It’s Black History Month and as both a professor and a lover of Blackness, Black things and Black people, I want us all to study up. Just make sure you don’t enroll in The Willie Lynch School of Social Research. Now some of my pro-Black, head wrap rocking friends who are very passionate about Black history 28-29 days a year are nodding their heads right now because they're familiar with Willie Lynch and think I'm about to berate folks for taking up his ways. These are the alumni of that school I so desperately want to shut down.
For those who are unfamiliar, there is a notorious letter- "How to Make a Slave"- that was said to have been read by a slaveholder named Willie Lynch on the bank of the James River in 1712. The document explains how slaveholders should keep the various enslaved Africans of their plantations at odds with one another to ensure that they are never able to revolt and to keep the psychological chains on their "property" as tight as the physical ones. The colloquialisms used and the improbability that someone would have ever presented such a plan that effectively predicted the long-term effects of slavery (for example, our issues with complexion) have long been used by scholars and researchers to refute the authenticity of the document. But you can still find copies of it and even films devoted to explaining how it manifested in Afrocentric bookstores across the country.
The Willie Lynch myth is just one example of the lazy "research" we tend to do online about our community, forward to others or, worse, try to convince our children of. If we want to Black history to be known, felt and understood, we as adults have some work to do!
Now the Willie Lynch School of Social Research has been matriculating students for a very long time and seems to have a booming enrollment. I remember being introduced to the school of research when I got forwards that all the Black Stamps were going being destroyed, that the first president of the US was Black, and the Statute of Liberty was a gift from France and the original model was a Black woman. While these are compelling and shocking revelations, all are false. History can be empowering but all too often we’re given bad information and it spreads so fast it cloaks us from the truth.
As it was said, “A lie can be halfway around the earth before the truth gets its shoes on.” The other day in one of my college classes I was stunned by the number of students who had no idea who Carter G. Woodson was, but immediately afterwards I was reminded why Black history month is still essential. People of African descent have made some of the most amazing contributions to this world, but they are made invisible by whitewashed curricula (there is even an ongoing fight to keep Arizona from banning ethnic studies) that eliminates the value of people of color all together; many of us have responded by attempting to aggrandize our achievement so it looks as if only Black folks have contributed to the world. The truth, like Carter G. Woodson intended for us to learn, is somewhere in the middle. Knowledge is power, but only if we are using our knowledge to transform how we see ourselves and how the world sees us. One of the central values of history is to tell us what was, so we know what can, and what should not be in the future.
Sometimes our histories and herstories are hidden and need to be unearthed, but other times we can spend our time spinning partial truths. Whenever I teach about the Willie Lynch Letter in my Black Studies classes inevitably students fight hard and ask, “Well what if some of it is true? Doesn’t that make it important?” Important? Sure. Accurate? Not at all. I’m reminded of my grandmother’s words, “A half truth, is a whole lie.” As young Black folks look to us for inspiration and information the least we can do is dig a little deeper. You don’t have to be Black Studies professor to dig deeper. Yes, I know the forward button is right there, but snopes.com and google.com are mere clicks away also.
In just the past twenty years, technology and our access to information have increased dramatically. Our techniques of interrogating and delivering this information to our children must also develop. I can recall growing up and seeing(space) the Budweiser Great Kings and Queens of Africa program, and thinking "what’s this got to do with what’s happening outside my window"? The process of sharing history must be greater than bombarding our children with facts and global trivia. Imagine if we shared our own families’ stories of struggle and triumph. What if we spent time connecting the dots between a great past and showing them how they could make a great present. Reject apathy and ignorance, but don't sign up for that Willie Lynch online class either!
Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York – CUNY. His work concentrates on race, education and gender. You can follow him on twitter at @dumilewis or on the web at www.professorlewis.com