BLACK HERITAGE MONTH 2016, IMAGE COURTESY CITY OF ROCHESTER
Honoring Black History
While researching this article for Black History Month, I unearthed a rich vein of American history that I didn’t recall learning about when I was in school. I also discovered that, while African Americans readily acknowledge that Black History Month is an important first step, for many the ultimate goal is to see the histories of everyone who helped to make America the country we live in today integrated into the standard national educational curriculum. Two well-known Rochesterians have generously shared their perspectives on the significance of black history for all Americans.
Why Black History Month is Important: Then and Now
Dr. Marvin A. McMickle is the 12th President of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School (CRCDS) where he serves as a self-described cheerleader, fundraiser, policy advisor, and teacher. His focus is on keeping the quality of the programs and the profile of the school as high as possible.
He explains that Black History Week was established by esteemed historian and Harvard PhD, Carter G. Woodson, to commemorate the accomplishments of African Americans. “In 1926 African American history was nonexistent in public discussion,” Dr. McMickle observes, adding that Woodson’s goal was to provide accurate information about people, places, and events related to black people of historical significance who played an instrumental role in American history. Seven days soon proved to be insufficient, and the celebration evolved into Black History Month, held each February. The month continues to provide a means of educating and informing the public in the twenty-first century. “We’ve been here all along and made many contributions to the formation of this country,” Dr. McMickle says. “We’ll keep telling our own story until it is properly reported by others.”
As Rochester’s second African American and first female mayor, Lovely Warren is something of a history maker herself. Mayor Warren views Black History Month as a time to reflect on the past and to recall the struggles of her ancestors. “You should never forget or let the next generation forget either,” she says. “Sometimes Black History Month is regarded as negative. People say, ‘You’re trying not to assimilate’ or ‘You’re being divisive,’ when the whole premise of the month is to pass on information [about black history] to the next generation.”
What’s Being Taught and What’s Being Left Out
How are today’s educators doing? “I think we could do better,” Mayor Warren says, noting that she learned much of her people’s history from her family, as opposed to her school. “Our history didn’t start with slavery and that’s what’s taught in the schools.” Her grandparents were sharecroppers in South Carolina and she clearly recalls them taking the grandchildren to see where they picked cotton and tobacco. She and her husband plan to take their young daughter on a similar trip this year to share the personal narrative of their family with her. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” the Mayor maintains. “It’s how black people lived in America at one time.”
Both emphasize that their rich African American history began in their homeland long before their ancestors were forcibly brought to America, a fact that’s rarely discussed in schools across America. Instead, black history is often confined to the negative aspects, such as slavery and Jim Crow, along with a few familiar names like George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
According to Dr. McMickle, there’s so much more. African American history can take people to places they haven’t been yet. For example, he says, did you know that Charles Richard Drew pioneered research in blood storage and blood transfusions and Guion Bluford was a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut and the first African American to go into space? Dr. McMickle places the blame for this societal ignorance on both the United States education system and mass communications.
The Mayor agrees. Though all these African Americans are undeniably positive role models, there are many more out there, like Emmett Till and Nat Turner that children don’t learn as much about. “We are part of the fabric that makes up American life,” Mayor Warren emphasizes. “Blacks had a hand in everything. We didn’t only impact one part of history and we shouldn’t be separated out.”
Another concern is when the black community’s religious faith is excluded from the school curriculum. Mayor Warren feels this is a huge mistake because religion (and the churches) played such an enormous part in African American history. “We relied on it; it’s how we were able to overcome and endure what was put on us,” she says.
Gaining a more balanced view of their past encourages students to not constantly see themselves as victims. “There were many people in the African American community that didn’t conform to the way mainstream society viewed them,” Mayor Warren says. “It’s about teaching the next generation of students whose shoulders they stand on and what sacrifices were made so they could be free.”
For Dr. McMickle, sharing an accurate and complete history of America provides a means of counterbalancing prejudices with factual data. He believes that the more truthful things we know about others’ capacities, contributions, and characters, the harder it is to miscatagorize and the less we can be turned against each other.
