Closson: Expand your discussion, reflection of black history beyond one month

Troy Closson, Columnist

For my fifth grade American history class, I wrote a report on Rosa Parks.

In honor of Black History Month, my teacher had us research a prominent figure of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and compose a short essay about their significance. It didn’t take long to determine who I’d write on. “People are already familiar with Martin Luther King Jr.,” I thought. “Everyone’s going to be writing about him.” So instead, I naively selected Rosa Parks, thinking her a relatively unknown figure. My 10-year-old self wasn’t aware that countless black history leaders existed beyond my limited knowledge. I couldn’t grasp that despite our discussion ending after we submitted our assignments, there was so much more to discover. I didn’t recognize that despite successes, many glass ceilings still remained unshattered.

But now, I do.

As the midpoint of Black History Month approaches, it’s essential to examine how we approach discussing black history within the bounds of Northwestern’s campus and throughout this country. My elementary school mindset remains all too characteristic of the blanket approach taken by many educational institutions when it comes to black history awareness.

Black history didn’t instantly begin once the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, nor did it end with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. As “13th,” the critically acclaimed documentary by Ava DuVernay explains, history matters, as current problems of mass incarceration and imprisonment are rooted in past developments. Under a presidential administration that has been characterized by negativity and animosity toward different racial and ethnic groups, it’s imperative that students expand our understanding of black history beyond a few prominent names and observe how racial discrimination in the past influences the present.

As February began, President Trump issued remarks at a White House-sponsored Black History Month “Listening Session.” In his speech, Trump acknowledged the contributions of Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks within the black community. News organizations promptly drew attention to Trump’s description of Frederick Douglass as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more,” demonstrating uncertainty as to whether he realized Douglass’ death was over 100 years ago. More troubling than Trump’s potential misunderstanding, however, was the brevity of his statements on black history as a whole. In between a transient remembrance of some of the most well-known civil rights activists, Trump used his speech to advance his crusade against the media, claiming that “so much of the media is opposition party and knowingly saying incorrect things,” and attacking an erroneous tweet that claimed he removed a sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. from the Oval Office. By the end of his address, Trump had shifted the session’s focal point from a celebration of black history to himself and his personal grievances.

This behavior isn’t distinct to Trump. In the American education system, black history consistently seems to be a subject of widespread indifference. While teachers regularly highlight the American Revolution and New Deal for 11 months of the year, black history often feels like an afterthought or something obligatorily tacked onto the end of a lesson. When we do discuss black history, it often seems to be in a manner similar to Vice President Mike Pence’s Black History Month recognition tweet, which praised the 13th amendment as if the end of slavery represented a sweeping solution to problems facing the black community.

If I went back in time to fifth grade, I wouldn’t only write about the fervent bravery of Rosa Parks. I’d also discuss Carter G. Woodson’s commitment to promoting and founding “Negro History Month” which led to Black History Month itself. I’d explore the scientific achievements of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, the three mathematicians depicted in the Academy Award-nominated film, Hidden Figures, whose work was vital to the success NASA’s space program. I’d study the contributions of one of the many unsung pioneers of black history whose ongoing influence continues to strengthen this country. Black history isn’t disconnected from the present; it’s a fundamental aspect of American history. From slavery to Jim Crow, from the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter, black history continues to be shaped today. Regardless of the time of year, and long after February ends, U.S. history will forever be incomplete without understanding black history.

Troy Closson is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.