Opinion: The Month of the Unsung

During the recent riots in Ferguson, due to the shooting of Michael Brown, many people were bringing up the name Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., saying he would’ve been unhappy to see continued violence over race.

What many people do not recognize is that there are various other important black figures in history who could weigh in on today’s issues other than Dr. King.

It is now Black History Month, and the American education system still isn’t sure how to approach educating today’s children on African American historical figures. We all know Dr. King, Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson, Harriet Tubman and others. But do we know about the names that aren’t taught in third grade?

My personal favorite figure was Madam C.J. Walker, who was known as one of the most successful women of the early 20th century. She was the first woman in America to become a millionaire by creating her own line of hair and beauty products for black women.

Unfortunately, I was not exposed to such lesser-known figures in school. But I believe they should receive the same recognition. People are always surprised to hear that the author of “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo,” Alexander Dumas, was a black man. It wasn’t until it was said in Quentin Tarantino’s film “Django Unchained” that this fact became well known.

African American history is often written off by educators as an excuse to have a “special class” or “project,” before continuing on with the history that only represents African Americans as victims of slavery and racism. The struggles of slavery, racism, segregation and the civil right’s movement should be taught alongside the successes.

White students in America should not grow up thinking that Dr. King was the only leader in the civil rights movement. Black students should not be discouraged from believing they can achieve success, thinking that there are no other figures to look up to.

After learning about Madam Walker in fourth grade, I was proud to see that a black woman could be successful. Black women are raised to believe they are going to be unsuccessful from being exposed to stereotypes of black women who get pregnant young, becoming single mothers and work multiple jobs to take care of their five children from five different fathers. If young black girls were exposed to figures like Mary Church Terrell, one of the first African American women to receive a college degree, a charter member of the NAACP and an activist for the civil rights movement, perhaps they wouldn’t be so discouraged and end up becoming what’s expected of them.

This hole in the American educational system is leading this generation of young black people to believe that they can’t be something and make a difference. It makes little sense for the curriculum to not include the figures in history who worked hard to make it possible for young black people have the option of pursuing higher education.

The first African American man to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was architect Robert Robinson Taylor – who is, unfortunately, not well known, despite his contributions to his field. He designed many of the buildings on Tuskegee University’s campus after being offered the project multiple times before graduating from MIT. His close relationship with Booker T. Washington is what inspired him to accept the opportunity and pursue his desired career.

I believe that these people from the past are a community which supports and encourages me. African Americans today need this if they are to believe that they can make a difference through their own success. Young black people need to stop being told that they cannot amount to anything.

It should not be a big deal to my extended family that I will soon be graduating from college.

I should not have been told “Congratulations for not getting pregnant yet” on my 16th birthday because I’m a black woman.

It is comforting to know that I am living in a time when changes are actively being made.  As an aspiring filmmaker, I am proud to have director, screenwriter, film marketer and distributor Ava DuVernay exist in my world. She is the first African American woman to win best director at the Sundance Film Festival, to be nominated for a Golden Globe as best director and have a film win an Academy Award. I was told that I would never be a famous filmmaker because women – let alone black women – were not going to make it in the male-driven film industry.

Every day this February, in honor of Black History Month, a friend of mine, Ashley Greaves has been posting a picture of an underrated African American figure with a description about their success on Instagram.

“I realized how shallow the education of black history is, not only in American school systems, but also in our media,” said Greaves, a student at Wentworth Institute of Technology. “Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King over and over and over again. Our history is rich and deep and beautiful. I just thought I could make a small change in my own way, while [also] teaching those people who follow me a little bit just how large and underrated black history is.”

It is now the time for students of all races to educate themselves about the large and impactful history of African Americans. Due to the rumors of African Americans contributing more to this country than they are given credit for, adults should take a second look as well.

With the onset of new protests based on the treatment of blacks in America, it is becoming clear that Americans of all races are trying to make a change. Educating those who are uninformed about the subject is one of the first steps toward making an impact on people’s minds.

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