Decades ago, as a student in Bertie Backus Jr. High in Washington, D.C., I was astonished when our teacher, Mr. Robinson, introduced a black history book. In those days, education was about Greece, Rome, Europe and white people. Africa was dark; black was bad; and everything white was good, pure and civilized.
Thus, I remember well when our 9th grade class used John Hope Franklin’s “From Slavery to Freedom.” It was an awakening I will never forget. We learned of African kingdoms Mali and Songhay, black resistance to slavery and black contributions to American history.
Black history — like that of every other race, nation, group or family — is important as a window into the past with lessons for the future. Black History Month, then, is for reflective discussion and inspired action.
Black History Month was initiated in 1926 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, black scholar, writer and activist. Dr. Woodson, author of the classic, “Miseducation of the Negro,” believed that omitting black history from the record robbed black Americans of their dignity and enabled whites the illusion of supremacy. For Woodson, history was not a passive recitation of dates and facts, but a vital tool for black empowerment and participation in political life.
Thus, Black History Month is as important in 2019 as it was in 1926. Much of the nation’s current dysfunction and discord lies in our collective loss of historical truths.
Black history in America must always begin in slavery. Though Africans had been shipped for decades as slaves to South America and the Caribbean, the first Africans arrived in America in 1619. This began the long and ugly saga of slavery in United States, ending with the north’s 1865 Civil War victory. For 246 years, a quarter of a millennium — slavery based on race with humans as property existed alongside claims of America as the citadel of freedom.
Slavery is foundational to understanding black America. Most black people in America derive their last name from the slave owners of their ancestors. Thus – my last name – Grigsby – is not a name from Africa, but rather, from the white Grigsbys who owned slaves in Culpeper, Virginia. Further, for millions of black Americans, including me, lighter skin complexion is a consequence of forced sexual relations by slave masters upon their slaves. (Thus the utter irony that white mob frenzy in the South’s thousands of lynchings was the manufactured charge of rape; a crime practiced by the lynchers and their parents). Slavery was the engine behind America’s early economic growth and shaped the nation’s political contours, including the Constitution, the electoral college and the two-party system.
Black history does not end in slavery. It is a starting point, but not the end. Some historians say America’s only true Christian church for years was the black church, for white churches, with notable exceptions like the Quakers, capitulated to white supremacy. There is the story of a black man walking home despondent after being kicked out of an all-white church. He asks God, “Why do they treat me that way?” God replies, “Don’t worry, I’ve been trying to get in for 200 years and can’t get past the front door.”
Black Americans have been the nation’s most committed practitioners of democracy. During Reconstruction, black legislators introduced social reforms that benefited all, including poor whites who recently fought to keep them enslaved. In most of the nation’s wars, black soldiers fought and died for freedoms they didn’t have at home. Some veterans returned home safe from World Wars I and II only to be murdered and maimed – often in full uniform – by lynch mobs or sheriffs.
How do we celebrate Black History Month?
Read current black writers like Tracy Smith, Kiese Laymon, Morgan Jenkin, and Ta-Nahesi Coates; watch black films like “Buck and the Preacher,” “Do The Right Thing,” and “Malcolm X.”
Listen to Donny Hathaway, Nina Simone, Brother Ali, Common and Solange.
Invite friends over for conversation about black history, culture or politics. Find an outlet for your talents and passion that impacts positively on blacks in particular and society in general.
Overall, we need to “stay woke,” or, as James Brown sang, “Get Up, Get Into it, Get Involved.”
Finally, it is not a Month, but a way of life.
Black history has not ended — it is in progress — and everyone can participate as both a learner and a doer. Black history is for all, and is yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Pismo Beach resident Daryl Grigsby is public works director for the city of San Luis Obispo. He is a volunteer for Get On the Bus, an organization that enables children to stay connected with their incarcerated parents. He also is the author of several books, including “In Their Footsteps: Inspirational Reflections on Black History for Every Day of the Year,” and “Celebrating Ourselves: African-Americans and the Promise of Baseball.”