Malcolm X was fond of saying, “Our history did not begin in chains.” Yet every year that’s where Black History Month lesson plans in schools across America begin. They begin telling the story of our history — black history — in chains.
Young black school children don’t learn that our people mapped, calculated and erected some of the greatest monuments ever, like the pyramids, the sphinx and the obelisks (after which the Washington Monument is modeled) or that our people were literally the lifeblood of some of history’s greatest civilizations. They don’t learn that calculus, trigonometry and geometry all trace their origins back to African scholars.
Black History Month lessons never begin with Haile Selassi I, ruler of Ethiopia, who could trace his ancestry to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and beyond that to Cush in 6280 B.C. Never mind that Selassi actually has the most ancient lineage of any human being in history.
Black History Month Has Been an Epic Failure
Black History Month lessons certainly never begin with one of the greatest conquerors the world has ever known, Hannibal, an African who conquered and extended the rule of the Carthaginian Empire into Italy, Rome and Spain. Most school children (and most adults, truth be told) don’t even know that Carthage, Hannibal’s homeland, is in Africa.
The lessons about our history don’t even begin with the kingdoms of Mali, Songhai, Cush or Ghana, all of which rivaled the dominance and territorial acquirement of ancient Greece or Rome. They don’t begin by teaching school children about the ancient Egyptians, who were clearly black Africans and who had arguably the most influential civilization of all time.
Ever heard of the Ishango bone? What about the Lebombo bone? They’re only two of the most important developments in the history of mathematics. The Lebombo bone, dating back to around 37,000 B.C., was one of the first calendars ever created and the Ishango bone has been called “The oldest testimonial of numerical calculus” in human history. Both were created by Africans.
Our history isn’t taught in popular culture and it is conspicuously absent from the history that most professors in high school classrooms and on college campuses deem to be important. That’s why Black History Month was created. It wasn’t a chance to glow over the achievements we’ve heard about time and time again and to recount stories of the Bad Ol’ Days and what we did to get through. Black History Month was a time to bring to light the stories of people from Africa who have contributed so much to who and what we all are today in human society.
When Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week in 1926, his goal was to teach children and adults throughout the African Diaspora about the proud history and tradition that Africans have. He wanted to teach young boys and girls in the U.S. and around the world that Africa was and is so much more than people living in huts, hunting antelope and dancing around campfires. He wanted all people to know and understand that being African was not something to be ashamed of, but instead should be a point of pride and exceptionalism.
Woodson, one of the first black men ever to graduate with a Ph.D from Harvard, doing so in 1912, was devoted to teaching all people about the contributions in our society that come from Africa and Africans, and it pains me to say, so far we have failed in his mission.
If you don’t believe me, find anyone still in school, I’m talking K-12, and ask them to tell you something about black history that predates the slave trade.
During the month of February you can generally count on lessons to begin with some anesthetized retelling of a black historical figure like Frederick Douglass, the great orator who counseled Abraham Lincoln and wrote numerous articulate and effusive tomes about his life as a slave. Or they’ll begin with Abraham Lincoln “freeing” the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation (and will conveniently leave out the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t actually free any slaves Lincoln had the authority to free and allowed slavery to continue in the Northern states where his words could actually have carried some weight).
At most schools you’ll be lucky to get a lesson beyond Martin Luther King’s dream and Rosa Parks’ defiant bus ride. Perhaps some devoted professors will pay a nod to Booker T. Washington or Jackie Robinson or, in recent years, President Barack Obama, but that seems to be about where it ends. Those people were all luminaries and pioneers, bellwethers in their fields and certainly worthy of our admiration, but they are not the whole of Black History.
Black History Month is about Mansa Musa, the King of Mali who extended the empire’s reach into one of the largest on the planet and imposed the system of provinces and territorial mayors and governors we still use in the United States today. It’s about Lewis Latimer, the man who invented the filament that took Thomas Edison’s light bulb into the next century. It’s about Robert Abbott, the United States’ first black newspaper publisher and one of the nation’s first ever black millionaires.
Black History Month is about Kwame Nkrumah, Bill Pickett, Imhotep I, Samori Toure, Belva Davis, Crispus Attucks, Dr. Ivan van Sertima, Fritz Pollard, Stokely Carmichael, Aaron Douglas, Denmark Vesey, Tousaint L’Ouverture, Nat Turner, Shirley Chisholm, Mae Jemison, Fred Hampton, Scott Joplin, Ramses II, Zumbi dos Palmares and hundreds of other men and women that you have probably never heard about.
The march from slavery and the Civil Rights Movement clearly demonstrated the struggle and the power that black people are capable of, but it’s not all we have contributed to the world.
It’s time we used the month of February to extend the dialogue beyond that banal and onto the tremendous accomplishments of Africans throughout history who have advanced math, music, language, the sciences and so much more for thousands of years. Then and only then will we truly be celebrating Black History Month.