History Lessens: The Story of Black People in America Continues to Fade

When I was growing up, our family had a set of encyclopedias -- Britannica, of course -- that lined about a bookshelf and a half. Those books, and the dictionary, were my portal into just about everything I wanted to know, each alphabetized volume an obliging and endless fount of answers for almost every question I had in the pre-Google age. I actually learned less by looking things up than by sitting and browsing through a randomly chosen book and stopping on whatever caught my eye; it's how I learned about the constellations of stars and how they corresponded to the signs of the zodiac, the workings of the brain, the various breeds of dogs and horses. I liked the visuals, too, the photographs of famous people like FDR, the illustrations of Ursa Major in the night sky, the detailed maps overlaid with skins of plastic.

One thing I often wondered about was how certain entries got more space than others. Sometimes it was obvious -- I understood why New York City, which my 1964 edition trumpeted as "probably the greatest city in the world," filled more pages than Los Angeles, which was more or less described as impressively large and ambitious, fascinating to a point but culturally inconsequential. But sometimes the reasons weren't apparent, or they weren't to my 10-year-old mind, in which case I just assumed that cancer was more important than diabetes, FDR more illustrious a president than Millard Fillmore, and so on. Our encyclopedias were accessible but also authoritative, and I believed that however they emphasized information was how that information should be emphasized, or not. I relied on them to order my world.

But there was one entry I happened upon in M-N-O volume that I couldn't make sense of at all: Negro. I remember staring at the page (I don't think the entry was much longer than that) with a mixture of fascination, pride, puzzlement, and downright embarrassment that I had never felt before.

First was pride -- this entry Negro was me, worthy of mention in the Encyclopedia Britannica. I was officially on the world stage. But it was also oddly objectifying: reading the page and seeing myself repeatedly described as "the Negro," which sounded like a specimen of animal, like the horse or the dog. The entry did allow that "the Negro" had accomplished many things in America, and had a photo of the great opera singer Marian Anderson to prove the point. But I found this praise not affirming, but embarrassing. Was this all we were, that I was, a page or so of information? Why were we an entry at all?


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I got the distinct feeling that whoever wrote this entry regarded "the Negro" not as a people, but a condition, like the weather, or worse, a medical condition like cancer or diabetes. The best I could say about the entry was that it was dutiful -- it listed some facts, names and dates, and so forth. But its real sin was that it failed to catch my imagination the way the other entries on stars and animals, or even Millard Fillmore, did. It seemed to me that "Negro" was an entry with no real story and no conclusion, a rare orphan in this great encyclopedia set that claimed all of its stories with a certain relish. That was not the case here. What was the case, then? Rather than find out, I began avoiding the entry "Negro," sometimes the M-N-O book altogether. I wanted to convince myself there was a good reason for this strange entry that raised far more questions than it answered (if indeed it was even meant to answer any questions) about people who were presented not as people but an entity -- perhaps a type of rock that couldn't be clearly identified because it came from outer space.

Black History Month, which started last week, doesn't really solve the conundrum that the mere idea of black history has always presented to the rest of the country, a conundrum I now realize the encyclopedia was wrestling with back in 1964. Fifty years later, we still wrestle with it. A black president in Washington the last six years has galvanized racist sentiments, not put them to rest; a movie about the horrors of slavery is lauded by critics but fails to start a public conversation about slavery's meaning; prisons populated by record numbers of black men are largely seen as evidence of those men's moral failings, not as the failings of history. Black people and their particular history, in other words, are still viewed as a strange entity, a thing apart from most other phenomena that can be effectively captured in a paragraph or a few pages.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with being complicated. But ignoring the complications is a problem because it's tantamount to lying. I did that, perhaps forgiveably, at 10. I don't do it anymore, but I often feel as if I'm examining the complications alone, even in February. Especially in February. Sometimes the only thing you can do is write your own entry.

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