Taking Black History Out Of The Peanut Gallery

George Washington Carver i i

George Washington Carver, known for revolutionizing the peanut, works in his laboratory. Commentator Sam Sanders suggests knowing more about his and other Black figures personalities and convictions could drastically improve Black History Month. AP Photo hide caption

itoggle caption AP Photo
George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver, known for revolutionizing the peanut, works in his laboratory. Commentator Sam Sanders suggests knowing more about his and other Black figures personalities and convictions could drastically improve Black History Month.

AP Photo

Sam Sanders is a 2009-2010 Kroc Fellow at National Public Radio. He still doesn't know all the words to Lift Every Voice and Sing.

At the beginning of February this year, I posted the following status on my Facebook page:

"Tomorrow begins Black History Month. I'm hoping not to end those 28 days armed with only a new set of Negro spiritual lyrics and a strange belief that I, too, can make anything out of peanuts."

I was referring to George Washington Carver, one of so many black pioneers whose face is perpetually plastered on cardboard cutouts in classrooms throughout the country every February.

I remember hearing the stories in grade school. George Washington Carver, the guy who invented a lot of things out of peanuts. Over 300, actually, with concoctions like peanut glue, peanut grease, peanut coffee and peanut meat tenderizer.

That was pretty much all that was said about him.

His story, and those of so many other black historical figures, are done a disservice every February. That's why Black History Month annoys me — not just because it seems to be in no way focused on any kind of black future, but because its historical coverage is one-dimensional, mawkish, and well, boring.

And at the end of this month, and the same old show, I'm still annoyed.

We need a better Black History Month, one that recounts the intricacies of the lives our ancestors lived, their human flaws, something that made them a little bit more — relatable. Or better yet, something that would help us believe we could aspire to their greatness. Because now, based on what I hear every February, the only way to make black history is to be completely perfect — and rather uninteresting.

It would have been nice to have a discussion in my youth about how George Washington Carver's fervent belief in God ostracized him from many in the scientific community he became a leader in.

I would have loved to learn earlier that legendary black soul singer Nina Simone wasn't just an amazing voice, but was also someone who grappled with bipolar disorder for much of her life.

And I really would have liked someone to tell me that Martin Luther King Jr. got a D in French at Morehouse. Because I almost failed Spanish. Twice. In high school.

But the stories so many children hear February after February make black folks of yesteryear nothing more than well-dressed, smiling, saintly caricatures.

I want more than that.

Sam Sanders i i

Sam Sanders is a 2009-2010 Kroc Fellow at National Public Radio. He still doesn't know all the words to Lift Every Voice and Sing. Ryan Gibbons/rgvisuals.com hide caption

itoggle caption Ryan Gibbons/rgvisuals.com
Sam Sanders

Sam Sanders is a 2009-2010 Kroc Fellow at National Public Radio. He still doesn't know all the words to Lift Every Voice and Sing.

Ryan Gibbons/rgvisuals.com

I want to know who was crazy. Who could never keep their mouth shut. I want to know who had the biggest ego, who made the funniest practical jokes. I want to know what gossip blogs would have speculated about Malcolm and Stokely and Bayard back in the day.

I want our black History to be as intricate, and multi-faceted and many-splendored as our black present. I want someone in my black History to be extremely socially awkward, to spit when they talk every once in a while, to be too loud in public settings on occasion.

I want more than sainthood every February. I want complexity.

I think it's doable. Revealing the multiplicity of our black ancestors' history won't make us weaker as a race, or give some anonymous opponent something to exploit. Representing our truest past will only help make us our truest future selves.

Of course, I'm now too old to blame anyone for my incomplete knowledge of this black history I long for. One can only point a finger at elementary school teachers for so long, if at all.

This heavy lifting is up to me, and "us," whatever that "us" might be. And others already know this. In response to that Facebook status update, one of my friends, Paul, had the following to say:

"Make your own history, Sam!"

He was right. The best stories aren't recited. They're discovered.

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