by Monique Duson
I grew up in South Central Los Angeles. Life was tough. But more than that, life was black. Lessons the streets taught me about drugs, prostitution, gangs, and being poor were secondary to what my mother instilled in me: being black. I was a black child and one day would grow up to become a strong, black woman.
In school, I learned about white-toward-black racism—slavery, lynching, water hoses, poll taxes, separate bathrooms and water fountains, and “colored only” signs. I thought of them as relics of the past.
My history teachers reinforced the beauty of my blackness. We were taught to be proud because, even though white people had tried to keep us down for centuries, black people were strong, smart, and talented. We weren’t only slaves “beaten and mistreated for the work we gave.” That’s only one small part of our history. Our lineage was that of kings and queens. We’re inventors and doctors, authors and poets, teachers and singers, and freedom fighters. It’s like Maya Angelou wrote:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
To be black was to be phenomenal—and young black girls like me were being raised to be phenomenal black women. The story of my people was the story of rising, again and again, tired but determined, even while white people thought they could do us “any kinda way.”
History is a divisive topic today. Many buy into the idea, as I once did, that there is a white history and a black history. On my walks with Krista, this came up regularly. We each knew parts of American history—just not the same parts.
Once, Krista mentioned Benjamin Franklin. I enthusiastically responded, “Oh, wasn’t he the fifth president?” Her silence, confused expression—and later, bursts of laughter—let me know I was wrong.
Krista knew about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Founding Fathers, and the Bill of Rights. She knew all the words of the national anthem.
I knew about the Emancipation Proclamation, Crispus Attucks, Juneteenth, Emmett Till, redlining, and Black Wall Street. I knew all the words of the Black National Anthem. Krista didn’t even know there was a Black National Anthem.
It’s as if we had spent our childhoods learning about two different Americas.
Today, American history and how it is being taught have come under scrutiny. Over the years, intentional efforts have been made to educate the public on the historical contributions of black Americans. Carter G. Woodson began Black History Week (now expanded to Black History Month) in 1926 to increase knowledge of black people’s contributions to American society. It did not exclude whites, as they also are part of black history.
But since then, new endeavors to revise American history have come to the forefront. For example, Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” But our nation’s history doesn’t and shouldn’t belong to just one group. It’s all American history—and we should all know about all of it. It should serve as a guide, leading us to live wisely by exposing the patterns of our successes and mistakes.
Sadly, some people are taught certain pieces of history and others are taught entirely different pieces. The way history is taught often depends upon the teacher’s proficiency or priorities. Leaving out any “side” is incomplete and unrealistic. Is the moon landing not part of my history because I am black and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were white? Should the Emancipation Proclamation be considered white history because Lincoln was white? What are we to make of black slave owners like Anthony Johnson, Elizabeth Frazer Skelton, William Ellison, and John Carruthers Stanly? Do they belong to black history or white?
To categorize the work of Frederick Douglass, Charles Octavius Booth, or Daniel Hale Williams as only black history and not American history simply because of their brown skin demeans their contributions to our nation and silos them into a much narrower, less significant category: that of race. To omit or minimize one group in order to highlight another is dishonest to who we are as a nation. We must not rewrite our historical narrative to center the accounts of one group or minimize the harms many have endured. We must not teach only the good or only the bad. Yet too often, that is exactly what happens.
A critical step to overcoming racial divisions includes telling a full and accurate history. A split history is an incomplete history.
This is an excerpt from our forthcoming book, Walking in Unity: Biblical Answers to Questions on Race and Racism.
FOR FURTHER STUDY
1 Langston Hughes, “The Negro Mother,” https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-negro-mother/.
2 Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise” Poetry Foundation. August 12, 1978, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46446/still-i-rise.
3 “The 1619 Project,”The New York Times Magazine, August 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html.