Leap Year’s Black History Month

Feb 28, 2020 by

Black History month is nearly over for this year.

All the familiar homages to the usual heroes are being put into cold storage or on the back burner until 2021. 

They are no less deserving for being familiar, but it seems that an effect of focusing on almost exclusively the same people every year is that there is an invisible wall erected that prevents inquiry into a broader range of outstanding  undiscovered or legacy-suppressed African-Americans.

Next year won’t be a “leap year”, so most of the media will have an excuse to do slightly less research to refresh the old stories and profiles in their journalism morgues.

Not to doubt the sincerity of the folks paying tribute, but I discern they are a bit formulaic in their selections or just getting lazy.

There’s an apparent  template for depictions of great African-Americans.

Portrayals are often cliches, in which the characters almost overlap or are interchangeable. They are modernized and in a “paint by the numbers” way, their individuality is neglected  or under-emphasized.   They are almost stock figures and most of the time 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, condescending and patronizing. 

And worst of all, ignorant.

Earlier this week, Katherine Johnson died at the age of 101. Remember her?

Although her life’s story is told in the recent 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. She earned that.  It wasn’t bestowed out of political correctness or to fill a quota, as some closet racists might postulate.

I don’t recall her name being mentioned over decades worth of Black History commemorations, do you?

And there are many such others.

Visiting a school a few months ago, 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 researched a lot of them quite thoroughly, pursued footnotes, and verified accuracy. But the majority of those names very rarely appear as subjects of investigations, term papers, or school assignments.  

No disrespect intended, but the spotlight is mostly on the same folks in the same line of work.

Katherine Johnson was a quiet genius. She wasn’t a self-promoter and was content to be thought of as a player in a vital team effort. 

Another African-American whom I never heard of until today was classical music conductor George Byrd. I came upon his name by accident.  I’d been “googling” a World War II personality and saw that he was buried in a cemetery in Germany, were several other unrelated but notable people were also interred. Among them was Byrd. 

Byrd was a student of Herbert von Karajan,  one of the three or four greatest conductors of the 20th century. Ironically, the American stayed in Germany, which just a few years earlier had been the most racist nation in history.

His talent was so charismatic that it overcame  at least any open display of antipathy.  Byrd conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra ( probably the best symphonic ensemble anywhere) and became the principal conductor of the Bavarian State Orchestra in Munich.

Let’s resolve to give African-Americans of outstanding accomplishment full, indeed exhaustive credit  and not allow them to fade perpetually into anonymity.

They should include men and women of all political orientations, even those philosophies with which we disagree. 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. To co-opt them as such is to treat them as children and pawns.   They should not pay with servitude for the sophistry of others who profess solidarity and insists on idealogical purity.

Let’s illuminate the legacies of all great African-American leaders.

“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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