History matters. Looking back at events not only gives us the 20/20 vision of hindsight, we also learn lessons from it. We see the things that change our lives in positive ways, we see the seeds of brilliance and we can build on them, and we see the things we can learn from and try not to do again. The history that we learn, through books, school, and other sources, highlights the history makers and, in insidious ways that we barely notice, creates an image of these history makers. Because humans write history, we should never forget that often what we learn is what those humans choose to record.
In 1891, following the loss of the Civil War, a former congressman of the Confederate States of America, Missouri Senator George Graham Vest, said, “history is written by the victors and framed according to the prejudices and bias existing on their side.” If those victors decide that a history is not worth noting, or if they feel that history does not align with the history they want to tell, they may decide to ignore that history, leave out parts of that history, or just go ahead and assign the history in the way they choose. As a result, some aspects of history have been amplified while others have been muted or erased. The March 27, 1964 edition of Time Magazine noted that the most widely used eighth-grade history text book in the United States mentioned only two Black people by name as having lived since the Civil War. It was this invisibility which led James Baldwin to remark, “When I was going to school, I began to be bugged by the teaching of American history because it seemed that history had been taught without cognizance of my presence.”
The historian, Carter G. Woodson, recognizing the dangerous impact of being left out of the telling of history lamented, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it become a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” In 1926, seeking to correct that and to strive for a more balance history, he launched Negro History Week during the second week in February because it included both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’s birthdays. In 1976, the week became the entire month of February, when President Gerald Ford urged Americans to observe Black History Month. President Jimmy Carter officially recognized Black History Month in 1978.
There are people who don’t understand why there is a need to have a Black History Month or, for that matter a Women’s History Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian American Heritage Month, or any month or other event that highlights a demographic. Shouldn’t it just be history. It should. However, because of who has been getting to decide what history looks like, these historically underrepresented groups have not been given voice. When history happens, it is not automatically recorded in a ledger for all to see. It waits for someone to choose to tell it and we can only hope that person is being as objective and thorough as possible.
In Boston, Massachusetts, in 1716, an enslaved West African man, who was given the name Onesimus by his master, Cotton Mather, told Mather that he knew how to prevent smallpox. Although Mather was skeptical, he verified Onesimus’ story and then spread the world through Massachusetts and elsewhere. Instead of relief at the discovery that could save lives, Mather was vilified for suggesting a medical procedure developed by or for Black people. An explosive device was thrown through Mather’s window with an angry note attached to it. When, in 1721, a smallpox outbreak swept through Boston, only 6 of the 242 people Mather inoculated died (1 in 40), compared to the 1 in 7 among the population of Boston that did not receive this treatment. In 1796, 80 years after Onesimus shared his knowledge with Mather, Edward Jenner developed a vaccine for smallpox and the disease was declared eradicated in 1980.
Every day, we should seek to know more inclusive and expansive histories. During those times when a spotlight is shone, we should pause and challenge ourselves to purposefully seek out histories we never imagined existed. Today, I learnt that one in four cowboys was Black. Phillis Wheatley was the first Black female author to be published, and did that at 12 years old. As more and more of our lives are recorded on CCTV and other surveillance cameras, we can thank Marie Van Brittan Brown and her husband, for the first innovations in home security systems.
I challenge you to find something that surprises you and learn about about the Black woman who took down Lucky Luciano. Or maybe you might find something that makes your life a little easier. Or find and share something that we don’t even know about. Let’s add layers to history and transform the image of the history makers and enter history without preconceived ideas of who our history makers are. Because, really, anyone can make it.