Why black history?

Published: Monday, March 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 29, 2004 at 10:14 p.m.

Ruth Brown is a proud African-American woman with a long history of civil rights engagement. After moving to Gainesville in 1992, she was for six years president of the Alachua County NAACP branch (1996-2002).

At 77, she is trying to retire, but there is always one more issue demanding her attention. Like the complete infusion of black history into the K-12 curriculum, as mandated by the 1994 legislature.

As many black parents have told the School Board and a reporter's survey two years ago showed, only a few teachers have the background to cover the subject well. Brown feels it is vital that all children should know that historians have established that human history began with the black race in the African country of Egypt.

"Black children need to know where they came from. People always need to know their family history. They would feel incomplete without that knowledge. Black people especially need to know that their ancestors created a great civilization," Brown said.

"If your beginnings are kept from you, you might be ashamed of who you are," she said. "I think the day-by-day activities under the rules of segregation did more damage than the fears aroused by the vicious actions such as lynching."

Parents and educators today talk a great deal about a child's need for positive self-esteem, she said. It can be difficult in a racist society for a minority child to maintain feelings of self-worth.

Brown grew up in the all-black town of Fairmont Heights, Md., and from 1996 to 1980 served as mayor of that community. With no white neighbors to pass on the message of black inferiority, her self confidence was intact. Still, she "got tired of reading lies about my people. I think Americans have made blacks apologetic about their background."

American black history was not in any school textbooks and little information was available about the African past, but even as a teenager she read everything she could find on her people's history. By the time she graduated with a degree in education from Bowie State University in Maryland in 1964, scientists had proved human life began in Africa.

In 1959, anthropologists Mary and Louis Leakey found the remains of a human skull and stone tools in the African country of Egypt. Their findings dated back nearly two million years.

Since then other scientific discoveries have confirmed the fact that human life began in Africa. In 1974, a skeleton, named Lucy by the scientists who unearthed her in the Ethiopian desert, was three million years old. She was 3-feet tall and walked erect. Fossils dating back as far as 800,000 years also are witness to the earliest signs of human life being in Africa.

The first question, of course, is if the first human beings were black, how did the other races evolve? Scientists say people migrated to different climates and environments which caused profound physical changes. These changes took place over thousands of years.

In cold climates people wore heavier clothing which blocked the sun's rays. In less sunlight skin cells grew lighter. Noses became pointed and thin to warm the cold air in the nostrils before it entered the lungs. Hair grew straighter and longer to insulate the body from the cold.

Children of the sun in Africa developed a great affinity for life and their creators, while the ice people in the caves of northern Europe felt the creative forces were somehow far removed.

"Our children, both black and white, need to understand that we are all descended from African people," Brown strongly asserts. "Both races knowing African and African-American history could be the basis of better racial relations."

She would like to see all children learning about the building of the pyramids by black people. They still stand centuries later in Egypt.

"The ancient civilization of Egypt was the first great experiment in human civlization," Brown points out. "They developed the systems of math, writing, astronomy and religion still in use today. My ancestors were survivors and that trait is still alive in their descendants today."

And why is black history not more widely taught? It"s 50 years since the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U. S. Supreme Court in May of 1954. But only in very recent years have educators concluded that teaching students need special training to handle multicultural classrooms.

Christie Shaw, music supervisor, and Deborah Graham, social studies supervisor for Alachua County schools have collected a wonderful assortment of materials for implementing the 1994 legislative decision. But action to change the curriculum must be carried out by autonomous principals and teachers.

Problems arise with finding teacher time for inservice training. Chief school psychologist Dr. Jose Catasus thinks there is less mean bias in school faculties than there once was, but ignorance about black history has the same effect, he says.

Throughout the state, black parents in just two counties were satisfied with the infusion of black history as parts of other subjects. The state Task Force in charge of implementing black history has developed an elective black history course for grades 9-12 that must be approved by the state Department of Education before schools can offer it for credit.

Harriet Ludwig is a retired journalist who lives in Gainesville.

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