Will Our Celebrations Of African American History And Contributions Expand And Improve Our Diversity Efforts?

Monday, January 30, 2017 - by Eva Johnson

This question retrieves my memories of my own career in a northeastern school system where less than 5 percent of the staff members were African Americans, less than 20 percent of the student body were African Americans, and other cultures were less than 1 percent.  In fact, it was  reported to me the first year I was hired and began in the year 1975, that there was an estimate of 400 staff members, mostly 2,400 students in this high school.

Two years before, the town’s high school had experienced student racial protest activities that were announced and publicized nationwide.  I, other African American faculty members, and a white American English Department chairperson met and decided not to allow another month of February to pass by without the planning of school-wide projects and an assembly program celebrating “African American” history and contributions.  

So we organized and planned for the entire student body, staff, parents, and community members. We knew the exclusion of much of this information was becoming extremely obvious and seemingly not valued. 

A predicted snow storm the afternoon of the major assembly program did not prevent the participants from all ethnic backgrounds, and many parents and community members, from attending. The school’s choir, a diverse dance group, a rabbi, a priest, a pastor who spoke on non-religious subjects, additional presenters, speakers and students from different backgrounds also participated in this assembly program, many reciting poetry.  

During this same week, social studies classes were able to hear selected speakers in the school’s library, where they could ask questions and enter discussions.   That year’s project became the “kick-off” for nearby school systems, institutions, and community agencies to begin to collaborate with us and each other to plan similar projects each year.  

Historian Carter G. Woodson, during the year of 1926, first declared the second week in February to be “Negro History Week.”   It was later changed to “Afro American History Month.”  Today the statement, “African American History is celebrated 365 days of the year,” has been appreciated and accepted.  Most of the celebrations have been centered on providing information of earlier heroes, such as Sojourner Truth, Harriett Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Quincy Jones, Duke Ellington, Jacob Lawrence, and many others.

I would say after about five years, at one of the annual celebration planning meetings, the committee was informed of the disappointments of not have other cultures history celebration programs.  It was agreed, and the theme was changed to “Brotherhood Month.” As you would guess, the very next year the theme for the month was changed again, this time to "Brotherhood/Sisterhood Month," and then returned to “African America History Month.” Each year the participants and attendees grew and diversified.

My personal childhood history reminds me of my background and my experiences in Chattanooga, where I attended and completed elementary school through high school.  It was before the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and Brown vs. The Board of Education.   Our history was taught in segregated “colored schools,” with colored staff and for colored students.  African American history was taught, I felt, mostly for the purpose of providing history of our culture, heroes, and heroines contributions to inspire students, establish more racial pride, and motivate students to achieve more and excel.

Today I credit our leaders Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King and later President Barak Obama, who strongly expressed how crucial unity, fairness, and diversity would affect the success of our country. “Diversity is American’s greatest strength,” was a one of the powerful statements given by one the speakers last month at an annual Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King’s celebration in our city.   
The history of African Americans and other cultural inclusions will enter and remain a part of United States history and will enhance its diversity, especially with our efforts.  Diversity is the reward for obtaining varied knowledge, exposure, and celebrations.

As a result of many of our experiences, lengthy research, planning, and outcomes, we offer these thought-provoking directives - recommendations in form of words, phrases, and statements - to encourage our individual and group activism.

Erase the “us and them” from your brain and heart.
Go “cross-town.” 
Hold hands. 
Discuss the presentations, films, books, etc. 
No more “black churches” or “white churches,” just “open churches.”
All Greek organizations unite.
Public and private schools can share and learn together.
Conclusions are often prerequisites; check it out. 
Add all the colors to your rainbows - brown, black, white, yellow, red, etc.
“Tokens” have many opportunities. 
Fixate your smiles, in and out of doors.
A+ for your inclusion efforts.
Look here and look there; is it fair? 
Similarities usually outnumber the differences; you’ll see.
Desires and positive intentions keep a balance.
Connect and add.
All of GOD’s children...
Show-up, look around, and step-up when needed.
“Our clues” go unnoticed by our youth.
Keep a mirror nearby.
Change seats.
Sing along.
The sought impact should not be kept on hold.
Celebrating African Americans’ history and contributions plays a major role, while seeking to improve diversity, toward global success and progress.

Eva Johnson - retired educator, writer, social activist, and community volunteer
Returned home to Chattanooga in 2008  

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