Black History Month gives Americans an opportunity to highlight the contributions African-American men and women have made to today’s society.
It’s founder, Dr. Carter Woodson, claimed that school textbooks either ignored or distorted black history and provided “ugly racial stereotypes” that were leaving children of all races and ethnicities unaware of the contributions to American history - and all world civilizations - made by people of color. Woodson claimed the omissions and distortions in the public-school education system were resulting in low self-esteem among many African-Americans as well as creating a justification for discrimination across the country.
“We learn from our past,” White County Middle School social studies teacher Deanna Underwood stated, “and while today’s textbooks do a better job of including a more accurate picture of what the past looked like for African-Americans, there are still a lot of moments in history that aren’t celebrated. It is important to celebrate the greatness of any person, regardless of race, so that our students can be inspired to go on and do great things themselves.”
Underwood said Black History Month gives her, and all teachers, the opportunity to really connect with students and highlight some of the many contributions that African-Americans have made to not just American society but to the world as a whole - contributions that may be mentioned in a textbook but not thoroughly explained or heralded.
“Through the years, history has glazed over – or completely ignored – the greatness of so many African-Americans and justified it by saying there are other things that need to be taught and there isn’t enough time for everything,” she said. “Black History Month gives us the chance to break away from that way of thinking and spend time celebrating the amazing contributions to our world that people of African descent have given us.
“It is equally as important that we teach students the ugly parts of our history so that they can feel the injustices that were a part of the daily lives of so many Americans and that they can be sure that the changes we have made, and are continuing to make, in our society become widespread and permanent.”
While today it would seem to many that we should have, as a society, moved past discrimination and exclusion, the reality is that it wasn’t that long ago that discrimination was a normal way of life and not recognized as a part of society that was in need of change.
Those ugly parts of history weren’t that long ago, and they were often happening in White County, according to Johnnie Johnson, an African-American who is proud to say she has spent all 68 years of her life in Sparta.
“I remember when I had to start going to the ‘white school’,” Johnson reminisced. “I was so scared. I had never played with the white children and had spent most of my time playing with kids who looked just like me.”
Johnson was in seventh grade when she started attending East Sparta School, but her fears about meeting new friends were quickly appeased when she met two of the best friends she has ever had: Becky Crosslin (now Becky Stein) and David Fleming. But, while her new friends were accepting of her, the same couldn’t be said about all of the adults.
“Becky and I were walking down the hall one day and a teacher, Ms. Gist, called out to Becky and asked her over,” Johnson remembered. “She asked Becky, ‘Does your mother know you are hanging around with that N....? You need to go home and tell your mother what you are doing.’”
Johnson said that wasn’t the only time she felt discrimination by the very adults who were supposed to nurture and help children. She talked about going home from school with a friend and stopping by a beauty shop where the owner again used a racial slur to refer to her and told her to leave. She talked about having to sit in a separate section of the movie theater and having restaurants have separate doors marked “colored” and even the bus station being divided and having separate “sides” for “Blacks only” and “Whites only”. She talks about her grandmother having to leave town for a while because she had an inter-racial child.
“They even gave us our Christmas presents last,” she said. “Santa used to ride through town on a fire truck, and he would hand out bags with fruit and candy, but we couldn’t get ours until the white children had theirs.”
Johnson admits she wasn’t treated poorly by most people and that it was just “the way life was.”
“People weren’t bad. The system was bad. It’s better now. Most people can’t imagine that was a reality, but this isn’t ancient history. I’m only 68 years old. This was in my lifetime,” she reminds people. “We have come a long way, and things have changed, but we need Black History Month so that people don’t forget how it used to be - so we don’t go back there. I’m glad that my daughter hasn’t had to live through the same injustices and hopeful that my grandson will see an even brighter future.”
Underwood agrees with Johnson and says keeping the harshness and the timeline of when these things were happening from today’s students isn’t necessary.
“Today’s kids are driven by a sense of social justice and a desire to have a better world,” she said. “They are our future, and we have to give them the tools to build that future. They are equipped to handle the truth. They will do great things if we let them.”
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