It wasn’t my intent to burden my readers with the murky parts of American History, as there are facts many of us are not only ignorant of, but select not to learn of. A deep dive into African American History is one such murky subject for it is painful.
In researching this project for publication, I found the narratives of former slaves especially arduous reading. However, I accepted that these atrocities took place and that they warranted acknowledgement.
Fictional accounts of slavery as depicted in 20th century movies like Mandingo, Glory, Amistad, Birth of a Nation, and12 Years A Slave don’t do this subject proper justice. Nothing comes as remotely close to actual slave narratives as, perhaps, the 1977 televised dramatization of the blockbuster, Roots, based on the best-selling novel written by author Alex Haley in 1976.
Roots, a chronicle of the progression of Haley’s own ancestors through slavery, left viewers devastated. After the first episode aired, I marched militantly into my workplace to find my white coworkers embarrassingly silent. There would be no confrontation with these 20thcentury white folks who were as appalled by the depiction as I.
Our normal conversations and jests were awkward, stilted and subdued. We couldn’t look each other in the eye. Who could blame us? The depiction of Massa’ as plantation owner was scathing—searing. The pain, terror, and hopelessness of slavery had captured our consciousness in a way so horrific that nobody wanted to identify with any part of slaveholding America.
When I became an English teacher and taught the unit that included African American History, I met with resistance from my black students. “Do we have to?” they moaned out loud. “We hate that black stuff.”
Concerned teachers of black students across our country shared stories of their students crying or putting their heads down when this section of American history was taught in multicultural classrooms. Teachers had done nothing wrong, yet they felt guilty for just presenting the facts of African American life back in the day.
Students were ashamed because they feared that their white counterparts already thought of them as less than, and black history studies justified this thinking. Second, black students were far removed in their thinking from Jim Crow, civil rights demonstrations, and separate but equal legal doctrine. They had little real knowledge of this part of their history and they’d never realized how ugly and tragic slavery and segregation was.
Finally, they were ashamed that their America, the country of their birth, had never set the record straight. Had never said I’m sorry, or admitted that they’d been wrong to enslave a race of people who were never less than, just an easily captured, indigenous people whom colonists had used like animals to build this country.
Recognizing the need to acknowledge who we had become, despite our beginnings, American historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week in 1926. This was a forerunner to what is now African American History Month.
Woodson chose the second week of February to be “Negro History Week because it coincided with the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and of Frederick Douglass on February 14. American schools already celebrated these dates, and it was easy to convince Departments of Education in major American cities to include Negro History Week there.
In his own words, Woodson contended that: teaching Negro history was essential to ensure the physical and intellectual survival of the race within the broader society. It’s still vital today to step back and pay homage to African Americans who contributed to the physical and intellectual survival of the race within the broader society—contributions that aren’t widely recognized or celebrated. In consideration of their contributions to American way of life, I acknowledge the following inventors:
- Alexander Miles was an African-American inventor best known for being awarded a patent automatically opening and closing elevator doors. He was awarded the patent, U.S. Patent 371,207, on October 11, 1887
- Elijah McCoy, who invented an automatic lubricator for oiling the Steam engines of locomotives and ships, patenting it in 1872 as “Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines” (U.S. Patent 129,843). The “Real McCoy,” whose invention allowed trains to run more efficiently
- Lewis Latimer was also involved in the field of incandescent lighting, a particularly competitive field, working for Hiram Maxim and Thomas Edison. His bright invention made the light bulb more practical
- Granville T. Woods, (1856–1910) was nicknamed “The Black Edison” for the number of inventions he built and patented.
- George Washington Carverwas an agricultural expert who advised President Theodore Roosevelt. Carver, an American agricultural scientist and inventor, actively promoted alternative crops to cotton and discovered methods to prevent soil depletion.
- Madam C. J. Walker, a businesswoman who became one of America’s first self-made female millionaires in developing hair care.
- Garrett Morgan, Morgan was one of the first to apply for and acquire a U.S. patent for a traffic signal. The patent was granted on November 20, 1923. In 1916, Morgan made national news for using a gas mask he had invented to rescue several men trapped during an explosion in an underground tunnel beneath Lake Erie.
- Charles Richard Drew, who saved thousands of lives with his invention for improving blood banks
- Otis Boykin, whose work in electronics resulted in a resistor that made electronic devices cheaper and more reliable
- James E. West, who invented microphone technology
- Mark Dean, who co-invented the personal computer
I will share more of these important inventions as the month continues.