Beyond King, Parks, and Slavery

My students were bored.

We don’t need to know this, Miss! We have heard it all before.

Really? What exactly do you know about Dr. King besides “I have a Dream”? Silence. What do you know about Rosa Parks besides her refusal to give up her seat? Silence. There’s a lot more to Black History than King, Parks & slavery!

I was frustrated.

I hadn’t even begun the lesson in early February and was already met with resistance. Because there were a large number of students of color in the school they felt they were Black History Month-ed out. They didn’t want to hear another lesson on King, Parks, or slavery.

I paused a moment to consider the issue. It was not the first time I had encountered this resistance come February. The kids were absolutely right. Each year they voiced their aggravation, and I could see it coming. What they knew was exactly what I had been taught in school – just enough to recognize a few names, but never enough to be meaningful. My own high school social studies book had about a paragraph on the topic. Ridiculous!

To be honest, if all I ever heard about my history and ancestry was how I’d been victimized – I wouldn’t want to keep hearing about it either. Many of my students had a very superficial knowledge of, Dr. King & Rosa Parks, two civil rights leaders, had heard of a handful other figures, and they had heard about slavery all through school. What they hadn’t learned, hadn’t internalized was the vast amount of their heritage which revolved around black excellence in a host of other areas. They needed “stand up and cheer” moments. They needed to understand that far from always being whipping-post victims – black people in America and throughout the world had done amazing things – despite their circumstances – that had changed the world.

The important question wasn’t, “Do you know about X, Y, or Z?” The crucial questions related to impact, influence, & connection.

You’re tired of hearing about the same few people over and over again, aren’t you? *Vigorous nods. Hmmmm – Have you ever wondered why those are the only ones you hear about? *Silent contemplation. If you think about all the things you really know in depth about any of them – in fact, let’s list it; why don’t you know more? *Eyes look left and up – heads tilt in question. The real question is, when there are so many amazing accomplishments of Black people, why don’t you know more about them?

That is the question isn’t it?

Why do we think Black History can be summed up with a recap of the government sanctioned terrorism against them, and a couple of people who spoke against it? Black history is everywhere – in activism, business, science, the arts, education. Black people invented and/or improved upon a huge array of items from the stoplight to the super soaker, blood banks to elevators, touch-tone telephones to ironing boards, automatic gear shifter to clothes dryers, potato chips to carbon filaments and refrigerators, the types and scope of inventions by black people are astounding. Very often, however, their ability to patent and or profit from their work was denied or restricted.

Rather than falling back on the same few figures as if they are the only ones which matter, why don’t we make a concerted effort to shine a light on the everyday contributions of black people. Perhaps then we can begin to shift away from the illusion that it is unusual for black people to have done great things – that great black contributions happened so infrequently that we can dedicate only one month to their achievements – that a handful of civil rights leaders are the only people worth mentioning.

So, happy March 1st because acknowledging black contributions to the world should be year round.

Nina Mae McKinney Biography Project: McKinney was the first African-American actress to hold a principal role in a mainstream film, Hallelujah (1929).

If you’d like to know more about black inventors, check out this article by Smithsonian Magazine.


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