February is Black History Month. For all black authors, there is some sort of unwritten rule that it is blasphemy not to comment on Black History in February. Well, I will not commit blasphemy this month.
In many schools, history is taught as a bunch of isolated facts that are seldom related to reality. Students are forced to digest facts like…
- In 1885, Sarah E. Goode invented a bed that folded into a cabinet. She was the second black woman to receive a patent.
- Garrett Augustus Morgan created a gas mask.
- Thomas J. Martin patented the fire extinguisher in 1872.
- George T. Sampson invented a clothes dryer in 1892 that used heat from the stove.
- Although Thomas Edison is credited with inventing the light bulb it would have been nothing without the carbon filament. The process for creating a carbon filament which burned in hours instead of minutes was figured out by Lewis Latimer.
- Granville T. Woods invented the multiplex telegraph in 1887. He invented air brakes for trains. He also invented a device that picked up electricity from the “third rail” which made electric powered transit systems possible.
- And Dr. George Franklin Grant invented the world’s first golf tee, which was patented in 1899. He was also the first Black professor at Harvard.
But even lumped together all these individual achievements don’t tell the story of Black History. They don’t tell the story of how many minorities in America thrived despite oppression. Henry Blair, for example, never learned to read or write, yet he invented a corn seed planter in 1834 and signed his patent with an X. Martin Luther King wrote some of his most eloquent essays from a Birmingham Jail.
The story of Black History, then, is the story of overcoming obstacles, of excelling in spite of squalid conditions. As we sit back today and see the people of Egypt taking to the streets and asking for basic human rights, such as fair wages and equal treatment from the government, it is hard not to remember and reflect upon the civil rights movement.
Remember, first, that the civil rights movement did not happen one day in 1963 when the Reverend Dr. King stood before a crowd of hundreds of thousands and declared, “I Have a Dream.” It started after World War II, when our brave black soldiers came back from honorable, heroic service overseas and were then treated as second class citizens, again. The integration of the armed forces in 1948 really started the civil rights ball rolling. The NAACP saw enormous growth in the late 1940s, and its president Roy Wilkins, along with Thurgood Marshall, carefully planned a series of legal battles that culminated in Brown v. Board of Education (of Topeka, KS) in 1954. It was hundreds of thousands of thoughtful, hard-working blacks and whites who made up the civil rights movement that grew into a powerful force that lasted more than 20 years.
Freedom, liberty, and civil rights do not come easy. They did not come easy in America and they will not come easy in Egypt. We must remember that Dr. King, who was devoted to nonviolent change, led a series of marches. It is important that we do not forget people like Huey P. Newton (founder of the Black Panthers) and Malcolm X, who proposed using “any means necessary” to achieve the goal of civil rights for all, were a significant counterbalance to the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
All these people came together and demonstrated, and challenged, and marched, and fought to bestow on people like you and me the freedoms that we enjoy today. In Egypt, too, the people are going to have to fight for change on all fronts. They’ll have to continue with nonviolent demonstrations in the streets. They’re going to have to fight in the courts. They’re going to have to fight in their legislature. When I look at Egypt, I can see just how far we’ve come. When I look at the latest job numbers (unemployment rate of 9%, 8.7 million Americans having lost their jobs since December of 2007), I can see we have a long way to go.
Black History is more than a series of names and events. Black History is an American story of triumph and tribulation. It is a story of a very long struggle which should have meaning for all Americans.