It’s hard to build a future if we don’t know about our past

Dancers from the Impact Repertory Theater perform at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial during the Realize the Dream Rally for the 50th anniversary of the...
Dancers from the Impact Repertory Theater perform at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial during the Realize the Dream Rally for the 50th anniversary of the...
James Lawler Duggan/Reuters

Americans worry that our students are deficient in math and science. The subject I am more concerned with is history. The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington reminds us why it is important to know and honor the past so that we may improve the country’s future. But given some of the high profile events of 2013, I worry that August 28, 2013 will just be another day in the news cycle.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled in an affirmative action case brought by a young white woman rejected by the University of Texas. Forty-four years before she was born, Heman Sweatt wanted to go to UT–the law school actually–and he didn’t get in, either. Sweatt was rejected because blacks were simply not allowed, so he took legal action. His case also went to the Supreme Court. But in Sweatt v. Painter, the court reached a more definitive conclusion and the university was forced to admit black students to its graduate schools.

I’m guessing that the young woman doesn’t know about Sweatt. Can she possibly imagine what it was like living in that era, before another court ruling: Brown V. Board of Education? People who did live through that time are still with us and can attest to how deeply divided this nation was by race, socially and legally. Fortunately, at a time when white schools rejected bright black students, there were historically black colleges such as Howard University where ambitious black kids could go.

This past spring, Howard’s campus was the scene of an epic failure of historical knowledge, not by a student but by a sitting US Senator, Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican.  Sen. Paul was pleased with the controversial Supreme Court ruling on voting rights, which effectively gutted protections for minorities. “We’re at a point in time in our history where the color of your skin should not be taken into account with voting,” he explained.

He went to Howard to talk to students about the history of his party and African-Americans. The senator was either hideously unprepared or incredible ignorant.

The audience sounded off, insulted when he suggested they might not know that some founders of the NAACP were Republicans. “I don’t know what you know, you know…” he stammered. That’s the point. He didn’t know. And he didn’t bother to find out.

Senator Rand Paul didn’t even get the name correct of the man whom Republicans often claim as their black friend, Sen. Edward Brooke. “Edwin Brooks, right?” Paul asked. I don’t know if he knew that Brooke, a groundbreaking politician who made the cover of Time Magazine when he was the first black Senator popularly elected, graduated from Howard in 1936.

Ed Brooke, along with the architect of Brown V. Board of Education, Charles Hamilton Houston, graduated from Dunbar High School, the subject of my book, First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School.  Dunbar, long symbolizes the historical link between black Americans and education, a link long absent from most people’s historical memory bank.  Smart people, educated people, white and black have told me they had no idea about Dunbar, an academically elite high school in Washington, DC that thrived despite segregation.

The idea of black children as scholars, certainly before 1963, is something many people are unaccustomed to seeing or believing.  Even today, the most critically acclaimed TV shows in recent memory with large black casts are The Wire, about drug dealers, and Orange is the New Black, which takes place in prison.

Not knowing the full aspect of black history leads to negative stereotypes and we saw this year why stereotypes are dangerous. Couldn’t a young black man wearing a hoodie sweatshirt be hurrying home to study? Could that have come to someone’s mind?  Some people judge by the color of one’s skin and not character as Dr. Martin Luther King besieged us all to do.  Ignoring history is bad news. Failing to teach it accurately is unwise.  Wednesday gives a chance to embrace it.