BY ROBERT “ZACK” ZACHARY
For the past three years, I have presented a special series in February for Black History Month, which is now called The Proper and More Effectual Method on the Teaching of Afro-American History. Growing up in Jim Crow Alabama, during the great civil rights movement, our history was constantly before us. Every other home was filled with hours of storytelling from the past and saturated with black publications or magazines on the coffee table. When attending church on Sunday morning, our history came from the pulpit, and do not forget the picturesque cardboard fans adorned with historical black figures or the beautiful black families in our community we all knew. It was equally well-placed in our so-called “segregated” schools, with special assignments the entire year, not just for one month. Learning black history was a hands-on and in-your-face experience all over the black community.
This was the reality all over America. It is also what propelled the great Black Studies movement of the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s. When opportunities began to open for us to attend white schools and universities, they were devoid of any type of Black Studies. We began to protest and made demands to the contrary. This movement brought forth such great black historians as Chancellor Williams, Ph.D. (The Destruction of Black Civilization), John Henrik Clarke, Ph.D., Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, Yosef “Dr. Ben” Ben-Jochannan and the honorable John Hope Franklin, Ph.D., to name a few. They were the pioneers of those acquired by top universities to lead Black Studies departments.
Yet going into the ’80s and ’90s to the present day, it seems that public education (and don’t leave out the private sphere) left off the teaching of Afro-American history and compiled it all into just highlighting two historical figures: Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks! I came face to face with this turnaround upon my first years of teaching middle school in the early 1980s in Atlanta. I entered the school system and my class with much enthusiasm, especially coming into Black History Month. My colleagues recognized my optimistic attitude (privately, with a chuckle) and began telling me it was not this way in public education anymore. The directives on the teaching of Afro-American history, they said, “were already written out for us and mostly centered around the one and only Dr. Martin L. King!” As Black History Month came closer, the reality set in, and my colleagues were so correct. It was like a controlled method to downplay the greatness of contributions and achievements of all Afro-Americans in this country and the world, including Dr. King.
Giving proper credit
This rather distorted and whitewashed method holds true today and has influenced me and others in developing a more effective method to study black history. This has become most important to historians because it truly seems as if there has been an uptick in the highlighting of slavery and the atrocities that came with it rather than our achievements — seemingly a slow, sly and unbalanced curriculum, similar to how America subdued Native Americans on and in their own land. Added to all this was a slow resurgence of Confederate re-enactments, along with textbooks and institutions pushing the false assertion that neither blacks nor Native Americans had made any significant contributions — enough to talk about — in the areas of science, education, architecture, research, etc.
These many reasons and other dynamics encouraged me to create this presentation and project — a presentation that would properly acknowledge and highlight the achievements, inventions, contributions and accomplishments, as well as the name of the person. This way makes it more a part of American history as a whole and gives more due credit to black people as a well-established and vital part of the building-up of this county in every area and institution. This method creates a more equitable and refined way to enhance and sustain the memory of the real contributions of our ancestors. It is a unique work involving audience participation and dialogue. The hope is that all will leave with a renewed understanding about how this country was built and put together with the input, contributions and participation of us all.
So it is for me like magical bombshells upon hearing unknown, untold and almost-hidden stories, including how countless blacks coming off slave ships made it to the West before Lewis and Clark arrived. It is a special time to expound on certain notable interesting questions, such as: What was the first American music form, after Native American music? Or entertain how so many slaves knew several different languages, such as Arabic, Swahili and even some major European languages. And embark upon the political activism of the great Paul Robeson, whose passport was confiscated and so was forbidden to travel outside the United States, yet was acclaimed as the world’s greatest baritone. Or, at a time when blacks were denied equal treatment at hospitals in the Jim Crow South, the story of the doctor who invented blood plasma and worked with blood transfusions but died from his injuries in a car accident right here in North Carolina.
Healing needed on all sides
While I worked on this presentation, these remembrances and manifestations often — sometimes daily — brought tears and at times intense weeping. I had to stay meditative and prayerful as I was confronted with what my many ancestors endured and yet truly still accomplished. So much of it went unrecognized and hasn’t been acknowledged to this day. But the earth solidly holds their stories of life and their contributions, even if stolen or not properly credited. Some of the hardest moments were researching blacks who contributed, achieved greatness or created a great invention and just seemed to have vanished!
So if we are going to rise forth, let us begin to courageously open the gates of true intellect and research and let go of holding back hidden facts in fear. If we teach about slavery in America, truly being the refined and privileged people we say we are, we must be willing to include every facet of slavery: the many escapes, insurrections, rebellions and resistance. There were also thousands of letters written by slaves and freed slaves challenging slavery, based on the Bible and the Constitution. It is not enough to just dig up some old “slave deeds” and stop there.
Empirically, this project is moving upon what is effective to heal on all sides and bringing forth that which has been hidden or forgotten, or just purposely not included at all in the miseducation of our youth and our nation as a whole. Any withholding of knowledge is a transgression against all and a dumbing-down of the whole populace. We must realize it is just as much or more detrimental to the oppressor as to the oppressed. Come, join in during Black History Month and a “Proper and More Effectual Method on the Teaching of Afro-American History.”
Asheville resident Robert “Zack” Zachary is a chaplain, mentor, poet and storyteller.