Thirty-five years ago, the landmark television mini-series Roots first aired on ABC for eight consecutive nights. Based on the late Alex Haley’s novel, the production featured a now legendary cast of African Americans such as Louis Gossett Jr., John Amos, Cicely Tyson, Leslie Uggams, and LeVar Burton. Roots captured America’s attention in a way few television shows have done before or since, garnering 36 Emmy Award nominations. The finale remains the third highest-rated U.S. television program ever.
Roots remains a monumentally exceptional piece of television entertainment, but its importance is far beyond that. Roots was something still too rare in American popular culture: an acknowledgement and celebration of black history, a story inextricably, if often painfully, intertwined with American history, pricking the conscience and provoking desperately needed discourse among people of all races. More importantly, the miniseries struck a collective chord among black people, sparking pride in how far we’ve come, appreciation of all we’ve overcome, and renewed determination to build on the sacrifices of our forebears.
Fast-forward to 2012. Today, it seems that many of us have all but surrendered the responsibility of passing on the legacy of black history to the whims of Hollywood studios. To be sure, movie projects such as Red Tails, the new feature film telling the story of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, are important and should be supported. But they cannot substitute for each one of us learning African American history for ourselves and, more important, taking it upon ourselves to teach it to others of all races, especially our children. As Roots showed, it’s the discussion that takes place after the final credits roll that makes the difference.
We can sometimes take the importance of this for granted at Black Enterprise, because we have been in the business of telling the story of African American achievement for more than four decades. (See our timeline of black women business trailblazers in this issue as a most recent example.) As it’s often been said over the years: Every month is Black History Month at Black Enterprise. But when we move beyond the confines of our offices, it’s clear that too many of us are not as committed to learning and teaching our history as we used to be. Too many young African Americans still don’t know about business giants Reginald F. Lewis, Madam C.J. Walker, A.G. Gaston, or even Ebony magazine Founder John H. Johnson. Too many professional athletes don’t have a clue about the likes of Bill Russell, Curt Flood, Doug Williams, Althea Gibson, and other greats who broke the barriers and made it possible for today’s stars to gain the fame and fortune they take for granted.
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Whether we’re talking politics, civil rights, science, the arts, or any area of human endeavor, it’s the same: too many are woefully unaware of the contributions of African Americans. It is neither fair nor productive to merely condemn them for not knowing. They have no frame of reference for our such challenges as risking their lives for the right to vote, or being forced to ride at the back of a bus, which I had to do even as I was serving our nation as a soldier in the U.S. Army. The only way they can learn is if we take the time to tell them. Each of us must personally make it a priority to teach.
That means ensuring black history is taught to children in our public schools year round as an indivisible part of American and world history. More important, we need to sit down with our children and the young people in our communities and share the trials and triumphs of our own family histories, including our struggle to overcome racism, discrimination, and injustice. We must make telling the stories of our parents and grandparents a family tradition.
True wealth building is about leaving a legacy to future generations. We can’t do that if we don’t value the legacy previous generations left to us. This Black History Month, let’s not just celebrate our history as a form of entertainment. Let’s learn it, teach it, and live it every day of every year. We must never stop telling our story.