Black History Month: Honoring the truth

Santa Rosa Junior College Black Student Union members pose with local construction workers in Arusha City, Tanzania.

Julie Lee, Features Editor

As the 88th celebration of Black History Month nears its conclusion, members of the Santa Rosa Junior College Black Student Union say that Black History Month deserves to be acknowledged year-round with the respect that it has rightfully earned.

“When we learn about black history, we don’t learn about the truth,” Mark Goitom, founder and former co-president of SRJC BSU, said.

He said the current American curriculum teaches “a watered-down version” of black history. His textbooks recited the story of Harriet Tubman, conductor of the Underground Railroad, but concealed the detail that she forced enslaved people at gunpoint— giving them the choice to either go or get shot.

“When I learned about her in high school, I wasn’t really interested. But when I recently read about her, she suddenly became my favorite American of all time,” he said. “She was so successful. She never lost one person, and she freed over 300 people. That’s crazy!”

Goitom suggested that Tubman’s race and gender are why her true story remains obscure. “When you think about history and the people who we choose to glorify, they’re usually white males,” he said.

As part of the panel discussion on race and education, one of the six BSU-sanctioned SRJC events this month, Goitom spoke about his experience as a black male growing up in the Santa Rosa School District.

“I felt weird because when I was a sophomore in high school, almost half of the year we talked about Napoleon,” he said. “I know Napoleon did a lot of things, but still.”

He was amazed, then, to discover historical figures such as Toussaint Louverture, the former slave from Haiti who defeated Napoleon, on his own.

“That probably should have been mentioned!” he said between guffaws. “If we’ve been talking about Napoleon for this long, at least mention this.”

Goitom added, “It was slavery and then Martin Luther King Jr. as far as black history goes. That’s it.”

Elias Hinit, SRJC student and current president of SRJC BSU, agreed. “The textbooks are lacking to the point that students are not learning or being as interested as they could,” he said. “There’s one page on Africa, and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. will be on that page.”

Hinit continued, “Most people being talked about in American history are white. The textbook should reflect the cultural diversity of the people that it’s teaching.”

He also said that the panel— which included SRJC President Dr. Frank Chong, retired instructors from the Santa Rosa School District and the current superintendent of all district schools, Socorro Shields— was very responsive to the BSU’s call to integrate ethnic enrichment into the regular curriculum.

“We are in a position today where all Americans are still healing from past atrocities,” Goitom said, “and Black History Month is necessary to help America heal through honesty.”

Goitom’s desire for honesty echoed the words of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Month.

As a historian, educator, NAACP leader and the second African-American to earn a Ph.D from Harvard, Woodson believed that history must be taught without reservation and thus founded “Negro History Week” in 1926, when American history books omitted the role of African-Americans.

“If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated,” Woodson said in 1926.
In 1976, Negro History Week expanded to Black History Month, which has been officially recognized by every U.S. president since Gerald Ford and continues to celebrate the accomplishments of African-Americans.

President Obama announced this year’s theme as “Civil Rights in America” to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and released a presidential proclamation Jan. 31.

“As we pay tribute to the heroes, sung and unsung, of African-American history, we recall the inner strength that sustained millions in bondage. We remember the courage that led activists to defy lynch mobs and register their neighbors to vote,” President Obama said. “It inspires a new generation of leaders, and it teaches us all that when we come together in common purpose, we can right the wrongs of history and make our world anew.”

Writer, naval officer and former White House Fellow Theodore R. Johnson, however, challenged the success of Black History Month in his article, “Black History Month Isn’t Making Life Better for Black Americans.”

“We remember these champions and the bouts they fought, but they’re presented as extraordinary human beings— legends whose anomalous stories don’t neatly translate to everyday interracial encounters,” Johnson wrote. “The great black women and men who populate Black History Month celebrations feel like characters in a novel— a world away from the black guy a few steps behind you in a barren parking garage.”

Johnson asserted that personal narratives of black Americans, past and present, must intersect and transcend the allocated month. Yet this aligns perfectly with Woodson’s original vision.

“Woodson believed that history was made by the people, not simply or primarily by great men,” according to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History website. “Rather than focusing on [Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass], the black community, he believed, should focus on the countless black men and women who had contributed to the advance of human civilization.”

The new direction of the BSU seems to reflect Woodson’s focus on the black community. “We really have to buckle down and start mentoring people from our community and helping them,” Hinit said.

In January, the BSU took the initiative to start Black Student Unions at Comstock Middle School and Santa Rosa High School. “We want to tell them, ‘Look, we’re college kids, we have similar backgrounds as you and we’re still doing it. We’re striving to become something,’” Hinit said.

BSU members plan to address issues they struggled with as adolescents. “That sadness that you get from someone judging me— teachers, students, co-workers— you really feel all that stuff and realize that it’s a real thing,” Hinit said. “I don’t want my cousins and other people, not just African-Americans, to go through that same negative feeling of being alienated when people don’t even know who you are.”

The BSU traveled to and built a school in Tanzania last summer with profits from their numerous campus bake sales. Despite the fanfare upon their return, Hinit said that BSU members felt discouraged by the prevalence of local issues. “Our friends are going to jail, people are still getting racially profiled, cops are taking a U-turn when we’re walking down the street and people are still looking at African-Americans very negatively,” he said.

Hinit addressed internalized racism, particularly apparent in the tension between African-Americans and African immigrants on campus.

“People think that like, only white people are racist against black people, but black people are racist to black people, too, because black people are living in the same world that creates these negative stereotypes,” he said.

He attributed black adolescents’ low self-esteem to negative media representation that presents a self-fulfilling prophecy. “On TV, you never, ever see a black doctor or a black lawyer. I’ve seen maybe two black teachers here: Andre Larue and April Harris,” he said.

“When I help my cousins with their homework, they’re like, ‘Bro, I can’t do this,’ and I’m not going to ask why because I understand,” Hinit said. “I mean, if he’s living in a world where everybody tells him that he’s stupid, how is he going to realize that he is smart?”

The BSU conscientiously departed from the typical celebration of Black History Month with dry information about historical figures to live lectures and contemporary films, such as Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” (2013), a film based on the life of Oscar Grant, who was shot by BART Police in Oakland.

“’Fruitvale Station’ wasn’t like,” Hinit said, putting on a high-pitched voice, “‘Oh you know, I’m a nice kid!’ and then [Grant] gets shot. He did some bad things, but that’s what made him human. That really brought home the point that it was a human being that got shot in handcuffs. Forget about the fact that he was African-American, forget about that he did some bad things, forget about all that. At the end of the day, he was a human being.”

Hinit recalled the message of Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate and author of “The New Jim Crow”: rather than deserting African-Americans in the fight for justice, we must tackle racism as a human rights issue.