It’s that time of year again, the time when people acknowledge the accomplishments of black people then promptly forget when March 1st comes around.
Okay, yeah, that was a little harsh. I’ve always been of two minds about Black History Month. On one hand, it’s the best way to discover little known facts about black folks in the historical context of America. On the other hand, I resent that we have to have a month in which to highlight black people. In my rose-colored-glasses world, the accomplishments of all people would be covered in our schools, history books, and media. But we know that’s not the case.
Which means it could and should fall to writers to show just how rich the tapestry of American history is. I personally would love to see more Black historicals.
Unfortunately, when people think of black folks and American History, their minds immediately go to two eras: slavery and the civil rights movement. It’s quite easy to ignore that there were free blacks roaming the country. According to BlackPast.org, free blacks came over with Columbus during his second trip to the New World in 1494. In 1526, slaves who’d been brought to work in the Spanish colony of San Miguel de Guadape in Georgia escaped to live among the native Americans. Then there is the rich and proud history of the Black Seminoles.
One great resource was recently published, and I think would be an excellent investment for schools, libraries, and black writers. It’s called the African American National Biography, and it profiles some 4000 well- and little-known black folks in American history.
One such figure was profiled in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s coverage of the AANB:
Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Ursuline Convent, Toledo, Ohio
Stagecoach Mary Fields was a gun-toting, hard drinking, cigar smoking frontierswoman who gambled, brawled and reputedly even killed a man. Well into her 60s, she dependably steered her coach through some of Montana’s harshest weather to deliver the mail.
She was also a beloved housekeeper at a convent, tended her own vegetable garden and late in life presented bouquets to men who hit home runs during baseball games in Cascade, Mont.
How could you not want to write a story about this woman?
The African American National Biography is a joint effort of Havard University and Oxford University Press, and is edited by Henry Louis Gates, Hr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, both of Havard. The eight volume set covers the lvies of some 4100 well-known and obscure people. You can order it through the Oxford University Press website for $795. I think it’s worth part of an advance, and for writers it’s tax-deductible. There is an online version forthcoming, and they are soliciting donations to make the collection available for libraries.