Most people my age can’t forget many admonishments from elders, “Child, you’d better learn your lessons.” That reminder was rooted in the belief that education was the gateway to success. It served to reinforce the understanding that, in life, circumstances are introduced to guide us to specific purposes. Those personal lessons, along with lessons learned from books, shaped our appreciation of OUR African-American History.
The beauty of our rich culture and history is that it’s a shared experience that’s survived tests heretofore unrivaled in length or brutality. For those willing to listen and learn, the character and strength of our history have become the foundation of the values we use to chart our path to the future. African American History Month provides an opportunity to reaffirm and rededicate ourselves to the lessons of OUR history and plan for OUR future.
The late Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Father of Negro History, was prophetic in his admonitions. He clearly understood the relationship between knowledge, self-esteem and personal accomplishment. He offered numerous observations that serve as timeless lessons that are as important for the survival of OUR race now as they were when first uttered.
His thinking about “Negro History” is clearly summarized in his statement, “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” He added, “Those who have no record of what their forbearers have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”
Many have neglected learning the lessons of our history and fulfilling our duty to pass this information on to our youth. One of my greatest hopes is that lines of us will form outside the Museum of African American History and Culture (to open in 2015) in lengths greater than those routinely found outside the (Jewish) Holocaust Museum.
It’s time for us to demand recognition of the holocaust associated with our history, and acknowledge and honor the challenges we’ve overcome. That clarifies the meaning of Dr. King’s 1963 demand for America to “cash the check” it owes us.
Dr. Woodson gave us the keys to gaining self-autonomy and control when he said, “If the Negro in the ghetto must eternally be fed by the hand that pushes him into the ghetto, he will never become strong enough to get out of the ghetto.” And, “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions.” Until we heed these warnings, we’ll experience a collective floundering, remaining subject to negative influences –external and internal.
As an educator, he understood the impact of negative information on the mind and performance. He was speaking of our mis-education when he said, “This crusade is much more important than the anti-lynching movement, because there would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom. The thought of the inferiority of the Negro is drilled into him in almost every class he enters and in almost every book he studies…to handicap a student by teaching him that his black face is a curse and that his struggle to change his condition is hopeless is the worst sort of lynching.”
Many of us forgot the lessons of our history, and we’ve not been well served by the lapse. We’ve allowed others to create images of our humanity and more commonly, their perception of our inhumanity. Claims of “keeping it real,” many of our own have recreated an array of negative images with a result as damaging as those of the minstrel era.
Thinking of OUR possibilities and liabilities, I remember the George Santayana truism: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Dr. E. Faye Williams is Chair of the National Congress of Black Women, Inc.