“History should tell everyone’s stories,” Mayor Warren concurs. “It makes us realize that we have more in common than we have differences. Think about what we all want for our families -- to educate our kids so they can be successful, to live in a safe community, and to enjoy what life has to offer. These are the bare bones of what we want, no matter what our race is.”
Is Change Possible?
Dr. McMickle notes that, though there are still plenty of problems with the way history is taught today, it has gotten incrementally better than it was in his school days. “I didn’t learn any black history in Chicago in the 1950’s,” he says. “Nothing! I learned all about other cultures [in the city] like the meaning of Columbus Day and how to sing Italian songs …But there was no interest in using the month of February as a teaching tool. My school was predominantly white. It would have been a great opportunity for whites and nonwhites to learn about African Americans contributions.”
This lack of awareness isn’t confined to whites, Dr. McMickle maintains. “African Americans are just as ignorant of their own history as any other sector of the population. The harder people have to work to gain this information, the less likely it is to be known,” he says. “Black History Month certainly makes our history more accessible through readings, films and introducing new information but the school system is the real leveling system because everyone there gets exposed to the same thing. If it’s not there, no one gets it.”
A good first step would be to fill in the gaps of what Dr. McMickle says should be common knowledge. For example when students learn about Walt Whitman, they should simultaneously learn about Langston Hughes. Dr. McMickle is quick to add that African American achievements should be integrated into the whole curriculum, including science, mathematics, technology, English, music, and physical education. “Every single technology we use, every area of our life has been enhanced, enriched, maybe even invented, by an African American,” he asserts.
Integrating people of color into the national school curriculum isn’t impossible, says Dr. McMickle. His own son received a much more balanced schooling in Cleveland than his father had in the Midwest several decades before. However, making this goal a reality usually requires an engaged Board of Education that is willing to press its school district to do better, parents who want their children to receive a broader education and learn about all aspects of America’s culture and history, and committed principals or teachers.
Teachable Moments Matter
Does an uneven education effect a student’s concept of what it means to be an American? “If I am told that you are inferior to me and no one ever corrects this, what do I grow up to believe?” Mayor Warren asks. She shares a story about two elementary school classmates. One child said to the other, “My ancestors owned your ancestors.” This was an accurate statement and a very teachable moment, the Mayor says. Unfortunately the adults involved missed the opportunity to put the child’s statement into context. A good response would have been, “You’re absolutely right. Let’s take a minute to talk about that and how it happened.”
As a parent, the Mayor tries to hold herself to the same standards. She and her daughter, Taylor, went to the polls together in November 2016. When Taylor learned that her candidate would not be president, she was brokenhearted. She told her mother she wasn’t going to vote anymore. Mayor Warren turned the emotions, and the declaration, into her own teachable moment. “That’s life,” she told the young girl. “Sometimes you can work so hard for something and still not get it, but you have to press on…That’s why black history is so important. Maybe the previous generation wasn’t able to realize the dream they aspired to but they set the stones in place for the next generation. You need to ask yourself, ‘What is my generation going to do?’”
(Recommended by Dr. McMickle and Mayor Warren)
- Martin Luther King Jr. Commission Various activities will be sponsored by the commission in 2017. www.grmlk.org
- Black History Month at CRCDS-February 2017 A month-long commemoration of Black History Month, which includes a weekly church service, guest speaker(s), and a soup and cider dinner. People of all ages are welcome to attend any (or all) of the gatherings. www.crcds.edu
- Dr. David A. Anderson- Professional Storyteller
- Watch for his dynamic, historical performances around the Rochester-area community. www.blackstorytelling.org/bio_dave.htm
- Read fiction, nonfiction, or poetry by African American authors (Alice Walker, Paul Laurence Dunbar)
- Watch movies starring African Americans (Sounder, Pride, Red Tails, Remember the Titans)
- Listen to African American music ( 3 Mo’ Tenors, Jessye Norman, Winton Marsalis)
- Attend a play written by an African American (August Wilson)
Sue Henninger is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to Rochester & Genesee Valley Parent Magazine. Contact her at www.SueHenninger.com