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article imageOp-Ed: What have we learned from Black History Month? Special

By Kay Mathews     Feb 26, 2014 in Lifestyle
Black History Month is celebrated every February in the United States. As the month comes to a close, it is a good time to reflect on what we have learned. Books, documentaries, and feature films are resources for gleaning new information.
Much of what I know about African-American history came from sitting in front of a TV or movie screen, not from sitting in a classroom. As a white person growing up in an almost solely white community in northwest Arkansas, my interaction with black people was limited as was what was taught in local schools about African-American history.
On a superficial level, however, I was taught a few of the basics, such as: Africans were forcibly brought to America on slave ships (1700s), slaves worked on plantations in the south, there was something called the Underground Railroad (late 1700s to 1850), America's Civil War was fought (1861-1865), Pres. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves (Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, and 13th Amendment to the Constitution, 1865), separate is inherently unequal (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954), integrating Little Rock Central High School (1957), and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement (late 1950s to mid-1960s).
For me, though, the beginning of a better understanding of what slavery really meant came when I was a teenager and I watched the TV mini-series Roots. I was moved to tears, lots of them, and my empathy for African-Americans was heightened. I internalized and learned more from what I saw on the screen than from what was told to me by white teachers with textbooks that marginalized the black experience in America.
To some who are age 50+ and white, this experience may be familiar. Cursory coverage of African-American history when you were in grade school, and, for those so inclined, more in-depth learning was done on your own, especially through viewing films, reading books on the subject, or by other means.
Sapphire.  Fayetteville Public Library  Fayetteville  Ark.  April 20  2010.
Sapphire. Fayetteville Public Library, Fayetteville, Ark. April 20, 2010.
Fast forward to 2013 and the numerous films with a focus on African-American history. In the interim, however, between my school days and last year, I learned more about African-American history through films like The Help and Lincoln, visiting more diverse communities, being befriended by African-Americans, and meeting prominent African-Americans like Minniejean Brown, one of the "Little Rock Nine," and Sapphire, author of Push (but renamed Precious to coincide with the film).
African-American history certainly came to life on the big screen in 2013, and the opportunity to learn more presented itself in films like 42, The Butler, and 12 Years a Slave. It's one thing to know about Jackie Robinson's history-making baseball career, but it is something entirely different to peer behind the scenes and find out what he went through during his career. Before The Butler was released, I did not know that an African-American man named Eugene Allen made history by serving eight U.S. presidents as a pantry worker-butler-maitre d' in the White House, and, more broadly, the film takes viewers through African-American history that was being made during Allen's tenure (1952-1986) at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
During Black History Month, I attended and reported on the 2014 Savannah Book Festival. It was there that I saw a man whom I recognized, but not from his photo in the SBF brochure. I also recognized his name, Edward Ball, and then it occurred to me why I recognize him and his name. Without question, I learned more about African-American history by watching PBS' six-part series The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. than from any other medium. And, Mr. Ball is featured in an episode of that series. PBS describes the segment in this way, "Henry Louis Gates, Jr. meets the fifth great grandson of Elias Ball, Edward Ball, who wrote about his family’s history of slave ownership in the book, 'Slaves in the Family.' Professor Gates and Ball tour the old plantation, discussing Priscilla and early slavery in the United States." A clip from that segment is featured above.
Edward Ball  author of Slaves in the Family  at the 2014 Savannah Book Festival.  Savannah  Ga.  2/1...
Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family, at the 2014 Savannah Book Festival. Savannah, Ga. 2/15/14
In the clip we learn about the life of Priscilla, a young girl who was a slave who beat the odds, and the odds included the fact that "A third of South Carolina's slaves died within a year of their arrival" and "Nearly two-thirds of all children were dead before they turned 16."
The six-part series premiered in October of 2013, and continues to be presented on local PBS channels. Coincidentally, parts were aired shortly after I saw Edward Ball in person.
Those who watch the series will learn the following, among many, many other historical facts presented:
*40 percent of all slaves from Africa arrived in Charleston, South Carolina
*Established in 1738, Fort Mose, located near St. Augustine, Fla., was America's first black town and residents were free
*About 388,000 Africans were transported directly to America during the course of the slave trade, which officially ended in 1808
*Of the 3.2 million slaves working in the 15 slave states in 1850, 1.8 million worked in cotton
African-American quotes poster featuring Martin Luther King  Jr. quote.
African-American quotes poster featuring Martin Luther King, Jr. quote.
PBS/Many Rivers
I find that the more I know about African-American history the more I want to know. On my "to-do" list is watching 12 Years a Slave, which Gates describes as "most certainly one of the most vivid and authentic portrayals of slavery ever captured in a feature film," and reading Ball's award-winning book Slaves in the Family.
Michael Terron wrote, "Black History Month is not just a time to remember the horrors of American slavery and racial discrimination..." However, if you're learning process is like mine, that is what I started with - having my eyes opened to the savagery of white people and their brutal treatment of blacks. Now, because my focus shifted toward learning more about how African-Americans responded to this brutality, I find that I can agree with Terron's conclusion. He states, "Black History Month is significant because it is a glorious testament to the irrepressible spirituality of a people who, while courageously fighting for freedom and justice, have not been crippled with hatred and rage. In spite of their many human flaws and contradictions, they remain among the most magnanimous of human beings."
I have shared some of what I have learned through the years and, as Black History Month comes to a conclusion, I ask: What have you learned? May I suggest looking to some of the books, documentaries, and feature films mentioned above as excellent resources for increasing one's knowledge of African-American history. As a starting point, I recommend viewing PBS' The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross with Henry Louis Gates, Jr..
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Black history month, African americans, The African Americans Many Rivers To Cross, Henry louis gates, Edward Ball
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