Deliberately Belated Commentary: Black History Month

Mar 5, 2021 by

It’s March 4th. Black History Month ended three days ago. I deliberately “forgot” to make this commentary timely.

I’m here to announce that I have unilaterally extended  it an additional eleven months. I am proud to have usurped the authority to do so.

The celebration should be ongoing. It is in all our interest to do so. But people are sheep.  Or should I see conformists or creatures of habit.  It’s evident in many ways. 

For instance, they remember mother on Mothers Day and their sweetheart on Valentines Day, so the restaurants and florists to great business on those arbitrary days and then back to dormancy until the calendar alerts us to put on another show next year.

Has love taken a breather for 364 days?  Neither should our observance of Black History Month.

To do further justice, let’s not focus almost exclusively on the same people. Let’s inquire into a broader range of outstanding yet legacy-suppressed African-Americans, as did classical music radio station WQXR did.

Last month,they  broadcasted many recordings of Black classical music composers and performers.  Over many decades of immersion in this kind of music, I was never allowed to be given a clue of what stellar original talent has been denied us for generations.

Every year, the media refreshes old profiles and dusts off profiles lifted from their story morgues. They are a bit formulaic in their selections or  maybe they are just getting lazy. 

Portrayals are often cliches, in which the characters almost overlap or are interchangeable. In a “paint by the numbers” way, they are almost stock figures. Usually they are drawn from the world of entertainment, sports, politics or liberal arts academia.Focusing so narrowly on the legacies of great African-American history  may not be intended as an insult, but it is involuntarily demeaning and patronizing. And worst of all, ignorant.

Sometimes a great personality lends herself to being spotlighted for achievement in areas with which she is not primarily associated.  Serena Williams, for instance.

Around 15 years ago, when I was a reporter for the newspaper of a labor union, I was assigned to cover an event at the New York Public Library that was honoring Dr. Seuss. 

The greatest women’s tennis player of all time sat on a stool surrounded by very young students, every one of whom was riveted by Ms. Williams’ dramatic recitation.  She frequently paused to clarify and answer their questions.  She could easily have passed as a master veteran teacher.

She demonstrated that athletes, teachers and artists, when they are at the top of their game, have a lot in common.

Exactly a year ago, Katherine Johnson died at the age of 101.  Remember her? Although her life’s story is told in the movie “Hidden Figures”,she was rarely, if ever, the subject of a documentary about African-Americans’ role in advancing not just this nation, but the whole world. 

Neither have countless other representatives of brilliantly applied human intelligence. She was not a social warrior in the contemporary sense.  And she was not a celebrity in the usual areas.  Who was she?

She was a researcher with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, working in the Flight Research Division of the forerunner of NASA.  She did the trajectory analysis for the first American human flight in space and her calculations were trusted by John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, more than he valued any other sources.

She played a major role in mapping the surface of the moon and arguably the Apollo 13 astronauts would have remained forever lost, had Johnson’s mathematical findings not been available.She was the awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, not out of political correctness or “woke” deference, as some closet racists might postulate.

Katherine Johnson was a quiet genius.She was neither self-effacing nor self-promoting.I don’t recall her name being mentioned over decades worth of Black History commemorations, do you? And there are many such others.

Visiting one of the Department of Education’s “alternate learning centers” last year, I saw a wall display listing dozens of African-American inventors and details of what they had developed. It was astonishingly impressive for the range and depth of their creativity.

I thoroughly researched most of them, vetted footnotes and verified accuracy. But the majority of those names very rarely appear as subjects of investigations, term papers, or school assignments. 

Let’s give genius African-Americans full credit  and not allow them to fade into anonymity.

Embrace these men and women , even if their political orientation differs from most of us.  Include even the most controversial ones, so long as they were notable contributors to world culture.After all, Richard Wagner the composer, Edward Teller the physicist, and Ty Cobb the baseball player were all odious people, but still belong in the “hall of fame” of their respective precincts of renown.

African-Americans, like all other groups, are not monolithic.They exemplify and illuminate divergent viewpoints. 

“Wider than the heart is wide”.  The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was not referring directly to the African-American experience, but she might as well have been.

Ron Isaac

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