Missing Pieces of American History

NMAAHC. behind TLC

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened on September 24, 2016. When the date was announced six months earlier, in February, Black History Month, I marked it on my calendar. I had already planned two trips for the late summer/early fall, a friends’ outing to Spain and Morocco and another to Memphis to visit the National Civil Rights Museum. Living in Washington, DC, I had been watching the building of the museum and looking for the “opening soon” signage to become a definite date. Now that I had it, both trips would have to be planned around the opening. I wasn’t likely to receive an invitation to the festivities, but nothing would prevent me from being on the museum grounds that day. I had to be a part of this incredible event, a museum on the National Mall dedicated entirely to the history and culture of my people.

“I was sitting at home watching the opening of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture on TV. I could feel the energy and I, too, had been anticipating the opening. I started to wonder why I wasn’t there, then I told myself well it wasn’t my museum. That’s when I had the epiphany. Of course, it was my museum, my museum as an American.”

A white colleague told me that a few weeks after the museum opened. I don’t think he was alone in his viewpoint. Many white people were supportive of a museum dedicated to the African-American experience, but they weren’t sure where/how/if they were a part of it. Even I thought of it as my museum and, interestingly, was, at first, surprised by the numbers of white people during the firsts of my multiple visits.

That’s the problem.

The history of black America has never been a part of the history OF America. It always had a place, and one of significance, in black America, but little visibility in white America. My teachers and principal—all of whom were black—in elementary school made sure I knew it. Biographies of black Americans were prominent in the school library. Pictures and commentary on black people and achievements lined the bulletin boards in the classrooms and throughout the building. Not just for what was then Negro History Week, but throughout the year. And, the successes and milestones of black people were the everyday conversation at my family’s dinner table and readily available as both Life Magazine and Ebony Magazine were delivered to my home.

That wasn’t the experience for my white colleague. No focus was placed on teaching him about black America at any point in his formal education. Without his commitment to broadening his understanding of America, his knowledge would be driven solely by happenstance personal experiences and by the manner of coverage by the ubiquitous electronic, social, and print media.

Black history had been, and still is, compartmentalized, marginalized.

In 1977, many Americans, black and white, were riveted by the television miniseries Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Never had there been as mainstream, and as public, an examination of the history of black people in this country. Every episode became next-day conversations at metaphorical water coolers just about everywhere. But, today, four decades after recognizing how much Roots had revealed that we didn’t know, black history still is not fully incorporated into the American past that our sons and daughters learn in school. Black American history is still niche history, not yet seen—at least by those who control textbooks and our educational system—as a part of a comprehensive examination of our country’s history.

The jigsaw puzzle of America’s history continues to have too many missing pieces. But, for those who understand that gaps exist, and for those who want to understand the fullness, richness, and inequities born in American history, the resources today are many to take that powerful learning journey.

Note: Daughters of the Dream, a book I believe is one, small piece of that puzzle, will be released next month. More info coming soon.

Continue reading “Missing Pieces of American History”

Choosing a College was a Black or White Decision

When it was time to start thinking about colleges, my parents took me on the typical college tour trip. We didn’t go too far from my hometown of Richmond. We visited Hampton University, Virginia State, Fisk in Nashville and North Carolina Central — all members of the HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) network.

Predominantly white schools were also in the mix, having only recently become a significant option for black students. Some rose to the top from stories told by recent high school grads who came back to share their experience. I learned of others from my high school quarterback boyfriend who was aggressively recruited by many white schools across the country. When it came time to make that important decision, I chose the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, also the boyfriend’s choice.

It is interesting to note the reaction that that decision elicited then and now. While my parents were not enamored of the boyfriend, they were of my college choice. At the time, not only my parents, but my parents’ friends, and every adult with whom I shared the decision was proud. Virginians knew that William and Mary liked to refer to itself as the Ivy League of the South. It was, and is, a small, state school with a well-regarded reputation for academic excellence. Being accepted into William and Mary was prestigious for a white student. Acceptance was regarded as even more extraordinary for a black student. At that time, there were just a handful of black students on campus. The first was accepted in 1967, only two years before my freshman class.

When people learn that I graduated from William and Mary, the reaction is characteristically divided by race. White people, particularly white Virginians, nod their heads positively. Usually, this fact elevates me in their hierarchy of intellectual excellence. Many black people, on the other hand, shake their heads questioningly. Why did I forego an education grounded in the richness of black culture at an HBCU to attend predominately white William and Mary? They sometimes ask outright: “Did you get a scholarship?” And when I answer, “No,” they either ask me, “Then why did you go there?” or they silently wonder.

The answer has many layers, but at its core, you must consider the times.

My grades were excellent. While not in the top 10 of my high school graduating class, I was in the top 15, a member of the National Honor Society and active in everything from student government to the school yearbook. It was never actually said to me, but I had been groomed to be one of the first. I knew that I was expected to walk through doors as they opened for blacks. Attending William and Mary was one such door. It was seen as a stepping stone, especially in Virginia, to other career opportunities that would not have been possible just a few short years previously. I sincerely felt it was my responsibility to accept when William and Mary accepted me.

Now, in hindsight,the adult me has regretted this decision. College choices back then truly were black or white. I can think of no school, at the time, which was well integrated. While I received an excellent education, I do not have rich memories of campus camaraderie or of Greek life in the sisterhood of a sorority.

W and M homecoming. Flat Hat
Tamara Lucas Copeland was “Tammy” Lucas at W&M

Even though the student body voted me onto the homecoming court three out of my four years (the first black homecoming princess at W&M), I’ve only returned to homecoming twice.  And while I made a few good friends and have no recollection of racism while there, overall when I think back on college, there is just an emptiness, an experience devoid of the oh-so-important social fabric of college life.

I know that my life’s trajectory would have been different – quite different – had I made another choice. Better? I’ll never know.