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I was catching up recently on my reading about the newest discoveries and speculations about the dinosaurs, and I thought about Black History Month.
And then in late January, I read with fascination of the intensifying speculation about “Planet X – a giant, Jupiter-sized planet billions of miles beyond Pluto in our solar system whose orbit is so distant from the sun that the planet’s as yet invisible to even our most powerful telescopes. And I thought, then, too, about Black History Month.
For many years now, I’ve always twinned my thinking about my two favorite, long-ago childhood preoccupations, space and the dinosaurs, with a consideration of the value of Black History Month’s special emphasis on African-American history.
One reason is that we now know so much more about the past of all three fields than we did in the 1950s – and that much of the “new” knowledge has revolutionized our thinking about the dinosaurs, about space, about black Americans’ history.
In other words, these three areas of inquiry offer dramatic proof that the excavation and examination of a buried or concealed or in some way undiscovered past or present can lead to a new understanding not only of the past and the present but possibly the future as well.
That central point of the dynamic of discovery has motivated scientists exploring the seemingly barren landscapes of our moon and Mars, and the rings around Saturn, and the telescope-enabled glimpses of far-distant galaxies. It has engaged archeologists searching for the fossilized bones of the giant creatures who inhabited a very different earth millions and millions of years ago. And it has engaged historians and other scholars and writers who in excavating the known as well as the buried past of the United States have shone a bright, illuminating light on American and African-American history.
Even a casual perusal of the unending stream of books and articles being published on the events and individuals, both well-known and unknown, that make up the mosaic of Blacks’ American past and present show how, at the least, idiotic are the claims that Black History Month has outlived its value or that African-American Studies is merely ethnic cheerleading. Those who make such assertions reveal their own fear of new knowledge that adds to or challenges or demolishes the conventional wisdom of the past and present.
In fact, what has occurred has fully justified the faith and foresight of Carter G. Woodson, the Black American scholar who in 1926 founded what was originally called Negro History Week.
Woodson was born in rural Virginia a decade after the Civil War; so he grew to adulthood and middle age during the years when the promise of freedom for Black Americans was viciously stymied by the political victory of White racism.
Drawing on his own powerful hunger for learning that had earned him degrees from the elite citadels of the University of Chicago and Harvard, he well understood the liberating power of an unfettered search for knowledge.
In his classic book, The Miseducation of the Negro, he wrote, “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”
Fortunately for America’s sake, Carter Woodson’s brainchild, today’s Black History Month, helped forge a different educational curriculum – one that has led Black Americans not only to the Big House’s front door but also to commanding seats in some of its most important rooms.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,” appears in Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent (2014), published by Zed Books. His new collection of columns, Race Forward: Facing America’s Racial Divide in 2014, is available at http://www.amazon.com
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