Memory Loss And Black History

E on DC

Carter G. Woodson

I am sitting at a table next to a woman I’ve loved my entire life. She is a few years older than I am. I am showing her how to write her name again. She has trouble remembering – it’s the first stages. I print her name in a notebook and ask her which letter she would like to try and write. She picks out the “I” and struggles to make one.  She knows how but she can’t tell her hand to follow directions. It’s frustrating. She looks up at my face and I’m smiling back, encouraging her to continue. For months I had been talking to her on the phone, and our conversations touched on so many topics that I thought she was well and perhaps never feeling better. But on the first day of the year I took a trip to see her.  When she opened the door she was frail and behind her was an apartment having lunch with chaos.

How does one prepare to be a caretaker? Where are the blueprints and directions?  This February I have a better understanding of the historian Carter G. Woodson. Here was a man (responsible for starting Negro History Week in 1926) who was concerned with preserving the “collective” memory of African Americans.  He was up against not an illness but rather a systemic and conscious attempt to erase the recognition of black achievements and contributions to the building of America. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and also taught at Howard University for a number of years. One of his best known books is “The Mis-education Of The Negro” published in 1933.

The last several months our nation has been concerned with the dead and the living; the past and the urgency of now.  Black History consists of Selma victories and frustrations deeper than Ferguson.  Woodson did groundbreaking work collecting the stories of a race and race matters. As citizens we are responsible for preventing its erasure from one generation to the next. Every February I feel like a sentinel protecting a sacred trust – our collective memory.

There is much to celebrate in 2015. This year my father would have been 100 years old. If he was still living I doubt if he would want to set the clock back. The good old days were filled with segregation and hatred. Still America is a place of hope and incredible progress. Life is lived forward and never backwards. Every February I wonder if I’m listening to the same notes being played over and over again.

What I have learned from being around a loved one battling the loss of memory is that I must be more patient than patient. I must accept terrifying news that some illnesses cannot be stopped or reversed. There continues to be a crippling fog that hurts our brains.  Is there a cure for racism?  I don't know but I want someone to win a Nobel Prize one day for ending it.

Until we can curtail the hidden racism in our bone marrow there is still a need to celebrate Black History Month every year. One can begin within one's family by listening to elders. A few weeks ago I mentioned in my E-Notes (blog) that we have a tendency to discuss certain historical periods more than others. Overlooked is the era of Reconstruction which is rich with stories that have yet to be told on the center stage. The years after the Civil War were filled with hope, dreams and reconciliation.

It was also a period of lost opportunities and violence.

Studying and talking about Black history should also include an examination of class and gender conflicts in our society. We tend to shy away from this type of analysis, but it is essential if we wish to understand contemporary economic and social conditions.

February has become a month during which we exhale. Let us take a deep breath and never give up on love or change. We must have the courage to find our second wind.  Black History Month is the time to remember that history is made every day we live. Memory is precious and a terrible thing to lose. 

E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist. He is the author of two memoirs and several collections of poems. Mr. Miller is the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University.

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