Teen Talk: There’s more to history than what is taught in schools | Lifestyles
It’s Black History Month. And to be honest, I have mixed feelings about it.
Don’t get me wrong, I think this is definitely a step in the right direction. But sometimes I feel like America uses vacations as IOUs, giving them to minorities instead of real change. Black History Month is definitely a step in the right direction, but how about teaching black history to our kids in school?
People can say things have changed, they can say we’ve come a long way, and indeed we have. But when I think of the history I was taught, I remember learning about Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Queen Elizabeth, Julius Caesar; the history of Africa seems to begin abruptly at the time of slavery. I remember in the world religions unit, we had a page of notes for Islam, a page of notes for Judaism, a page for Christianity, a page for Buddhism, a page for Hinduism and a page for “animism”. This page was intended to encompass all religions in which nature is worshiped in place of a deity or god; essentially, the religion of any tribal society since the dawn of time.
At the beginning of the year, I remember my teacher explaining to us that he would not teach us “prehistory”, which is a term that historians use for any history that is not written down. Any group of people who were not “advanced” enough to have deliberately recorded anything about their society would be excluded from our discussion. I remember thinking that seemed to leave out a huge part of humanity.
I remember my teacher mentioning the civilizations of the Aztecs and Incas, Egypt and Mesopotamia. But always only in the discussion of their “technological advance”. Technological progress certainly has its place in any discussion of history, but when we make it the sole focus, we inevitably exclude all tribal societies, simply because they lacked aqueducts and pyramids. But aren’t these societies part of humanity?
I recently started reading a book for my AP language class by anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston called “Barracoon.” It is the story of the life of the last survivor of the last American slave ship. Cudjo Lewis was born Oluale Kossola in a village in West Africa (in what is now Benin). When he was 19, the village of Kossola was attacked and his family massacred. Three days later he was taken to America in the hull of a slave ship. He would spend the next 75 years of his life in Africatown, Alabama. Kossola remembers a rich life before the attack. His village had a thorough system of laws and rituals. The murder was illegal and punishable by death, of course only after a careful trial by jury. Women had their own homes and were, for the most part, responsible for arranging their marriages themselves. Reading this book, I realized that Kossola’s tribe was just as (if not more) “advanced” in terms of basic human freedoms and rights than the civilization he was enslaved into.
I am certainly not saying that all tribal societies were like that of Kossola. In fact, the men who attacked his village were members of a neighboring tribe who regularly captured and sold slaves to Europeans. What I take away from the book so far is that I knew none of this. Black History Month is a great start. But what we need is a Black History Year. When we learn history at school, what we really learn is the history of European civilization. When we get to know other civilizations, the Egyptians, the Aztecs, the Mongol Empire, it is always through the prism of how close they are to achieving what we have achieved, or how they have helped to achieve what we have achieved.
It is often said that history is written by the victors, by the conquerors, but perhaps it should not be. I think it’s time we asked conquered peoples about their side of the story. What was happening in North America before 1492? I want to know the history of Africa before the arrival of the slave ships. Black History Month shouldn’t just focus on black history in America, it should be about learning about the history of black cultures.
James Baldwin said in a debate against William F. Buckley that “the most private, serious thing [the western system] done to the subjugated is to destroy his sense of reality. This destroys, for example, his father’s authority over him. Her father can’t tell her anything anymore, because the past is gone, and her father has no power over the world. History carries power; the stories we tell about the past also shape our future. And when the history of a people is erased, its future goes with it. The way we give power back to the communities it was stolen from is to give back their history, saying, “Your ancestors were also builders of humanity.”
Lucia Marsiglio is a senior at Delaware Academy in Delhi. Readers can email him at [email protected]