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February 2, 2015 / Ciara Myers, Editor

Understanding Black History as One Step on the Road to Racial Justice

By Tamara Copeland
President
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

Years ago, my neighbor Jim Myers wrote a book called Afraid of the Dark: What Whites and Blacks Need to Know about Each Other.  In it, Jim, who is white, suggests that one of the reasons that African-Americans and whites don’t understand each other is because we spend so little time in each other’s homes. He uses routine visiting as just one proxy for familiarity and understanding of cultures, lives, values, etc. I have another proxy:  history.

Throughout most of my school years, I learned about white scientists, explorers, military strategists, poets, authors, politicians … you get my point. I learned about white people who were leaders in multiple sectors. The messages were regular and routine, not overt in suggesting a superiority, but simply facts incorporated into my everyday education.  Because I had attended a segregated school through the fifth grade, I also had a solid grounding in black history. The black teachers, school administrators and my overall segregated community made sure that I knew that W.E.B. DuBois led the Niagara Movement that was the precursor to the NAACP, and that I knew about the Buffalo Soldiers and the Harlem Renaissance. The names and work of Charles Drew and Paul Robeson were familiar to me.

I believe that white America, particularly in communities that have little, if any, diversity of population get a very skewed view of African-Americans. Some suggest that the media has far more negative images of black America and black Americans than positive ones. And when that media imagery is not balanced by any knowledge of the multiple contributions of African-Americans to this country, some are left with a one-sided view.  Without any counterbalance, African-Americans become viewed as drains on society, not contributors. Some might think that the election of an African-American president would balance that skewed portrayal. In fact, that one reality, albeit a milestone of major significance, isn’t enough to change the larger societal perceptions.

As school children across our country learn this month about the history of African-Americans, I celebrate the vision of Carter G. Woodson as the leader who recognized the importance of Negro History Week. The week that has now grown into a month is important. This is a time of overt acknowledgement of contributions, but I believe that these acknowledgements should be both separately celebrated and more subtly mainstream.

I urge all who care about racial justice and equity to consider what seems to be an area of only minimal focus: let’s look at what is in textbooks, let’s look at curriculum for all subjects, let’s fully examine what we are teaching our children about who has contributed to the greatness of this country.

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