Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman—these names are virtually synonymous with Black History Month. After all, their contributions to United States history are indisputably noteworthy, firmly cementing their place in curricula across the country. However, it’s time to rethink this central focus. There’s so much more to the history of African Americans in this country than slavery, and even then, there’s more to the slave narrative than is usually revealed. Moreover, while the history of black oppression in the United States is long and ongoing, the fight for civil rights also is not the only story to be told of African Americans.
Yes, slavery is the reason the vast majority of Africans were brought to North America. Yet, prior to being snatched from their homelands, they had thriving civilizations, with solid economic structures, flourishing societies and deeply entrenched traditions. They were not slaves until they were brought here. Theirs was a proud and rich history, one not generally even alluded to in classrooms or anywhere else. Yet it’s foundational to who the people were when they were brought here in chains.
Equally compelling is a truth about slavery that is even more often omitted: Slave uprisings were a fact in this country. The Gabriel Prossers, Nat Turners, and Denmark Veseys who led these revolts were not downtrodden men, afraid to speak or act in defiance of the slave codes, nor were they happy slaves, content just to exist. If we’re going to devote time to discussions of slavery, let’s tell the whole story. Yet how often are such names spoken, to say nothing of how often they are spoken in celebration of their contributions to the history of the United States and to the cause of freedom that the U.S. ostensibly represents? Not often.
Then, moving beyond slavery, a vast array of African Americans have withstood oppression of all kinds. Overcoming the outrage of white supremacy and its overt racism as well as the insidiousness of white privilege and its pervasive discrimination, they forged paths that no one of any color had walked before. Students of every color need to know this, as a relentless narrative of slavery and oppression paints a one-dimensional portrait of African Americans, seeming to preclude the possibility of a Garrett Morgan, Charles Drew, Katherine Johnson or Marie Van Brittan Brown (look them up!), to name a few. They are every bit as laudable as the abolitionists and civil rights workers.
What’s more, because history is a living thing, not stagnant, African Americans continue to contribute to it, leading, creating, inventing and otherwise doing what no one else is. Let’s expand our definition of “Black history,” not excluding slavery and civil rights, but moving beyond them to delve into the plenitude of African Americans who have accomplished and still are accomplishing great things. All students need to know how very awe-inspiring, not pity-inducing, African Americans are.