make Black History a field of serious study, and to provide the public with thoughtful celebrations. We must put our heart and soul into the celebrations. His suggestion was for it to be a time of study and discussion, and by doing that it would lead to a better understanding of who Blacks are and, at the same time, display what has been accomplished, written and invented.
Our celebrations since 1926 have somehow missed that mark set by Woodson. One must study the people, and therefore we will eventually be able to have celebrations that will have long-lasting effects on the community. We must not get caught up in the celebration by putting up pictures, displaying our Black reading material, wearing our original African garb, inviting black speakers and then on the 28th of February return to business as usual with no change in our comfortable position. A meaningful celebration should be about those fallen heroes, and those still standing, who sweat, bled and died for a worthwhile cause and were left out of the mainstream of society.
Many leaders and educators, blacks and white, have stated that information about blacks and by blacks is not worthy of study. Just as in all literary circles, some material is worth the reading, and as with all, some is not. But it is next to impossible to negate the scientific inventions, literature, social improvements and community service that blacks have made possible.
I remember one day I noticed one of my students moping and looking sad as I approached him in the hall during break. I questioned him about his countenance, and he said, “I just do not understand,” as he shook his head. I asked him what was he trying to understand. He looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “Today I asked one of my history teachers why he never taught us anything about black history, and the teacher looked at me, giggled and said, ‘Oh! I could teach you black history in 2 minutes.’”
This is an indication that many were — and still are — in positions to help black children learn about themselves, but are not willing to do so because of their biases and deep animus about the subject. One human being to another, if you had been told all of your life that history is important, but somehow the history books and history classes omitted your history, what would that do to your self-esteem? My granddaughter was confused last year by her teacher. She said, “Grandmama when we reached the chapter dealing with black history, my teacher skipped it and said that we would cover that during Black History Month.” Her ego was dashed because she was made to feel that her history was placed on the back burner and was not important.
There is much blame to go around, but let us not play the blame game today. It is later than we think. Let us find ways, beginning today, to move forward from here by making a concerted effort to teach ALL children American History. Those who are in a position to help in the dissemination of information should do so with sensitivity after having done thorough research. Pastors, teachers and parents, check out your sources. One must always be knowledgeable about his source and the point of view of the writer or author. Keep in mind that many falsehoods are out there about the black community and, if the individual is not careful, he will believe them all.
One student from the 1960 era reported that his teacher would hide Woodson’s textbook beneath his desk to avoid drawing the wrath of the principal. After reading that student’s remembrance, I was reminded of the time when my contract as a teacher in the 1970s was held up because I was falsely accused of showing my students a film titled “What Happened to Black History: Was it Lost, Stolen or Strayed?” I was summoned to the office by the superintendent for doing so. He said that I was accused of teaching controversial material. My statement to the superintendent was, “Sir, I am not controversial. That film is about black people. What makes it controversial?” He had not even viewed the film. He was simply taking the word of my accusers. As I was leaving his office, he simply said, “Just be careful.” I was absolutely livid when I left the office, and I was determined to let my students see the film which they had not viewed.
During those days the films had to be ordered through our media center. Teachers had so many days to return the films. Luckily, the film had not yet been returned. I checked it out and changed my lesson plans and showed the film the next day.
Those of us who are in a position to make a difference, let us not allow ourselves to short change these eager learners — black, white and brown — by giving them a “sharecropper education.” Let us help these gifted and talented young people to own the farm.
Willie Mae Samuel is the founder and director of the African American Connection for the Performing Arts in Rome.