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.
18 thoughts on “Real African American History is Unsettling”
Just wondering, do you think Roots was stronger because it had more screentime than 12 years a slave or for some other reason?
This is an excellent question. My opinion is that “Roots” was first a whopping best seller during the time when books were actually “books”. For many, it was their first real encounter with our nation’s shame. It was read and discussed at home, at work—everywhere. Readers couldn’t believe Roots would make it to the screen with its brutal reality intact, but it did. While 12 Years A Slave was a book first, many didn’t know of it until after the movie. Perhaps it would’ve been just as impactful if it had come first. Thanks for the query. Please let me know what you think.
I can understand that. If I remember correctly, 12 Years a Slave had a modest gross in the US and did better in Europe than it did in the US. Of the recent slave movies, I think Django Unchained may have done the best with audiences and grossed somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 million. I have only watched the new Roots but I will be sure to go back and watch the old series soon. Really appreciate your take.
I so relate to the part about teaching African American history to African American students. I was met with so much opposition year after year! I don’t understand it!
Linda your post was really informative, I grew up in the 90s,I wiiiiisssshhhh every one I grew up with could read your blog, I read a book called 100 slave stories, you are correct when you say the real horror of slavery is not depicted in the movies, the slaves that were being interviewed was 90,95, and some 104 years old at the time of the interview, that book humbled me, I took many things away from it, but despite so much physical abuse, mental stress, mental abuse they lived a long time, letting me know we are built to last built to overcome, but I just appreciate you sharing those facts,
I appreciate your comments. I will look for 100 slave stories. Thanks!
LikeLiked by 1 person
My bad, the correct title is.. Voices from slavery: 100 Authentic Slave Narratives by Norman R Yetman
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks. I’ll check it out!🙂
In the high school I attended we did learn about the painful history of African Americans. We also learned that every race has been oppressed and enslaved at one point or another throughout history. These terrible histories must be taught in all schools to all races, because like George Santayana’s quote says, ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’
African Americans should be proud that despite their maltreatment they were able to rise above it and become a great people. One thing that has always bothered me is ‘African’, ‘Hispanic’, ‘Asian’ American. Why can’t we all just be Americans.
I enjoyed your post and I completely agree with Dr. Woodson. ❤ xo
Thanks for commenting, Vashti! You’re right. People have more in common than they have differences. I will add a study of persecution to my TBR. THE Holocaust is well known, but I will brush up on other ethnicities. AA History Month can celebrate sharing with other cultures.🤗
This is a great post Linda. I was a child in the civil rights movement too and only remember bits of what I saw on the news. Roots horrified me and all I could think was how cruel humans were to each other throughout history. How fear is used to fuel hate even now. I do believe education and facts are so important and I look forward to more of your posts.
I’m getting lost in researching these subjects, Denise! Thank you so much for your encouragement!🤗
LikeLiked by 1 person
It’s easy to get lost in research, Linda. That’s something I really enjoying doing and learning. 🙂
This is an excellent post, Linda. I’m sure it was devastating to research.
I hold an interest in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and have read a fair amount on that time. I was a child and have very little memory of those events. In reading the history, however, I’m appalled that even then–in my lifetime!!–black Americans were treated so unfairly. That is simply mind-boggling to me. As for slavery, it was every bit as horrific as the Holocaust. I hope and pray every day brings us closer to peace, love and unity for all people and all races.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I appreciate your comment, Mae! I am interested in in the Civil Rights Movement, too. When I was a child the nightly television newsreels of the fire hoses and dogs kept me fearful. Seeing people of other races join the marchers and rally for equality was encouraging at the time. Thanks for your support, my friend.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Excellent blog post, Linda. I share Santayana’s claim, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Even though we do not live in a time of blatant racism, we carry the genetic history and suffer its consequences. Thank you for this thoughtful reminder.
A year ago I would’ve agreed with you Gwen, but lately, national politicians seems to be igniting the re-emergence of blatant racism. I appreciate your comment, and by the way, I am a fan of yours.😀
LikeLiked by 1 person