When I was in junior high school, my English teacher taught us about capitalizing proper names. French with a capital ‘F’; Irish with a capital ‘I’; German with a capital ‘G’, and so on. When it came to me, Mrs. Ahearn noted Negro with a capital ‘N’.
The school bell rings and we go to History class. My classmates and I encounter a similar lesson plan but focused around geography. I was called to the blackboard and chalked ‘Negro’. Mrs. Shenton admonished me stating that ‘negro’ is NEVER capitalized.
“There is no such country as ‘Negro’. Do you know what country your family comes from? Since you don’t know, you are only a ‘negro’ and it is not to be capitalized – in spite of what you may have been told in English class.”
In the third grade, in this same school, we were reading, aloud, from ‘Little Black Sambo’, one of the most racist children’s book that you can imagine. My mother quickly got that book out of the classroom and out of the Binghamton, New York school curriculum. Those are only a couple of the educational challenges I confronted in the 1950s and 1960s.
Early on I learned that evil towards my people was being taught in the schools that I attended. I couldn’t rely on my teachers to tell me the truth about my Ancestors and my peoples. I couldn’t trust the professors and historians to be honest with my history.
I do put my faith in genealogists and family historians. These folks are the ‘New Guards’ of African Ancestored research. As they scour the record books, census records, obituaries, and news clippings, a new narrative, a new truth, emerges of what happened to my people. And I trust them.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in the first episode of ‘Many Rivers To Cross’, has successfully raised the tenor of the questions we must ask to learn about our people, our history, our culture.