Education turns darkness to light

In 1896, a Viennese family watches as Krampas, the force of darkness, deals with a naughty child while the ethereal Saint Nicholas waits to bestow gifts on the good.

Much of who we are as individuals and as a society is shaped by what we know of history.

The shortest month, February, was, in 1976, the year of our nation’s bicentennial, proclaimed Black History Month. We appreciate the sentiment from which it grew.

In the 1920s, historian Carter Woodson chose the week of Frederick Douglass’s and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays, to be Negro History Week. He wrote, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”

He is right, and it is fine to have expanded the celebration of a race from a week to a month. But it shouldn’t be relegated to just that month anymore than the accomplishments of a gender should be relegated to a single month.

Today, Nov. 20, the New York Department of State was scheduled to hold a public meeting of the Amistad Commission but it has been cancelled because a quorum of its 19 members couldn’t attend, according to Lazaro Benitez with the Department of State.

The state passed a law nine years ago to create the commission to promote the teaching of black history in public schools. The name comes from a schooner that, in 1839, was carrying captured Africans to sell them into slavery. The Africans revolted, killing the captain and the cook, and then were captured and charged with murder. The Amistad was seized by the United States Navy off the coast of Long Island. President John Quincy Adams helped the captured Africans win their freedom through a ruling of the United States Supreme Court so they could return to their homeland.

That, in itself, is an important piece of history that needs to be taught.

The 2005 law that created the commission correctly stated, “All people should know of and remember the human carnage and dehumanizing atrocities committed during the period of the African slave trade and slavery in America and consider the vestiges of slavery in this country. It is vital to educate our citizens on these events, the legacy of slavery, the sad history of racism in this country, and on the principles of human rights and dignity in a civilized society.”

We were curious about how far the commission has come in achieving those worthwhile goals. Benitez, who serves as a subcommittee liaison, told us the work is ongoing. He said the commission has surveyed educators and students across New York “to assess the extent of African American history” in curricula for kindergarten through 12th grade.

He also cited the commission’s website as “a place where students, teachers, and the general public can obtain up-to-date information on various educational and cultural activities happening around the state, which has a very rich history of the African American experience and the many contributions made by people of African descent living in the State of New York.”

The webpage highlights a children’s book, a film, a recording of Martin Luther King Jr., and a score of exhibits or events centering on various aspects of African American history. These look worthwhile but seem scant for nine years’ work.

Most importantly, Benitez said, the commission last month discussed the Board of Regents’ recent changes to social studies curriculum, which he said were “strongly supported” by the Amistad Commission. “This change fully infuses the African slave trade, slavery in America and the many contributions of people of African descent made to the conception of American society within classroom lessons rather than a separate African American course,” said Benitez.

Such an integrated approach is long overdue and welcome. Separate courses are not equal to a holistic approach to history.

Too many New Yorkers, schoolchildren as well as adults, believe that slavery was solely a Southern institution. No, it happened here in our midst. And learning about it needs to be part of our school curriculum.

As we approach what, these days, is commonly called the “holiday season,” we would be wise to be aware of the many traditions in our midst, the threads histories that weave the current culture of these United States.

Also today, Nov. 20, at the Frederick-Mynderse House in Guilderland Center, our readers can learn from a presentation hosted by the Guilderland Historical Society, on the evolution of Santa Claus. Dr. Karl Felsen has delved deeply into the crossroads of tradition found right here in the Hudson Valley.

He described for our Guilderland reporter, Anne Hayden Harwood, the vital role the Dutch played in the Revolutionary War as financiers, and with the Netherlands as one of the few nations in the world to recognize the new country. In 1804, Saint Nicholas was designated as the patron saint of New York City. The saint was popularized by Washington Irving in his satirical 1809 Knickerbocker’s History of New York. Born the same week as the British ceasefire that ended the Revolution, Irving was named for the hero of that war and of the fledgling nation.

Irving’s story asserts that Saint Nicholas accompanied the explorers who founded New Amsterdam, now New York, telling them where to land and where to build a church. And, Irving describes Saint Nicholas flying over the buildings of New York, in a wagon drawn by a horse, tossing presents down chimneys.

The plump jolly elf we call Santa Claus evolved from the thin regal saint the Dutch call Sinterklaas. The bishop’s mitre was replaced with an elf’s pompom-topped cap. And horses became reindeer pulling a sleigh rather than a wagon.

Gone was the dark figure that had — and still does in many European cultures — come with the light saint. The dark figure, which has different names in different cultures, came from a pagan tradition. In Scandinavian and German folklore, he is called Krampus, sent to punish naughty children rather than reward them, which Saint Nicolas does with gifts for being good. Krampus is still portrayed today as a horned, devil-like creature, similar to the ancient god Pan with a goat’s legs.

In the Netherlands today, Sinterklaas, a white bearded man with red mitre and cape, appears with Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, dressed as a 1600s page with a white ruffled collar. Black Pete has become controversial of late because he is frequently portrayed by a white man in blackface.

We agree with what Verene Shepherd told an interviewer from Eén Vandaag last year. Shepherd, a Jamaican social historian who chairs the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, said, “This is a throwback to slavery and, in the 21st Century, this tradition should stop.”

To have a figure that developed in an era of slavery celebrated in a role of servant today, portrayed in blackface, is, as Shepherd said, offensive. “As a black person, if I lived in the Netherlands, I would object,” she said.

Culture persists despite reason. Like the air we breathe, we hardly notice it. The Eén Vandaag interviewer said the prime minister was distancing himself from the controversy, saying it is not a matter of government decree but of culture.

Governments can, though, require the teaching of history. Maybe that way children, who will one day grow to adults and help shape the culture of the future, will come to understand how a pagan figure of darkness came to be portrayed like a goat in one place and a slave in another.

We have the remnants in our American culture, where Santa makes lists of the naughty or nice. And many a parent has threatened misbehaving children that they will find their stockings full of only black coal on Christmas morning.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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