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09.02.18

African American History Month

Carter G. Woodson, a native of Buckingham County, Virginia, launched Negro History Week in 1926 to recognize achievements and contributions of African Americans.  Initially one week in February, encompassing the birth of Abraham Lincoln on the 12th and the birth of Frederick Douglass, thought to be on the 14th, National African American History Month has become a month-long event.  The theme for 2009 is “The Quest for Black Citizenship in the Americas” and it encourages a look at the past as well as the present and future of citizenship for all.

Following the horrific race riots in Springfield, Illinois in September, 1908, an interracial group of Americans founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in February 1909 to combat racist attitudes and treatment of blacks in this country.  Just two generations after emancipation, a tide of racism had erased the promise of first-class citizenship that Lincoln’s proclamation declared. In the South, whites had stripped blacks of the right to vote and enforced racial segregation.  In the North, African Americans confronted myriad forms of discrimination that thwarted their aspirations.  The Supreme Court turned a blind eye to the denigration of American citizenship taking place across the land and in the government itself. 

The story of the NAACP is the story of struggle to create and maintain equal citizenship for all Americans.  Through exposing the horrors of lynching, keeping the issue of equality before the courts, and organizing branches throughout the country, the NAACP drew a national following and inspired others to form organizations for racial change. 

The Library recommends these books for the revealing, forthright pictures they provide of the lives of African Americans struggling for their rightful place as citizens, as human beings.

George Washington Carver by Tonya Bolden is among Booklist’s Top Ten Black History Books for Youth for 2009.  This beautifully produced book, looking like a photo album, recounts the life of the scientist whose work with peanuts was only a small part of the body of work he accomplished.  Bolden, a Coretta Scott King Honor Award author, has written a number of other books about black leaders.

I, Matthew Henson: Polar Explorer by Carole Boston Weatherford, another Top Ten winner, is a collection of short poems about challenge, adventure, and prejudice the African-American Henson encountered as a member of Commander Peary’s expedition.
Weatherford has also written Birmingham 1963, a series of short poems about the four black girls who were killed in the church bombing.  This book won the 2008 Jefferson Cup Award, given annually by the Virginia Library Association for the best book of history or historical fiction for youth.

We Are the Ship: the story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson is an arresting tribute to the Negro Leagues and ALA’s Best Youth Nonfiction  winner for 2008.

In her autobiography, Mary, Mary E. Mebane recalls her early years in Wildwood, near Durham, NC, among the last generation of black people who endured segregation. Born in 1933 to hardworking, poor parents, Mary lived a lonely childhood. She realized early on that her mother, a tobacco factory worker, did not love her, in spite of Mary's efforts to please her. Her father, who did love her, couldn’t compensate because he was often absent or unwell. Mary's older brothers were self-centered, disinterested in her, and sometimes mean, even violent. Her only real encouragement came from her Aunt Jo, her father's sister, who was herself educated and wanted the same opportunity for Mary. Mary was hungry to learn all she could. She read everything she could get her hands on, was an excellent student, and saw a college education as her ticket out of a dead-end existence. She writes with clarity, frankness, and humor of her family, neighbors and schoolmates, the conventions of school, church, and social life, coming of age, and the stark reality of segregation in the South in the 40s and 50s. This is a very interesting easy-to-read memoir. It might be an eye opener for young adults who have no memory of the days of Jim Crow, and lead to a more sympathetic understanding of victims of racism in this country.  The author's last name, and the town of the same name, near Durham, are both pronounced Mebban.   

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler is a classic and riveting time travel novel about a young black woman in 1976 California who is called back to the Maryland of 1815 to save the life of a drowning white boy.  When she is called again, she realizes that she must continue to protect him until he fathers the child who will be her great grandmother.  Butler raises interesting questions about the evolution in the roles and relationships of blacks and whites, who our kindred really are, and what our responsibilities to them are.

Barack Obama is the embodiment of the evolution of African American citizenship in this country.  We wrote this about his memoir, Dreams from My Father: a story of race and inheritance, in 2005:  “Obama is the recently elected US senator from Illinois who attracted much attention as the keynote speaker for the Democratic National Convention last fall.  Long before he held elected office, however, he wrote this very interesting memoir of an unusual life spent searching for meaning in his mixed racial heritage.  His mother was a white woman from Kansas, his father a black man from Kenya.  One of the first Africans to study in the United States on exchange scholarships, Barack, Sr. met his wife at the University of Hawaii.  They divorced when young Barack was six and his father returned to develop Kenya’s economy.  Barack’s mother then married an Indonesian, and he spent several years in that mostly Muslim country learning its ways.  For several years after college, he worked in Chicago as an organizer trying to improve living conditions for the city’s poor blacks.  Throughout these years, he ponders how to understand his parents and the hardworking white grandparents he knows, the meaning of his father’s absence and early death, the place of his unknown African family, and where he fits into it all.  Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is his account of visiting Kenya, meeting his half-sister and –brothers, and learning the truth about his father and the family before him.  Obama writes well and tells a fascinating story from the perspective of one who bridges races and cultures to find the humanity in us all.  After his trip to Kenya, he enrolled in Harvard Law School and was elected the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review.  It is easy to see that this likeable young man is going places and is someone to watch.”

Indeed!  Others have written of an ideal time when there will be no need for a month devoted to black history, when all people are accorded the recognition they are due for their accomplishments and contributions to society, regardless of their color.  President Obama himself did not run for office as a black candidate, and his election may signal the realization of Martin Luther King’s dream of the time when people are judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

It still seems appropriate, however, to acknowledge the path that African Americans have trod to reach this day, and these books are good places to start.  For these and more about African Americans and their history, visit www.tcplweb.org or call 988.2541.

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