Black History Is Sometimes a Conspicuous Omission
TONY COX, host:
This month, as you probably know, we've had a number of our regular commentators share thoughts on Black History Month.
We end the month with two more. Coming in a moment is Steven Ivory on what African-Americans really know about their history. But first, here's S. Pearl Sharp on how just showing up can be activism in itself.
Ms. S. PEARL SHARP: During this year's (unintelligible) celebrations, I was invited to a town in West Virginia to screen my documentary film, "The Healing Passage: Voices from the Water." In the film, prominent artists use their art to address healing from the present-day residuals of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The town is in an area that was a part of the Underground Railroad. So I came with certain expectations. Among my scheduled events was the opportunity to show clips from the film and engage in dialogue about the residuals of slavery with a part of the student body at a high school.
The audience of students was 97 percent white, reflecting the make-up of the town. Ironically, the school has a diversity club and I would learn later that several of its black members missed my presentation because their teachers refused to let them out of class.
I found the students' reception generally hostile. It was not, however, a hostility towards me, but an unwillingness to embrace the subject matter. As I struggled to fathom the source of the silent, blank wall of faces, one young lady had the courage to speak.
I think I would ask some questions, she said, if I knew something about the subject, slavery, but I don't know anything about it. Apparently, she spoke for many in the room. Her statement brings us right into the heart of Black History Month. How does a school system teach the Civil War and Reconstruction, not to mention world history, and end up with students who know nothing about American slavery?
The esteemed historian and scholar John Henrik Clark taught us that you cannot teach American history without teaching black history because they are inseparable. The black presence on his continent since the early 1500s has directly shaped the economics, agriculture, science, architecture, government and politics, and art of the Western Hemisphere.
Toni Morrison breaks it down to the bone in her non-fiction work, "Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination." Morrison shows how the traditional canon of American literature is assumed to be, quote, "free of, uninformed, and unshaped by the 400-year-old presence of first Africans and then African-Americans in the United States," end of quote.
Inclusion has been the prize that blacks in the United States have sought over the last 150 years: inclusion at the Woolworth's lunch counter, inclusion of our contributions in the textbooks, recognition of our holocaust, and a seat at the table with society's decision makers.
But omission has been one of the key responses to our struggle and our successes. Omission is a silent cancer. It feeds present-day racism and white privilege, and undermines black self-esteem.
And from these unbalanced states, we come together in the real world, descendant of slave and descendant of slave master, educator and student, each working through the mindset inherited from the generations that preceded us. We are, after all, shaped equally by what we have learned and what he have failed to learn.
COX: S. Pearl Sharp is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.