Saturday, February 8, 2014

Black History--For White Folks Too

photo by Clotee Pridgen Allochuka

When I was Pastor I thought it would be a good idea to observe Black History Month in our almost-lily-white church. Every Sunday, during that February we would have someone from the black community to tell their story. After my fine announcement, one of our members sidled up to me and said, “Why are we doing Black History Month? We’re not black. Why don’t we do a White History Month?”

I forget what I said but it went something like this: “Well—you know that this church started out of the racial struggle in the sixties and if we had not taken a courageous stand—we wouldn’t be here today. But it’s more than that. White folks need to be aware of the richness of black history. There are heroes that have kept the black community going during hard, dark days. We know much of our own history-- Christopher Columbus, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln . We could talk all day about these. We are surrounded by white history on every corner.”
--vieilles annonees

So I told my friend that as I studied Black History Month I discovered a goldmine I was unaware of. “It all started,” I said, “with a man named Dr. Carter G. Woodson. As he studied American history at Harvard he found few references to the contributions of black folk. So in 1926 he decided to establish Negro History Week. He picked February because it was the birthday of two of his heroes: Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. He hoped his efforts would help people in this country recognize the enormous gifts black folks have given our country. Dr. Woodson’s efforts were only the beginning. In 1976 as part of America’s Bi-Centennial President Ford designated a whole month to recognize the contributions that African-Americans have made.”

“I still don’t understand why we still need a whole month for Black History. We’ve come a long way—isn’t that enough?”

 I told her, “We hear all the time about the poverty rate among black people, babies born out of wedlock and the number of black people in jails or prisons. This is not the whole picture. It isn’t fair to judge black folk or anybody by the worst of the worst.” 

“Well, they certainly have their problems.”

 “Right—but in fairness shouldn’t we judge any people by their best models—not the worst? We white folks have got our dark sides too.”

 “I guess that’s true,” she said.

So I kept going.  “Don’t we judge white folk by our best models? “

Sure,” she said. “George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, Billy Graham. Maybe Einstein or Bill Gates.”

“ Black History helps us remember the great black folk who had made enormous contributions to our country. We don’t know most of them.”

“Name some, then.”

I told her, “You probably know the name of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. But you probably have never heard of Harriet Tubman.”

 “Who’s that?” she wondered.

 “Harriet Tubman was a slave, escaped from slavery and became a free woman. She helped a multitude of her people escape the shackles of slavery. In 1862—she moved to South Carolina and helped free hundreds of Sea Islander slaves. And in her seventies she took up the cause of women’s right to vote.”

“Black History,” I tried not to lecture, “reminds me of athletes like Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron and Sachel Page,  Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali. Not to speak of all of our black college athletes today. But you can turn to just about any field and African-Americans have added so much richness to our culture. Marian Anderson, the great contralto. Thurgood Marshall was the first black Supreme Court Justice. We know some of the names in our time. Rosa Parks in Montgomery. Langston Hughes, a great poet. Martin Luther King and all his foot soldiers.

If I were having this conversation today with this friend I would add:  Oprah and Colin Powell, Condaleessa
--vieilles annonees
Rice and Spike Lee. And then I would probably say: “But if we are looking for good role models we only have to look at our President Obama and his beautiful wife, Michelle.” And my friend would probably shake her head and say, “A lot of people I know just don’t like Barack Obama or his wife either.”

My response would be: “That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? But do you have any idea how much hope this man and his family have given to black folk who wondered if they could do anything. If he never did anything else—that alone would be a great contribution to make to the whole country.”

Back to my friend and my conversation. “So, you see,” these are some of the reasons we’re going to observe Black History Month in our church.”  She cocked her head toward me and said, “Well, I really didn’t expect you to answer my question anyway.” And she turned and walked away.

(Excerpts from this article appeared in the Greenville News (SC) February 15, 2014.)

                                            --roger lovette/

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