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February 22, 2012

One month at a time

A version of this column, written by Congressman John Yarmuth (KY-3), originally appeared in LEO Weekly in February 1997.

Last week I learned something extraordinary. I learned that the golf tee, that little piece of wood indispensable to the sport, was invented by G.W. Grant, an African-American man.

Considering that I play (or once did, pre-Congress) 100 rounds of golf a year, or about 1,800 holes, the math reveals that I use golf tees more frequently than I do knives and forks, pens and pencils, my television or my tooth brush.

And they were invented by an African-American man, which I find extraordinary only because I have played golf my entire life and never knew it. Of course, I also didn’t know that while Thomas Edison gets all the credit for inventing the electric light bulb, the carbon filament for the incandescent lamp was invented by another African-American man, Lewis Latimer.

I don’t presume that I should have been taught anything about golf tees when I was in school. But I think that someone should have clued me in that a man with dark skin was at least partially responsible for helping me see at night.

Like many Americans, I always regarded African-American History Month simply as a politically correct, inoffensive way for African-Americans to celebrate their history. After all, there is only one holiday assigned to a black American — the great Martin Luther King Jr. But even though I always empathized with African-American History Month, I’m ashamed to admit that I never regarded it as an opportunity to learn more about our history.

My early education, as far as I can remember, was typical in its colorlessness. African-Americans were mentioned only as victims of lynchings or as oppressed slaves. Of course, there were no black Founding Fathers, presidents, generals, aviators, explorers, inventors or astronauts (or so we believed). We discussed African-Americans as political or economic subcultures, but never as individuals, as heroes, as productive citizens, as role models.

Out of curiosity, I picked up my college U.S. history book, written in 1963 by esteemed scholars such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Bruce Catton and C. Vann Woodward, and used for years in America’s top universities. I began to flip through the index and, strangely, could not find names like Crispus Attucks, Marian Anderson or even Frederick Douglass. Nowhere is there a mention of Hiram Revels, the first black U.S. senator, elected in Mississippi during Reconstruction. Same for his colleague Blanche K. Bruce, the second black senator. In fact, there is nothing about Jesse Owens, or Jackie Robinson, or any of the many figures whose positions in American social and cultural history are monumental.

There is no mention of Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr., who captained the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II and won the Distinguished Service Cross. My history book somehow avoids crediting James A. Jones of Jackson, Tenn., whose patented “Jones Spring” device made it possible to raise and lower the top of an automobile. It totally ignores George Washington Carver and the 300 peanut products he developed.

Of the several hundred notable Americans pictured in this textbook’s 850 pages, only one, Booker T. Washington, is black. On the other hand, the volume includes two photos of unidentified African-Americans — one a group of Virginia cotton-pickers, the other a handsome family over the caption “Southern freedmen: They needed a guardian.”

Suddenly I felt cheated, ashamed and stupid. But I’m not alone. Too many Americans were deprived of much of this history, largely because white Americans wouldn’t or couldn’t give credit where it was due. History-book writers, when they dealt with African-Americans at all, discussed them collectively as an issue for the dominant white society, rather than as active participants in and contributors to the diverse American society.

Whether that sin of omission was committed out of ignorance or, as African-American scholar Judge Raymond Pace Alexander of Philadelphia contends, because of “the deference of textbook publishers to the special sensitivities of the southern market,” the ramification for all of us is a crying need to retrieve and revisit important episodes from America’s history.

So if you’re one of those people who wonder why we need African-American History Month, ask yourself if you knew who invented the golf tee or the light bulb filament or the ragtop. Then ask yourself if one month is enough. 

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