As our nation celebrates Black History Month, I’m thinking a lot about hidden histories and how history is taught. February is a time to illuminate the experiences of Black people in the United States and their outstanding accomplishments in the face of injustice. That was the vision of Black History Month founder Carter G. Woodson, and it is important. Yet educators are facing significant challenges in doing that this year and, frankly, every day of every year.
Greg Moore shares an important perspective on this issue in his recent article about Black History Month, “Why, As A Black Man, I Have Always Hated Black History Month.” Moore’s point that “if there is a Black History Month that means it must be situated in White History Year” is well made. History can make societies stronger, but only if it is fully taught and fully understood—and if understanding leads to action to address injustices.
For me, learning U.S. history is like exploring a garden. I might think I understand everything about the garden by quickly strolling through and glancing at the pretty things—but I can’t. The seeds of the plants are invisible. The roots, embedded deep in the soil, are hidden. Many of those who planted the garden—their stories and realities—are absent from view. In fact, you can’t understand anything if you don’t explore the invisible and invaluable truths hidden from sight.
When I was little, I took many high-speed walks through U.S. history with my classmates. We were in a race to absorb specific dates and facts. It felt like we spent months meandering through America’s early years—viewed through the eyes of the founding fathers and colonists—and then accelerated, madly zooming from war to war. But the seeds of racism were invisible. The roots of injustice, embedded deeply in society, were hidden. The people who experienced racism and injustice—their stories and realities—were absent from my textbooks.
Outside of school, I stumbled upon primary sources that helped me dig beneath the surface of history. When I was 11, I discovered the full valor and brutality of the Civil Rights Movement by viewing photos by Frank Dandridge and others in old issues of Life and Time. When I was 14, I learned about Japanese internment camps—long after we covered World War II in class—in an autobiography in my town library. This year, I found the writings of Zitkala-Sa, and I wondered if students are reading her autobiographical stories as they sprint through U.S. history. I hope so. I hope students are finding and exploring many voices that share invisible and invaluable truths.
What are some of the sources that you turn to dig beneath the surface of U.S. history? Here are a few that I recommend:
- African American Digital Collection, Library of Congress
- Mary Church Terrell, Advocate for African Americans and Women, Library of Congress
- Frederick Douglass in His Own Words, Library of Congress
Would you like to preserve a vital piece of history? Sign up to celebrate Douglass Day 2022 on February 14. You’ll be joining a wonderful group in transcribing the records of The Colored Conventions, the nineteenth century’s longest campaign for Black civil rights.
|Kimberly Elliott is the director of Communications for EDC’s U.S. Division.|
Photo credit: Trikosko, M. S. (1963). Demonstrators marching in the street holding signs during the March on Washington [photograph]. Library of Congress Online Catalog. https://www.loc.gov/item/2013647400/