Jason Reynolds, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, is back from his mid-winter break with a February newsletter.
First things first: Happy Black History Month!
Second things second: I hope you’ve all had a wonderful holiday full of rest and … more rest. And maybe some laughter. But mostly rest. Me? Well, I’ve done my best. But we’re not here to talk about me, right? No, there are far more important things to talk about, like …
Black History Month!
I’m not going to give you the usual spiel about how important Black History Month is as a way to shine light on the accomplishments and contributions of Black people over the course of the history of this country. You know that. I’m not going to mention Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, slavery, Black inventors, or even the new heroes of our day like Amanda Gorman. You know them as well. Instead, I figured we could take a moment to drill down on the word “history.”
What does it mean? When I was young it pretty much meant “boring.” It meant time to sleep in class, or doodle, or pass notes (Do y’all still pass notes? Is that a thing?) or daydream about french fries, or … you get the point. Just the word “history” could send me on a distant voyage into the imagination, far from any classroom or teacher trying to convince me that it was important. Of course, history is important. But it almost felt too important to be interesting, like the 5 o’clock news. Or the 6 o’clock news. Or the 7 o’clock news.
But when I started digging into the word, when I decided to do a little research on my own about the meaning of “history” and where that word came from, I discovered something important and interesting. “History,” by most definitions, is a story outlining past events. I guess that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. I mean, the word “story” literally makes up 80 percent of the word. But I found a few other old definitions, other meanings attached to the inception of this word, the most interesting coming from the Greeks. The way they defined “history” was all about learning. A knowing by inquiry. What this means is, history is all about documenting the questions you ask. Which would mean … according to my calculations … to make history would be to ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS.
So, as we celebrate Black History Month this year, let’s not just give presentations on the great people who have shaped our country and our world; let’s also work to figure out what questions they may have asked to do so, and what questions we should be asking now—right now—to make history ourselves, every day.
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Such a timely commentary at a stressful, divisive time in our nation’s history, where looking back, learning from the past is essential, but more so, weighing that knowledge on the present and yes asking the right questions.
Asking, because I note so many of my students are not fully aware of the great people who broke the stoney ground up for an abundancy, how would you approach getting that knowledge out there and getting the thought process going of how the greats figured out what the right questions were and how to ask?
I especially appreciate your emphasis on the word “story.” We all enjoy a good story, and approaching history through questions and connections keeps the important stories alive, whether they be of family, influential people, places, or times.
Storytelling evolved out of the need to answer questions. And that’s how history is made.
What would America have been like if we had listened and adapted to the native people’s ways instead of, well, you know the rest? Or, how would America be now if after the Civil War and during Reconstruction Congress had listened to SOJOURNER TRUTH who proposed that land be distributed among the freedmen in the Northwest? In fact, she collected thousands of signatures in her campaign for amends and reparations to the Freedmen which she brought back to Congress, but they didn’t even let her speak. Why are we asking the same questions today? when will reparations be made for the people who contributed their all and got nothing for the growth of wealth in this land?
History is definitely a story. It can be about what happened this morning, yesterday, 50 years ago, and billions of years ago. For me, it is interesting to see the changes in infrastructure, the growth of the planets, and of humans. I would imagine the questions people have asked to make history would be what if questions. Humans have that type of creativity.
Asking the right questions truly empathizes what history is about, it really innovates to learn and act more. If all the questions form a story, what is the question now, or what part of the story are we at?