Pick any smart teenager, someone who gets A’s in History, and ask him or her to name 10 famous black people and provide only one qualifier: only one of them can be an entertainer or athlete. The rest have to be authors, scientists, mathematicians, businessmen or businesswomen. If he or she can do that with ease, then we don’t need Black History Month. My guess is that 9 out of 10 teenagers will fail the test. And most adults will too.
A few days ago, President Trump remarked that Frederick Douglass is doing an amazing job. He seems to think the brilliant writer and orator is still alive. Then Vice President Pence spoke of the accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln when tweeting about Black History month. Could he think of no BLACK people to highlight during BLACK History month? If they weren’t the leaders of the free world, we might give them a pass. The high school books of their boyhood may have had a brief mention of Harriet Tubman, and that’s about it.
The problem is, history books haven’t changed that much. They are still astonishingly white. And the problem with that is, children of all colors can quite easily graduate subconsciously thinking that white people have made this country great. And that assumption of exclusively white accomplishment is at the root of white supremacy. With no effort at all, well meaning, progressive educators perpetuate a mindset that came into this country with the first Europeans and still bubbles to the surface with alarming frequency.
Intentionality is the new buzz word and until black faces more generously sprinkle history books, we have to intentionally teach the accomplishments of black people.
So, test yourself, just for fun. See if you know any of these amazing people. Many still walk the earth, doing incredible things, even now.
1. Mae Jemison. She’s an African American engineer, physician and astronaut.
2. Neil deGrasse Tyson: He’s an African American astrophysicist, cosmologist and author. He directs the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.
3. Lloyd Hall. Born only 30 years after the end of slavery, Hall was a chemist who contributed to the science of food preservation. He had 59 patents.
4. Benjamin Benneker. Benneker, born in 1731 to slaves, was a mathematical genius, astronomer and architect .
5. Joseph Graves. Is a big name in nanotechnology.
6. Langston Hughes. Hughes was a poet, novelist, playwrite and columnist.
7. WEB DuBois. DuBois was an educator, historian, sociologist, philosopher, poet and leader.
8. George Washington Carver. Born a slave, Carver became a world famous inventor and botanist.
9. Charles Hamilton Houston. One of the nations greatest legal strategists.
10. Mary McLeod Bethune. Educator, member of FDR’s Cabinet, founder of her own college.
Oh, and let’s add one more for now: Katherine Johnson. The movie, Hidden Figures, is finally telling her story and that of her black, female comrades who enabled John Glenn to orbit the earth. Before now, they were hidden indeed.
These eleven men and women are just the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds and hundreds of writers, thinkers, scientists and educators. And then if you add the formidable musicians of every genre, and the breathtaking athletes of every sport, black achievement was and will never be anything slight or cursory. Many wish we could at last live in a post-racial society, but that will never happen until most of us know that excellence is no respecter of skin color.
So, Black History Month stays, until you and I pass the test.