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Editorial Archives The Altamont Enterprise, March 1, 2012
American history must be woven of many distinct threads
Human societies create calendars. We mark our days.
In the United States, we’re partial to commemorative months as well as weeks and days. In our news office, we get swamped with releases on designated dates. Last month, we heard about everything from Pistol Patent Day to National Pancake Day.
Usually, we ignore these since such coverage would seem like manufactured news.
But this week we’re running a story that gave us a glimpse about the meaning a designated date can have for someone. The story is about Donald Hyman. Readers of The Enterprise have seen Hyman pictured on our pages because he regularly sings for the Altamont Seniors. Hyman is enthusiastic about everything he does.
But he’s more than an entertainer. He has become a one-man show promoting the understanding of black history in America. He has portrayed Frederick Douglass, and written plays about folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston and jazz great Billie Holiday.
As a social studies teacher, Hyman developed a passion for African-American history. One year, he was putting together a bulletin board for Black History Month when, he said, “I had this huge basket overflowing with pictures and information, and I thought to myself, ‘Am I really only supposed to teach about this for one month out of the year?’”
We had a similar thought one March when we were asked by a local elementary school celebrating Women’s History Month to speak about being a journalist. A female pilot and doctor shared the school stage with us.
It occurred to us then that half the population, or a bit more, is female and that the world’s history is just as much women’s history as men’s. The audience was dotted with female teachers and filled with kids all borne of women.
History is written by the victors, Winston Churchill famously said. But, beyond that, Western history has typically centered on the individuals who stood on the shoulders of the masses.
Women’s work had, for centuries, been largely anonymous work the raising of children, the nurturing of family. Such work is a vital part of human history, although often unrecorded, unrecognized.
The roots of both Black History Month and Women’s History Month reach back to the first quarter of the last century. International Working Women’s Day was first celebrated in 1911. Celebrants from around the world wanted to promote equal rights for women, including the right to vote. Many countries still celebrate International Women’s Day; with 70 percent of those living in poverty being women, Oxfam encourages fund-raising for its projects to celebrate the day.
The seed for Black History Month was planted by Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard-based historian who founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History; he announced Negro History Week in 1925. Woodson “believed that truth could not be denied and that reason would prevail over prejudice,” according to Daryl Michael Scott of ASNLH. “The week was first celebrated during a week in February 1926 that encompassed the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The response was overwhelming: Black history clubs sprang up; teachers demanded materials to instruct their pupils’ and progressive whites, not simply white scholars and philanthropists, stepped forward to endorse the effort.”
In 1976, the celebration was expanded to last a month. “In the bicentennial year of our Independence, we can review with admiration the impressive contributions of black Americans to our national life and culture,” said President Gerald Ford in announcing the month-long celebration. “Significant strides,” Ford said, had been made in the last quarter-century. “Freedom and the recognition of individual rights,” he said, “are what our Revolution was all about. They were ideals that inspired our fight for Independence: ideals that we have been striving to live up to ever since. Yet it took many years before ideals became a reality for black citizens.”
ASNLH lists the themes of the annual celebration, from the 1920s’ “Negro Accomplishments,” through the 1970s’ “African Art, Music, Literature: A Valuable Cultural Experience,” to the 2000s’ “The Color Line Revisited: Is Racism Dead?”
Donald Hyman says that black history is American history. He’s right.
So is it a put-down, as some have asserted, to relegate seminal history to a month? While we’ve blithely deleted from our e-mails press releases commemorating various days, weeks, and months, we’ll stop to pause and reflect now. We believe such celebrations can serve a useful purpose by focusing attention that can last throughout the year, or throughout a lifetime, as it has for Donald Hyman.
Woodhouse himself created the holiday with the hope that, when black history became central to American history, it could be eliminated. We’re not there yet.
The same, sadly, is true of women’s plight.
“Racial prejudice is no longer the steepest barrier to opportunity for most African Americans,” President Barack Obama said while proclaiming Black History Month on Feb. 1, 2010, “yet substantial obstacles remain in the remnants of past discrimination. Structural inequalities from disparities in education and health care to the vicious cycle of poverty still pose enormous hurdles for black communities across America.”
Obama also said something that could apply to almost any group in our country, although for African Americans the struggle has been particularly tough since many came here not of their own choice but in the painful shackles of slavery. “African-American history,” said the president, “is an essential thread of the American narrative that traces our nation’s enduring struggle to perfect itself.”
In embracing our history as Americans, each of us should seek to understand the different, distinct threads that weave the whole cloth of our lives.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” said Frederick Douglass, a man who escaped from slavery and led the movement for freedom. “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.”
As we sow the seeds for our future, let us take on the struggles needed to make a more just future for all.
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