It is a mantra among black Americans that we are insufficiently aware of our history, that our advancement will be hobbled until we are all rooted in a sense of continuity with the past. Yet, every year we are regaled with not just a Black History Day but a Black History Month. Over four weeks in February, the media, museums, colleges and universities and others will trot out the usual procession of black pioneers, with blown-up photos of Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman and Jesse Jackson festooning libraries and churches.
On TV we will see recountings of the brutality and discrimination blacks suffered at the hands of whites: slave ships, lynchings, segregated lunch counters and the beating of Rodney King. And we’ll see the usual screenings of films such as “Stormy Weather,” “Sounder,” “Carmen Jones,” “Roots” and “Glory.” And for the rest of the year black talk-radio will continue to resound with callers decrying black Americans’ lack of exposure to their history. But the problem isn’t so much that blacks aren’t being exposed to enough black history-too often it’s presented the wrong way.
Certainly we must remember our heroes. Yet, an Adam Clayton Powell Jr. or a Mary McLeod Bethune come along only once in a blue moon. We view them in awe, but it can be difficult to see how such people can lead us in our daily lives, especially when so many of them stare at us from sepia-toned photos wearing strange clothes and hairdos.
And then there are the tragedies: Is it really so surprising that black people have a hard time developing a sense of pride after hearing about how they were uprooted from their homes in Africa and brought to the New World where they were humiliated, beaten, maimed and shut out?
What is missing from this vision is the inspiring successes that ordinary black Americans accomplished long before the Civil Rights movement. These black Americans-none of whom was a hero or thought of himself or herself as such-triumphed despite racism rather than assuming they were powerless until racism