Op-ed submission by Project 21
For me and a special group of youth in North Tyler, Texas, Black History Month began in September. That’s when the coordinator in charge of the “Black History Bowl” at my school began confirming who would participate in this annual competition among neighboring churches the following February.
I would conspicuously hover around Sister Dorothy Wheat to get noticed. After doing this for some time, she finally relented, telling me: “You can be on the Black History Bowl team. I’ll tell you now, ‘fore you worry me to death the next two weeks.”
For the next three months after that, six other teens and I met weekly at St. Mary’s Baptist Church – fueled by sugar cookies and crimson punch – to take in the rich and complex history of our ancestors. By the time the competition rolled around, it was not just the knowledge that Dr. Charles Drew was the first to figure out how to store blood for later use or that Harriet Tubman led the Underground Railroad that got one the coveted round one position, but the speed. The round one contestant, like the first runner in a relay, could set the team up for victory.
In the end, however, the Black History Bowl was less about competition than celebration. After all, our only prize was bragging rights. The competition was really for everyone to recognize our race’s reward of succeeding out of struggle and its triumph over adversity. We learned everything about our brave and gifted ancestors in the context of joy and victory.
As we celebrate Black History Month today, we seem to lack that same luster of victory. Remembrances these days focus on suffering and struggle. When we look back today, we too often focus on a past full of anguish and tears and a yesterday of victimization and degradation.
As in my youth, the best way to honor those who suffered before us is to celebrate their joys and their victories as well as count our own. The best way to indulge in learning from our past during Black History Month is to lift up their songs of hope and courage in our lives today. The best way to repay the great debt we owe them is to reap the benefits of the American dream and opportunity for which they forged a path.
Let us not spend another Black History Month steeped in guilt and oppression, counting all the wrong ways of the past or present. Rather, let us dance in ebullience for the land under our feet and the gait of freedom in which we now walk. Let us join together as one to blend black history into American history. Let us count the ways in which so many dreams have come to pass and – for those who have yet to achieve them – let us march on toward victory in the strapping spirit of our ancestors.
This is the least we owe to our history.
The genius of those old black folk in my small town – to arrange these simple but profound events – is itself legendary. That they turned historical learning into a simple, competitive exercise that made us proud to know and eager to recite the legacy of our people instilled a desire in people like me to “be somebody.”
At low points in my own life, the impact of their self-discipline and perseverance that has become a part of my being has helped me carry on. This is in itself a mark of history. Knowingly or not, a legacy was created that deserves a meaningful place in black history along with those we so eagerly longed to remember.
Lisa Fritsch is a member of the national advisory council for the Project 21 black leadership network and a writer and radio talk show host in Austin, Texas.