Black History Month: The Past And Present Is Our Future
I grew up in rural east Texas during the late 1940s through 1962; a time when education for people of color scarcely made mention of the role blacks in the development of the United States.
Except for brief mentions of Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and on occasion, people like Sojourner Truth, black contributions to history, if indeed they were mentioned at all, went by so fast, I grew up thinking that the primary role of my black ancestors was as slave labor, and the shuffling, slow talking, goggle-eyed comic relief in films dominated by heroic, blue-eyed white characters.
Except for the slave part, the same could be said of Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asians.
In 1962, when I graduated from my segregated high school, I decided to pass on the scholarship to a black land grant college that was offered to each class valedictorian and, strike out to learn more about the world beyond the pine-covered hills of Shelby County, Texas.
My options for doing that were limited. I could become a hobo, and ride the rails, but that would limit me to places reached by train, or I could enlist in the military. I opted for the latter, and four days after my seventeenth birthday I took the oath of enlistment in the U.S. Army.
Pay for a private in those days was lousy; $72 per month; but I had a place to sleep, three meals a day, and I didn't have to worry about what to wear every day.
Over the next 20 years, I did indeed get to see and learn about the world, from Europe to Asia. But, what was more important was I got to fill in a lot of blanks about the history of my own people.
I learned that a black navigator had been on the voyage with Columbus when he stumbled into a Caribbean island in his futile search for a new route to India. As a Texan, I was surprised to discover that not all of the cowboys of the old west were white; there had been many black ranch hands, gunslingers, rustlers, and the like.
The black troopers of the 9th and 10th Colored Cavalry helped to open up the west, and protected settlers and wagon trains from marauders. Crispus Attucks, a black man, was one of the first casualties in the war for American independence.
These and a thousand other snippets of missing information were gleaned from dusty books and old papers found in libraries and archives of a dozen colleges where I took night courses to get that degree that I'd passed up in my quest to see the world. They were like a drink of water to someone who has been stranded in the desert.
I wasn't the descendant of people who had been nothing but property, brought to the continent in chains to work on cotton and rice plantations. My ancestors had been players, making things, and doing things that mattered.
When I retired from the army in 1982, and became a Foreign Service Officer, I continued my quest, only now it was not just to see the world, but to learn the true story of history; to restore the pages that had been missing from my history books.
Black History Month, I have come to realize, is not just the history of one race; it is an integral component of the history of humanity. It is filling in the blanks that too often exist in our knowledge of our past, whether we're black or white, or whatever.
It is an opportunity for us to pause and learn about, think about, what we have all meant to each other, and done for each other, over the millennia of recorded history – a record that was often incomplete.
Humanity is a big tent, and people of every color and creed helped to create and erect that tent. Black History Month helps to open the flaps to allow everyone to enter the warmth of that tent, and in the end, we're all better off for the experience.
Charles A. Ray, the Ambassador of the United States of America to the Republic of Zimbabwe, is the author of Taking Charge: Effective Leadership for The Twenty-First Century, as well as numerous articles on history, culture, and leadership. Read his blog on Red Room.