Monday, February 13, 2012

African-American History Month: Why We Need It

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

February is African-American History Month.  That makes it the perfect time, not only to reflect on the history of African-Americans, but also just why it is we need a special month to celebrate it.

Contrary to popular belief, history is not fact, but rather a story we tell ourselves about the past.  Ideally, it is a story grounded in facts gleaned from 3-dimensional artifacts, images, documents and the recollections of people who were there, but sometimes it is little more than often repeated rumor.  Even though the events of the past remain unchanged, the story that is history is constantly evolving.  Sometimes it is because new evidence comes to light.  For example, 50 years ago history said that Christopher Columbus was the first person to discover America, but recent archaeological and DNA discoveries reveal that not only the ancestors of Native Americans, but also the Chinese, Japanese, Norse, Phoenicians, Polynesians and Welsh got here first.  Other times, history changes because we have renegotiated the story we want to tell and hear.

American history has traditionally been the story of white men.  There are a number of reasons for this.  Firstly, until the last 60 years or so, most historians were white men who, like most people, liked to tell stories about themselves.  Secondly, historians are taught to privilege written sources over things like oral histories and family stories which means that certain narratives can be ignored like, say, those of slaves who were illiterate by law.  Lastly, people have ignored the stories of African-Americans and other minorities because they potentially pose a threat to the history they would prefer to believe about America. 

Having an African-American History Month forces us to acknowledge and listen to the stories of African-Americans.  For example, I was recently discussing Red Tails, a film about the Tuskegee Airmen, with an elderly African-American visitor and she told me about Clarence “Junior” Dart.

Clarence 'Junior' Dart

Dart was a 1939 graduate of the Elmira Free Academy where he served on the student council, sang in Glee Club, earned a varsity letter in track and was a founding member of the Orpheus Club, an African-American social club and music group.  During World War II, Dart was Elmira’s first African-American pilot, and was something of a neighborhood heartthrob.  In 1942 he learned to fly at the Elmira Aviation Ground School and went on to the Tuskegee Institute.  He served with the 332nd Fighting Group, the all African-American unit of the 15th Air Force in Italy. For his service, Dart earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, Oak Leaf Clusters and the Air Medal and was mustered out as a Captain. After the war, he stayed in the reserves and attended the Aero Industries Technical Institute.  He went on to work for General Electric and Knolls Atomic Power Labs.

This is why African-American History Month is so important.   It allows us as individuals to learn new and interesting things.  It allows us as a community to discover who we are and where we’ve been.  It allows African-Americans an opportunity to learn about their heritage and hear important and empowering stories about people like them.  Last, but certainly not least, it allows us as a nation a chance to create a new history, one which is a more inclusive and hopefully more accurate story of the past. 

Special thanks to Anne Jones and Evelyn Lutz for their help in finding information on Captain Dart.

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