D.G. MARTIN: Lessons for Whites About Black History
What is the proper way for white people to observe Black History Month?
Some whites just step aside and "let them have their time," the same way blacks used to do when whites celebrated Confederate holidays.
Surely this is the wrong approach. Better for whites to jump in, celebrate, and learn during February of each year.
Even better it would be to take some kind of personal stock of their own histories and their changing attitudes about race, remembering what they have learned -- and when and how.
To mark the occasion this year, I have reviewed some things I learned and shared with you in earlier columns.
1. North Carolina's greatest civil rights hero may have been Abraham Galloway.
In "The Waterman's Song," David Cecelski taught me about this North Carolina slave who escaped, served in the Union Secret Service, demanded fair treatment for blacks serving in the Union Army, and was elected to the North Carolina Senate, where he proved to be an effective advocate for the rights of blacks and women.
Cecelski is working on a new book that will secure for Galloway the fame he deserves.
2. "No other state in the American South has left a more indelible impression on African American literature before the twentieth century than has North Carolina," writes UNC-Chapel Hill Professor William L. Andrews.
Andrews edited "The North Carolina Roots of African American Literature: An Anthology," which collects the works of eight important black North Carolina authors who lived and wrote before, during and shortly after the Civil War, including Harriet Jacobs, Charles Chesnutt, and George Moses Horton, the slave who earned money writing poetry for students at UNC, which recently named a dormitory in his honor.
3. John Hope Franklin's recent biography, "Mirror to America," gained national praise for this 90-plus-year-old North Carolinian.
His story gives us a look at North Carolina during the times of segregation and struggle for civil rights through the eyes of a black man whose intelligence, scholarship, and powers of observation make him an unusually good reporter.
4. Tim Tyson's "Blood Done Sign My Name" is a careful and sensitive retelling of Oxford, North Carolina's encounters with some of the worst events of the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s and early 1970s.
The story tells how the town and its people dealt with a brutal racial killing and the downtown burnings that were a part of the accompanying racial unrest.
For me, it was a painful reminder of how blind I was to the injustices and horrors blacks faced in my home state.
5. "At Canaan's Edge," the final volume of Taylor Branch's trilogy, "America in the King Years" led me to consider what factors helped me adjust to the changes Martin Luther King's movement brought about.
Included were the underlying "goodness" of some racist Southerners, the U.S. Army's early example of successful integration, and the example set by so many blacks of extraordinary quality and character.
6. "Positive" black stereotypes are not always a positive thing. University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Professor Trudier Harris's book, "Saints, Sinners, Saviors: Strong Black Women In African American Literature," challenged my idea that the image of the "strong, black woman" is a positive.
Instead, she asserted that the popular image of African American women as strong and resilient is so negative that it is a disease -- "a disease called strength." They are "almost too strong for their own good."
She reminded me of another occasion when positive black stereotyping got me in trouble with a black friend. When I told the late Bill Johnson, who was owner of The Charlotte African American newspaper, that I thought blacks were naturally better athletes than whites, he got his back up. He argued that desire coming out of poverty played a bigger role than natural talent.
What Johnson and Harris tried to teach me may be this: Stereotyping people, in literature or real life, is not a good thing-even when the stereotype is supposedly a "good" one.
If you would like to read more of these and other earlier columns that touch on my "black history" lessons, check my blog at http://bookwatchblog.blogspot.com/ .
D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV's "North Carolina Bookwatch," which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. This week's (Feb. 18) guest is Bill Smith, author of "Seasoned in the South: Recipes from Crook's Corner and from Home."
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