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Our View: One month of observance is not enough

Posted: February 4, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: February 4, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Tuesday marked the beginning of this nation’s annual observance of Black History Month.

While it makes sense to pause and honor the countless contributions blacks have made over the years in every possible field of endeavor, a single month is hardly sufficient to honor everything blacks have contributed to this nation since its founding.

They have been an integral part of our history from the beginning, and their contributions should be acknowledged every day in every possible way.

During Black History Month, we hear a lot about important civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, “the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Everyone knows what they accomplished. In some cases, especially in the case of King and Malcolm X, the men themselves have become larger than life, more myth than man.

Likewise, most people are familiar with important black figures such as Booker T. Washington, an educator who founded Tuskegee Institute, and George Washington Carver, who found many uses for the peanut.

But how many people know who Crispus Attucks was?

Historians actually know little about this seminal figure in our nation’s history, but he is widely acknowledged to be the first martyr of the American Revolution. He was killed in the Boston Massacre in 1770.

Likewise, who knows who John Mercer Langston was?

This important figure became the first black man elected to nationwide public office. He was elected to Congress in Ohio in 1855.

What about James West or Shirley Chisolm?

West invented the foil electret-transducer in the 1960s. Today, the device is used in the vast majority of microphones and telephones manufactured.

Chisolm became the first black woman elected to Congress in 1968. She also holds the distinction of becoming the first major-party black candidate for president in 1972.

The point is, black history is about more than sound bites and a few important figures such as King and Parks. Blacks have been a part of our nation’s history since the very beginning, and their contributions should be honored every day.

How do we do that?

One way is by incorporating lessons about important black figures into everyday school and course curriculums.

In teaching math, for instance, tell students about the contributions of Benjamin Banneker, one of the first black intellectuals who lived in the 1700s and one of the first great black mathematicians.

When it comes to music, teach students about the Harlem Renaissance and great black musicians such as Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington.

When teaching English, how about a unit on great African-American writers including James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes or Countee Cullen?

And we could go on.

It’s often been said that “the victors write the history books,” but too often, blacks get short shrift when it comes to teaching today’s students. To truly educate students, it’s important to give them a complete picture of our history.

And while figures such as King and Malcolm X and Rosa Parks are important and should be honored for their lasting contributions, it’s important to delve deeper, to let students know that blacks have made indelible contributions to every aspect of modern life, from science to art to politics.

Black History Month is about more than honoring the story of blacks in America.

In truth, it is about acknowledging that the story of blacks in America is really the story of every American. It deserves to be acknowledged and honored every day.


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