Taking a New Look at Black History, by Sharon Marshall

A New Visions Commentary paper published February 2001 by The National Center
for Public Policy Research * 501 Capitol Ct., N.E., Washington, DC 20002, 202/543-4110, Fax 202-543-5975, E-Mail [email protected], Web http://www.nationalcenter.org.
Reprints permitted provided source is credited.

It’s always exciting to discover the many people who worked, fought and died for the cause of black people. What impresses me the most about them are the various ways in which they advanced our race.

Often, however, the celebration of black history is dominated by the story of the civil rights movement and key players like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Justice Thurgood Marshall and Rosa Parks. There are so many more stories and characters that are just as important. So many other people strived and died for justice, and I think we do our race and those extraordinary people an injustice by overlooking them. At the same time we celebrate the legends of the civil rights movement, we should not forget about the teachings of black heroes like Harriet Tubman, James Albert Ukawsaw, Benjamin Banneker, Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells and Paul Robeson.

What’s intriguing about these people is not necessarily what they accomplished, but how they accomplished it and their views on things like slavery and discrimination. It’s easy to learn about the grandiose things a person did during their life. It’s harder to find out what they thought were the best ways to eliminate slavery and discrimination depending on the times in which they lived. How did people like Arthur Ashe choose to fight for the rights of blacks? How does actor Eriq LaSalle do it now? Not all marched, but all fought in there own way. All of them wanted an end to racism and segregation, and all wanted to share in the American Dream. But they had different ways to approach this common goal.

What about the black Confederacy? The fact that very few people know about these brave souls should tell us that all of black history is not being taught. They certainly weren’t fighting to preserve slavery, but they put their lives on the line for a cause.

It wasn’t until the time of Dr. King that our community was known by one voice. Even during King’s life, there were others – right or wrong – who represented different segments of our community (such as the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam). Over the years, that voice has changed, and it has been distorted from one that unified and uplifted all people to one that divides and tears down anyone with a differing opinion.

Sadly, most of those we choose to acknowledge today as the voice of black leadership usually advocate a single solution to admittedly difficult and complex problems that plague our community.

While there are those in our community with alternative ways of advancing our cause, they are not accepted by the established black leadership. They often go unacknowledged. Worse yet, these people are called names like Uncle Tom or sellout or are accused of being "too white." But these people just want to be the best in their craft, act in an honorable way and set a good example for the black community.

Tiger Woods, Clarence Thomas, Arthur Ashe and Oprah Winfrey are black Americans who have blazed new trails for our race, many doing so by themselves. Some chose to be political, but go against the normal political grain – such as J.C. Watts, Collin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, or Ron Page. They should be considered just as legitimate as Kweisi Mfume, Al Sharpton, or Jack E. White. All of these men and women see something wrong, just as our predecessors did, but they have a variety of solutions.

As we celebrate Black History Month, I hope that we read and embrace a variety of leaders from the past, and learn to embrace the current leaders of all views and political persuasions of our future.

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