What will you do to illuminate the past and light the future?

This will take just a few minutes—25 multiple-choice questions to be answered on your computer. No friends throwing out the answers. No public shaming or public celebration. Just a quiet few minutes to see how much you know about the African American experience and history. Please take the quiz before you read any further.


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Many are likely to know the answer to the first question, but what if it was re-worded: “Who was the first African American allowed to play major league baseball?” You’d still know the answer, but you might think about it a bit differently. Not that there weren’t African Americans with the talent, as the stated question might imply. And if you click on the “Learn more” button, you see that the argument from the team’s manager isn’t focused on racial justice or morality, it is focused on economics. The white owner of the team, the white manager, and the white players were all going to be financial beneficiaries of this change. Then, if you have time, go deeper into his story to learn about the life of this “first” and the mental anguish he, and his family, suffered.

Then look at the second question. “Learn more” will remind you that the black community isn’t monolithic. While being black in America offers a distinct vantage point from being white or Asian, Native or LatinX, and while there may be unanimity in the desire for justice and equity among black people, there is no shared sense of strategy. In that divergence, however, a center point may become clearer. Some suggest if there hadn’t been a Malcolm X, a perceived radical, Martin Luther King’s views might not have been deemed reasonable and viable. He would have been the radical. That point alone could generate a vibrant discussion if you move just a little beyond the presented fact.

Now to the third item in the quiz. “Learn more” reveals that in 1960, just two generations ago, black people were fighting for the right to sit down and have lunch in an integrated environment. Perhaps that would have been your parents’ or maybe your grandparents’ generation. Where did they stand/fall on the question of civil rights? Have you ever asked them, or if you are the parent or the grandparent, have you ever shared with the younger members of your family what you were doing or thinking in 1960 when people were actively advocating for the civil rights of African Americans?

These are conversations that we should all have. Maybe Black History Month offers an entrée to this topic for your family.

lamp-4436364_1920Understanding a people’s history isn’t just about knowing the dates or being able to rattle off trivia at a cocktail party. It’s about revealing and understanding the layers, the actions and reactions, that contribute not just to those people, but to the fabric of the bigger, “US” as a people, as a culture. Often those revelations and the discussions happen in school. I know that is where I learned, explored and discussed much about the history of the country. My parents and my community often talked about current events, but rarely do I recall family discussions about historical events. And once I left the segregated school system, never did black history enter my formal education.

Over the last 50 years, black history has increasingly been recognized as the essential part of American history… and world history, that it is. Some states now require its incorporation into the educational curriculum. Textbooks are being written. Students are asking for it. But the subject still doesn’t seem mainstreamed into the curriculum. Some suggest that history and social studies teachers aren’t trained to teach it. Even when they try to cover the topic, they aren’t comfortable enough to delve deeply. The conversation typically stops with the facts. Others suggest many of the textbooks introduce black history with slavery, reinforcing African Americans in a lower position in society. I’m not so sure I agree with that even though I can appreciate the viewpoint. Black Americans’ history did, in no small measure, start with being enslaved. There is just so much about that reality that can be explored. Teachers can take the lesson back to Africa.* In school, we often talked about what was happening in Europe that pre-dated white settlers coming to America. I still remember the weight of my European history textbook. Whole semesters focused on the subject, but never in the 16 years of my liberal arts education did I have one course on African history. What was happening in the countries and kingdoms there?

I don’t have the answers, but I know that when Carter G. Woodson helped found the Association for the Study of Negro Life (1915), later became the chief advocate for Negro History Week (1926) and promoted the study of African American culture and history throughout his life, he was not suggesting it as an add on. He was filling a void until the topic could be fully fused into any study of the history of America.

Taking a quiz or focusing on interesting factoids can start a conversation. It can begin the learning, but we must remember the facts are just where real discovery and understanding begins.

What will you do special during this Black History Month? What will you do throughout the year to better understand, appreciate, and value the contributions of African Americans?

“The past should not oppress, it should illuminate.”

—Kasi Lemmons, Director of “Harriet” during a panel discussion following the movie’s showing at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, 10/21/19

*If you are interested in learning about Africa’s civilizations, check out the PBS six-hour series called “Africa’s Great Civilizations,” narrated by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

12 Replies to “What will you do to illuminate the past and light the future?”

  1. Excellent! Glad you wrote this, and including the quiz at the beginning certainly gets the reader to thinking. When I taught lessons on Black History to third-grade students in Norfolk, Virginia, that was my introduction to the contributions of many people that I had never heard of before in my own elementary or even secondary classes. Usually we would have a picture for the students to color, along with a half-page narrative about why that person made a positive impact. I moved on to teaching Middle School English, where there was not nearly as much about African-Americans writers, but we did have Phillis Wheatley, Langston Hughes, Shel Silverstein, Nikki Giovanni and others. They, and others, were wonderful. It was like discovering a new favorite food to savor. Right now I feel inspired to introduce these inspirational African-American writers, sports figures, business people and leaders to my own two young grandchildren. In my touring various historical sights this past summer I bought books about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass to read to them. Sara and Hugo, watch out! Grandma is bringing you some more great stories about great people in history, and this month, but not only this month, we will be looking at Black Americans.

    1. Joyce, I really appreciate your voice. You show how relatively easy it can be to introduce the topic if you believe in its importance. I bet you were a great teacher and I can tell that you are a great grandma to Hugo and Sara.

      1. I was disappointed that I only got 17 correct. I need to do some brushing up!. So I guess Sara, Hugo, and I will be learning a lot together. I’m going to look up some age-appropriate books and get one or two for Valentine’s Day presents for them. And maybe donate another one to Hugo’s preschool and Sara’s classroom.

  2. Loved this piece, Tamara.

    Sad that a score of 11 of 25 classified me as a “history buff.” Found it helpful to find out how much I didn’t know.

    As for what I’m doing this month… I’m heading into the last of of a several month 4 part journey with author Lorene Cary. Years ago I brought her to my women’s club to talk about “Price of a Child” to raise funds for a local museum being built at the site of an Underground Railroad stop. We loved her! Just had her back to talk about her latest book, “Ladysitting”. Then went to see her interview Erica Armstrong Dunbar, author of “She Came to Slay”, which I’m reading now. Then went to see Lorene again at our local public television station, where she was interviewed about the debut of her new play “My General Tubman”. Next week I’m leading a group of 25 women from our club (and my granddaughter) to see the play at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia. It’s getting incredible reviews, and the run has had to be extended twice already. Lorene has been informing and inspiring me for many years.

    At the end of the month I will be reading Faith Ringgold’s book, “Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky” to a 2nd grade class along with some poems and other activities.

    1. Denise, thank you for sharing all that you are doing. I know that you are taking this learning journey seriously. I am so glad that our life paths crossed. I am glad that we are partners on the quest for racial equity.

    2. Denise, thanks for the book suggestion for 2nd graders, I’ll check into buying it for Sara’s class.

  3. Thank you, as always, Tamara for teaching me and giving me both food for thought and tools to learn more.

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