Early in my schooling, I found history to be a fascinating subject. The deep dive into the culture, economics and literature of a particular point in time and place helped my understanding of those times. It also was critical to my understanding to view history through the lens of the victor and the loser, to see all sides of human endeavor to get a complete and accurate picture of times past and to understand the present.
It is in this context that it is interesting to celebrate Black History Month as if it is separate from American history. The need for the month is the result of both the formal and informal education system and culture ignoring the fact that, without the African contribution, the America of today would not exist.
I remember clearly my history education in the public school system. The arrival of the Mayflower was the way to establish one’s lineage. Never did my history teacher mention that Africans arrived before the Mayflower. I was introduced to Lerone Bennett Jr.’s book “Before the Mayflower” in college. Bennett points out that the first Africans arrived in Jamestown one year before the Mayflower.
It is important to know I chose to attend a historically black college where I learned this and other facts of my history. This was a real eye-opener for me. So often during any debate on civil rights, the argument is, “Go slow, be patient.” I want to shout to the mountaintop, “I was here before you. I am not a new arrival; I made this country.”
I want to be very clear: I fully support Black History Month because, without it, the critical role of my people in the making of America is lost. It pains me to know a young person can graduate with honors from high school and not know the importance of anyone of non-European ancestry.
We must not have another generation of our young people be ignorant of the making of America. We can no longer tolerate inaccuracies in the classroom. All educators, regardless of subject matter, should, as a part of their certification or degree, take a course in the making of America through a multicultural lens; this can be geared to the subject matter of any major because there is no area of study where the African has not made a significant contribution.
I remember well that it was considered a rite of passage for those of European ancestry to do the grand tour. Many schools still sponsor trips abroad with the narrow lenses of Europe being the only place outside the United States worth visiting to complete one’s education. The direct result is a population with no knowledge of or appreciation for the global impact on the making of America.
I applaud and celebrate with pride the contributions of my ancestors to the very foundation that formed America. I challenge us to educate the next generation of young people to understand the America of today is the result of people from every continent, race, religion and class who contributed their best to forge a new and growing nation.
“The power of education extends beyond the development of skills we need for economic success. It can contribute to nation building and reconciliation.”
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Smith is former CEO of the Girl Scouts of Central Indiana. Send comments firstname.lastname@example.org.