When President Clinton awarded seven African Americans the Medal of Honor for bravery during World War II, millions of Americans took pride in the veterans’ accomplishments and felt shame that it took 50 years to recognize them. I knew about the intense battle against segregation and other ill-treatment that black soldiers had waged over the years, but until that ceremony, I’d never known about the magnificent heroism that had earned black soldiers the highest military honor.
During the Clinton inauguration two weeks later, a radio commentator casually mentioned that black slaves performed most of the labor in the initial construction of the White House. I had not known that either.
I’ve written numerous articles and two books on the black experience. If I didn’t know about these important black contributions, I’ll bet that millions of Americans don’t either.
The sad fact is that many Americans’ knowledge of the historical contributions of blacks begins and ends with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. And young Americans show woeful ignorance of even that recent history.
Seventy-two years ago, Carter G. Woodson, the pioneer black historian and educator, initiated Negro History Week. Woodson wanted to reclaim black people’s history from the nether world of American history and make it a source of pride for blacks. In his day, if blacks were mentioned in general history texts, it was only in the section on slavery.
Today, we have Black History Month. Politicians issue proclamations and sponsor tributes to notable blacks. TV executives squeeze in specials, documentaries and features on blacks. When February ends, it’s back to business as usual.
But why aren’t black contributions to American society celebrated every month? Many blacks say it’s racism. Many Americans do prefer white heroes. To them, the crusade against slavery was led by Abraham Lincoln, not Frederick Douglass. The great American novel was written by John Steinbeck, not Richard Wright. Baseball’s icon was Babe Ruth, not Hank Aaron.
But a good deal of this ghettoizing of history can be traced to the fundamental error made by black historians during their big push in the 1960s for black studies courses. They forgot that black history can’t be separated from American history. They failed to tell how the black experience in all fields of endeavor has enriched the lives of Americans of all colors. Black studies were “for blacks only.” The wider academic community was happy to treat black history as little more than a footnote to the “real” history of America. When the furor over equality died down, even the footnotes became expendable.
Some Afrocentrists had a large part in the omission of black history. In their zeal to counter the heavy-handed Eurocentric imbalance of U.S. history, some have crossed the thin line between fact and fantasy. They’ve constructed groundless theories in which Europeans and white Americans are “Ice People,” suffer “genetic defects” or are obsessed with “color phobias.” They’ve replaced the shallow European “great man” theory of history with a feel-good interpretation. They refuse to acknowledge African Americans’ positive roles in shaping American institutions, reinforcing the myth that African American history is slavery and not much else.
The big danger is that the replacement of scholarship with fairy tales permits the sworn enemies of multicultural studies to seize the intellectual high ground and dismiss worthy studies along with the black chauvinists.
There’s a way to end the racist white-out of black contributions to American society and the self-serving exaggeration and distortions of fringe Afrocentrism. Publishers should revise all classroom texts that compartmentalize black achievements into a single chapter (for example, slavery, or civil rights) and include them in all chapters. Educators should make sure that black achievements are woven throughout the curriculum, from science and technology to the humanities. Public officials should commemorate black achievements in ceremonies throughout the year. Corporations should regularly feature black achievements in their advertising and promotional materials.
When the experience of blacks becomes accepted as integral to the whole of American society, black history will be what it always should have been: American history.