As a very young boy, I would love to wake up on Saturday mornings and watch Tarzan starring Johnny Weissmuller. The programs were all re-runs from the 1930’s and 40’s and they featured the main character leading, outsmarting and outfighting the savage native Africans as he roamed the jungle swinging from tree to tree.
One day, while watching Tarzan, my father said to me, “Son, you know that all Africans aren’t like that. In fact, mankind started in Africa and many African kings and queens ruled the world. We need to talk about real Africa.” My father then took the time to talk about Egypt, the Pyramids, how arithmetic and libraries were pioneered in Africa and that Ethiopia was the birthplace of man. My young mind was blown away. Up to that point, my entire perspective of Africa was based on Tarzan’s manipulation of all those dumb native Africans.
As I listened to my father and later thought about his words, I remember the feeling of desire to identify with African people – a feeling that I had never had. Before that moment, I had always wanted to identify with Tarzan, even though he didn’t look like me. Little did I know that my world view had permanently changed on that day. My sense of who I was and where I came from had taken on new meaning: Pride. I was proud of my ancestry, though I didn’t quite know all of it. On that day, for me, a little bit of history went a long way. It also helped to spark my own desire to learn.
My Tarzan story has direct relevance to the importance of Black History and education. Certainly, my belief in myself was nurtured by my parents. But that nurturing was buttressed by learning about the contributions made to the world by my ancestors and people who looked like me. Today, far too many children of African descent living in America have no idea of the rich heritage associated with African-American culture. Nor do they really know who they are. Their sense of history and identity extends about as far back as Jay Z’s first album or the dress that Rihanna wore last week.
This lack of knowledge of one’s history is further complicated by the fact that nearly half the kids of color in our cities are dropping out of school and most that do graduate from high school are not proficient in reading and math. It is hard to learn about one’s history when you are a challenged reader or writer. The link between education and knowing our history is inextricable. On the other hand, as happened with me, learning one’s history can be a powerful motivator to become even more educated.
In my experience, the true value of Black History Month is that it gives us all an opportunity to learn and appreciate the rich and robust legacy of our forbearers; and, in the process, better understand ourselves. As historian John Henrik Clarke said, “History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is also a compass that people use to find themselves on the map of human geography.
History tells a people where they have been and what they have been, where they are and what they are. Most important, history tells a people where they still must go, what they still must be. The relationship of history to the people is the same as the relationship of a mother to her child.”
At a time when so many of our kids are dealing with their identity, self worth and learning struggles, let’s find ways to ensure that the lessons learned during Black History Month help to transform people’s perceptions of themselves, the world around them and their place in that world.
Kevin P. Chavous is Executive Counsel for the American Federation for Children.