This Is Why We Need Black History Month, Part 2

, , , , , , | Right | June 18, 2021

It’s 1988 and I have been with the library for not quite a year.

Black History Month is upon us and children of all shapes, sizes, colors, and cute smiles are looking for information on various famous people.

But they clearly do not know what or who they are looking for.

Child #1: “I am doing a report on a famous black singer. Her name is Martha.”

Me: “Oh, good choice. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were a great singing group!” 

Child #1: “There’s another Martha? My report is on Martha Luther and her Kings.”

Next child:

Child #2: “I need a book on a famous black man who got his leg shot off during the war.”

Me: “Um, I am going to need more information than that. Which war are we talking about?”

Child #2:The war.”

Me: “Honey, there have been lots of wars over the years. Was it the Civil War? The American Revolution? World War II?”

Child #2: “The Revolution! Yes, the revolution! When the people came here from England to fight the Americans to free the slaves.”

We finally figured out we were looking for Crispus Attucks, though I don’t remember him getting his leg “shot off,” only that he was among the first killed at the start of the Revolution.

And then there were the inventors. Not Lattimer or McCoy or Madame C.J. Walker. No, we are talking about the well-known John Doe. Mary Smith. Lotta Peeples. Who “invented” THE comb. The hairbrush. THE washing machine. And of course, the kids needed at least five books on each of these people.

No surprise, there were none. Cue child sobbing because they have to write an eight page paper on this person.  

We had to start writing a form letter to teachers (which soon became known as the Dear Dummy letter) explaining that back in the day, many, many, many people created and patented a new version of the hairbrush or the comb, or created and patented a different version of a wringer for a hand-cranked washing machine. Or new buttons. Or corsets. Shaving creams…

We had to explain that these people were black, white, Hispanic, or Asian background, and that the only reason we know they existed and what their race was is because the forms for the patent office included a little box for this. ALL we know about the inventor is his or her invention, their name, the number assigned their patent… and their race.

Regardless of their race, there are not five paragraphs, let alone five books on each person.

Imagine having to send that out daily with an extra line scrawled at the bottom saying, “Please allow [Student] to choose a new topic so he won’t flunk your class.”

Every year for closing in on ten years, the head of the tech department where patents were kept would contact teachers and explain that we could not supply five books on the life of a citizen who happened to try making something new for an already existing device, so please don’t ask kids to write a ten-page paper on them. Every year, the teachers would say they understood… and then send the kids in to research the same obscure people anyway.

And of course, my favorite kid was the one who came in with his dad. The child darted across the floor to the desk, leaned against it, and crowed, “Hey! Where your dead black people at?” His father — both were African American — did a facepalm and shook his head. He said, “Son, they aren’t keeping the bodies on ice out back. Tell the lady who you want to read about.”

That exchange had the dad and I laughing for most of the exchange. I miss those days, as the demand for writing reports has fallen off. I just hope I never have to explain to another child that the singer she wants to report on is actually a Civil Rights Leader.

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This Is Why We Need Black History Month

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