At some point in my homeschooling career, I realized that Black History Month was much more important than I’d let myself believe.
I grew up in south Mississippi in the 1980s and 90s. I knew about slavery, Jim Crow, and Civil Rights—but in my mind, it was all over and done with a long time ago. I was friendly with my black classmates, and while I was aware of a social barrier between us, it wasn’t something I questioned. In a post-Civil Rights world, I took the virtues of equality and liberty to heart. I believed that God created all of us, and Jesus died for everyone. I truly did celebrate the fact that we were all Americans, all free, and all equal.
But at the same time, I believed we all shared the same history. What need was there for a specific month and a specific emphasis?
Many events throughout my young adulthood shifted my view. I remember one revelatory moment clearly. My Facebook friends and I were discussing our favorite childhood books, and I said that one of mine is A Little Princess by Francis Hodgson Burnett. “It’s partly because the main character’s name is Sara,” I admitted, “and that she ends up with diamond mines in the end.”
A black friend replied, “Right, you end up with the diamond mines. I’d probably be working in one.”
That offhand comment snagged something in my brain. I reviewed all my favorite books and the characters I identified with. They were all white. Furthermore, all lived in worlds where, if I were black, I wouldn’t be welcomed as “free and equal.” When I figured up when a black reader could safely insert herself into a story, I realized just how recent that “done and gone” history really was. My grandparents lived during that time. Wait, my parents grew up during the upheaval and change. It was barely old enough to be “history.”
About the same time, I developed a new idea for a novel that couldn’t avoid the question of race. So I began to research. I read accounts of life under Jim Crow laws. I attended lectures on black history in my area and looked up old newspaper articles. I drove the streets until I found the “old black school,” a place still remembered fondly by the older black citizens of town. Once during a personal retreat, I discovered that the retreat center was in the process of restoring a cemetery where people were (carelessly) buried during the days of slavery—miles away from the plantation where they worked. As someone who grew up going to the family cemetery where my grandparents, uncles, father, and stepfather are all buried, these almost-forgotten graves cut me to the heart.
It’s one thing to research and read. It’s another to connect with actual people. As an introvert with a horror of being awkward, I’m not good at this part at all. In that sense, the internet has been an enormous help to me. I’ve made friends outside my own circle and read the stories of people whom I otherwise would never encounter. A few generous real-life women looked past my clumsy approach, saw my heart, and offered me friendship across racial lines. Through all their stories, I’ve seen how important it is to fill in the gaps left by traditional white-oriented history.
So now when Darren brings home Langston Hughes poems for the kids to read, I understand the struggle and grief in his words. I remember my sixth-grade English teacher, Ms. Lawrence, a young black woman who took a whole lesson once to tell us about Rosa Parks—trying to educate her oblivious white students without igniting the racial tension that still simmered in our little town. And I’m also grateful to other adults in my life, white men and women who wrestled with their own prejudices and beliefs in various ways, but still taught me those foundational principles of equality, liberty, and God’s love.
In honor of Black History Month, I’d encourage all of us to seek out books, articles, and lectures to learn more about our African American heroes. (See Cheryl’s post for book recommendations.) Whether you make this month a specific emphasis, or incorporate studies throughout the year, I can assure you that you’ll find inspiration, courage, and a much richer, fuller heritage to pass on to our children.
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