Guest Columnist

Black Iowans' missing history is a crack in our foundation

Black history is not just for people like me. Everybody needs to know Black history.

Dr. Ruth White, front, is the founder and executive director of the Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success, a six-w
Dr. Ruth White, front, is the founder and executive director of the Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success, a six-week program serving Black students from the Cedar Rapids and College Community school districts held each summer at Mount Mercy University. (Cliff Jette/Freelance for The Gazette)

Students who enroll in the Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success quickly learn of the value we place on heritage.

“We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors” and “A tree with shallow roots cannot stand harsh winds” are mantras upon which we base our cultural work.

We know that it is important for our students to know who they are, even as we acknowledge the absence of lineage as a people. Ask anyone of African American ancestry how far back they can trace their “people,” and the answer will be, “Not very far. Maybe to my great-grandfather,” and likely no further.

Is this because Black people do not want to know their ancestry? No, not at all. Is it because the past is too painful for many of the “old heads” to recall and pass forward? Very likely. But the real reason is that the system of chattel slavery, upon which this country has grown, has erased the possibility of tracing their roots for most of our older generations. If Black roots date back to American slavery, the typical approach of tracking down birth certificates or marriage records does not work, because family ties meant nothing to slave owners and families were often ripped apart, and therefore hard to trace in the present day.

The need for connection, however, never goes away. We survive. Some of us thrive. But we know, no matter how we try to stuff it, that the reason we cannot connect is that we were ripped away from something called home, a long time ago, and that the home we have here is disconnected from that original home.

The American education system has bent over backward to efface the factual information about Americans who came here in chains. So, what happens to a Black child whose history has been hidden from him? “Does (he) dry up like a raisin in the sun …”?

Having a sense of one’s history allows a better understanding of oneself and provides a foundation that one can use whether one cognates it literally or not. In my own family, the history goes back to post-Civil War Tennessee, where Gen. William T. Sherman is supposed to have brought my great-great-grandfather home with him to Lancaster, Ohio, as “a pet.” This is from my grandmother who told the family stories, which were not written down. We do not know details, but we do know that my great-great-grandfather brought with him a white (French) name, that as he grew up, he was smart enough to buy land outside Lancaster (of course, Black people could not purchase land within the town limits) and that he held onto that land until eventually Lancaster expanded to envelop it, and it became the “home place” for my grandmother and her sisters. I take solace in that history. Do I think about it every day? No, but the knowledge of my family’s story is a foundation for me. Do I know who George DeLoache’s people were? No. As we move backward in history, the story peters out.

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Black history is not just for people like me, who covet their personal pasts; it is not only for Black children. Everybody needs to know Black history. Black history is American history, and if students are not given it to think about, to chew on, to evaluate, to weave into the narrative, then they are not, in fact, being educated.

Even William Faulkner, a white Mississippian, knew — and wrote — that “the past is never dead. It is not even past.” He may have been warning that we ignore our tangled roots at our peril. You may not have had to work your way through Faulkner — I doubt he’s even taught these days. But Baldwin, Hughes, Ellison, Morrison, DuBois and Dunbar, along with myriad contemporary authors and historians, should be being taught and learned, to the benefit of us all.

We are faced with the dual dilemma of a Black people, many of whom do not know who they are, and a white people whose privilege dictates that they do not have to know who Black people are. They can pretend that slavery and Jim Crow did not exist, that African Americans were just born to be second class.

Is this the true American Dilemma that Gunnar Myrdal wrote about so long ago? If so, it creates an insidious circle from which we must work hard if we are to extricate ourselves. We need to start from the beginning and fill in all the gaps.

Despite those who fear that when the truth is told, somehow the foundation will crumble, truth be told, this horrible omission does constitute a huge crack in our foundation.

And it will take our younger, more fearless Academy SPS generations (along with others) to fix it.

Ruth E. White is the founder and director of the Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success.

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