IT IS A MANTRA among black Americans that we are insufficiently aware of our history, that our advancement will be hobbled until we are all rooted in a sense of continuity with the past.
Yet every year we are regaled with not just a Black History Day but a Black History Month. Over four weeks in February, the media, museums, colleges and universities, and others will trot out the usual procession of black pioneers, with blown up photos of Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, and Jesse Jackson festooning libraries and churches.
On television we will see recountings of the brutality and discrimination blacks suffered at the hands of whites: slave ships, lynchings, segregated lunch counters, and the beating of Rodney King. And we'll see the usual screenings of films such as Stormy Weather, Sounder, Carmen Jones, Roots, and Glory. And for the rest of the year black talk- radio will continue to resound with callers decrying black Americans' But the problem isn't so much that blacks aren't being exposed to enough black history -- too often it's presented the wrong way.
Certainly we must remember our heroes. Yet an Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. or a Mary MacLeod Bethune only come along once in a blue moon. We view them in awe, but it can be difficult to see how such people can lead us in our daily lives, especially when so many of them stare at us from sepia-toned photos wearing strange clothes and hairdos.
And then there are the tragedies: Is it really so surprising that black people have a hard time developing a sense of pride after hearing about how they were uprooted from their homes in Africa and brought to the New World where they were humiliated, beaten maimed and shut out? The story of Emmett Till's lynching in Mississippi is not exactly one that lights an inspirational fire under black folks.
As black community leader Robert L. Woodson Sr. puts it in his "The Triumphs of Joseph" (which every black American should read this month), too often "Black History" consists of the following: Blacks arrived in this country on slave ships, traveled from plantations to the ghetto, and finally, to the welfare rolls.
What is missing from this vision is the inspiring successes that ordinary black Americans accomplished long before the civil rights movement. These black Americans - none of whom were heroes or thought of themselves as such - triumphed despite racism rather than assuming they were powerless until racism disappeared. This kind of black history, while perhaps less glamorous than biographies of the larger-than-life figures in Baltimore's Great Blacks in Wax Museum or the tales of abuse during slavery, is precisely what blacks would most benefit from as they make their way toward a better future.
Take the Tulsa story. In the early 1900s, black residents of Tulsa, Okla., had developed a thriving business district with all the amenities whites enjoyed on the other side of town - restaurants, hotels, banks, theaters, stores of all kinds. They had done this in a world where racism was more naked than anything all but a very few black Americans experience today. Racism was so intense, in fact, that in response to a trumped-up story of a black man making advances toward a white woman, whites burned the district to the ground in 1921 and killed many blacks.
White Tulsa then concealed the evidence so efficiently that today, uncovering what happened is as much detective work as historical documentation.
In black publications and Internet discussion groups, this story has been treated as a warning for blacks to watch their backs because eternal anti-black hostility lies within all whites. But the Tulsa story bequeaths us with a more enlightening message: Ordinary black folks banded together and created an economic base at a time when membership in the Ku Klux Klan was as ordinary for whites as belonging to the Rotary Club. It was also a time when blacks had little political power, especially in the South, and unabashed racism was common among whites of all classes and levels of education.
Today, the accomplishments of black Tulsa residents before the riots, and during the rebuilding period afterward, should serve as inspiration for black Americans. But instead of an inspirational message, blacks are told that they're powerless to start businesses in their own communities because banks will not give them small business loans. And, we seldom hear of the Community Reinvestment Act, which pressures banks to make loans to minorities, a measure that has helped many inner-city communities since its enactment in 1977.
How many white banks were making loan offers to blacks in the early 1900s when blacks were building an economic base in Tulsa? And, no matter how pervasive one believes racism is today, there are no marauding white bands attacking blacks who attempt to make economic progress in their communities or anyplace else in the business world. Times have changed for the better, and blacks today face fewer barriers than the black residents of Tulsa faced nearly a century ago. And Tulsa was not the only place that blacks triumphed over adversity.
