As we enter the final week of Black History Month 2017, I am reminded of the reasons that led Dr. Carter G. Woodson to first propose the annual weekly (now monthly) observance that celebrates the contributions African-Americans have made to their country and to the world.
I think Woodson hoped to instill a sense of pride in a race of people who had been kidnapped and then subjected to slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, lynching, debasement, ridicule and abject fear — all because of the color of their skin. Unfortunately, many Americans, both black and white, view the activities connected to Black History Month more as a perfunctory act than a reason to recall and honor the many ways that blacks have improved the quality of life in the U.S.
An even greater tragedy, however, is the tendency by whites to ignore or deny the significance of blacks’ contributions. Watching the amazing movie that recounts the story of black female mathematicians hired during World War II to support the then fledgling aeronautics industry, ultimately being used as “human computers” in NASA’s quest to win the Space War provides a real-life example.
The film “Hidden Figures” shook me to my core for several reasons, the most important being the realization that like the women whose lives were featured in the movie, there have undoubtedly been hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other blacks who have shared their God-given talents with a country that accepted the benefits but denied the humanity of the contributors.
Even after the election of America’s first black president, African-Americans continue to be treated by the larger society as footnotes on the pages of life rather than equal citizens.
As we struggle to find a cure for AIDS or cancer, as we seek other means of providing energy before we have depleted the world’s oil supply, as we look for ways to counter the life-threatening greenhouse effect and as we branch out into outer space searching for other lifeforms or planets that could sustain human life, I can’t help but wonder how far we would be if man-made, ignorant paradigms like racism and prejudice were removed from the equation — from our hearts, minds and souls.
Black History Month will be over in a few days and America can once again treat blacks as if we are invisible — hidden figures that those in power would prefer remain in our own segregated “ghettos.”
But we can ill afford to allow the clock to be turned back to “the good old days” — the days when “America was great” at the expense of people of color.
This land is our land too and we aren’t going anywhere. Even if some attempt to minimize our contributions, our sacrifices and the stories retold during Black History Month, we owe it to our ancestors to keep those tales of courage alive and share them with our children — those who one day will determine the direction in which our country and planet will go — and perhaps whether the human race will survive.