There were similar black business quarters in many cities, including Baltimore. Black Tulsa was not built through a once-in-a-lifetime effort by high-paid black superstars. It was led by ordinary folks who made the best of a bad situation. This is the black history that will be of much more use to us than one more recounting of how much George Washington Carver could do with a peanut.
Here's another aspect of black history that we are unlikely to hear about during Black History Month or any other time: Before the 1960s, black students in segregated schools often performed at the same level as whites if not higher - despite paltry budgets and substandard school buildings.
From the turn of the century until the 1940s, black students at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., performed at or above the national average. Dunbar students were outscoring two of D.C.'s white schools in 1899, just a few decades past slavery and at a time when lynching was a national sport.
Black economist Thomas Sowell has chronicled Dunbar's success and that of a similar New York City school, only to be accused of advocating "the resegregation of schools" by John Baugh, a black linguist, education specialist and author of "Beyond Ebonics."
Black scholars would do better to let the past speak to us more constructively. Sowell has pointed out that if all-black schools could bring the best out of black students during a time when our society was overtly hostile to blacks, then they should serve as beacons for the opportunities available today.
And indeed, experimental all-black schools nationwide are demonstrating that we can create modern versions of what Dunbar High once was. In other words, we do not require the presence of whites to excel.
The triumphs of ordinary black folks in Tulsa and at Dunbar High don't provide the fodder for TV movies. In fact, history has forgotten the names of most of the people responsible. But recognizing the fruit of their labors shows what blacks are capable of more eloquently than one more story about the Underground Railroad and larger-than-life figures such as Frederick Douglass.
Yet, the black heroes and heroines depicted in Baltimore's Great Blacks in Wax Museum are not entirely irrelevant in charting a course for black America in the year 2001.
Today, W.E.B. Du Bois is remembered for advocating the creation of a black intelligentsia and for emigrating to Africa to protest U.S. racism, in contrast to Booker T. Washington's lower aim of creating a class of skilled black craftsmen and manual laborers.
Today, few black Americans would question the wisdom of Du Bois' call for blacks to strive for success equal to whites rather than remaining satisfied for the time being as artisans and laborers. But this message is no longer inspirational because it can't be contrasted to Washington's less uplifting alternative, which has been largely discredited. Meanwhile, the romantic and unrealistic notion of fleeing to Africa has little to do with the real task confronting black America, which is to stake its claim here in the only nation that will ever be its home.
Of the thousands of speeches Du Bois delivered, a little-known and quite ordinary one is especially useful to us. This speech, presented at the University of Chicago in 1907, was neither a rousing, "I Have a Dream" speech nor a fiery denunciation of racism. In fact, the blandness of its title, "The Sociology of Industry on Southern Education" underscores how Du Bois viewed "The Negro Problem," as it was called back then.
Du Bois was no Uncle Tom, but his speech did not focus on examples of racism. Instead, he addressed the overriding economic and social issues confronting blacks in the South, the region where most of the nation's black population was concentrated.
"You would think at one time to hear people talk that never before had two diverse races ever met in the world's history," Du Bois said.
To many modern ears, Du Bois' address would not sound much like a "black" speech at all. But this is because we have become accustomed to black leaders and scholars playing upon our visceral passions - at the expense of teaching us how to solve our problems.
Du Bois' natural inclination was to elicit constructive instincts from his audiences. This pales in theatrical impact compared to Jesse Jackson protesting a presidency. But Du Bois' strategy was the only one that has ever improved a black American's life.
If Black History Month is to play any meaningful part in black advancement, we should emphasize the positive communal experiences rather than the spirit-crushing setbacks.
The black history that will save black America was made by ordinary folks who harnessed the powers of the human spirit to overcome obstacles.
Black Americans have an inspiring history and we can find it in the accomplishments of Tulsa's black community and in the classrooms of Washington's Dunbar High in 1899.
But we won't find it in speeches urging us to think of slavery as the defining experience of the African-American soul, and we won't find it listening to Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson as they wage a losing battle to overturn the presidential election.
John McWhorter is Associate Professor of Linguistics at UC Berkeley. His next book is "The Power of Babel: The Natural History of the Human Language."Copyright © 2015, CT Now