I was always an inquisitive child, always asking questions, and wanting to know stuff. My great-grandmother lived in our home and she’d patiently provide answers until she either didn’t know them or got tired of me asking. She’d applaud my curiosity and end most conversations with, “Baby, there’s enough you don’t know to make a whole brand new world!” She was right, of course, and at the end of our lives there‘ll still be enough we won’t know to make a new world but perhaps we will be a little wiser and happier because of our discoveries.
February is Black History Month and whether you’re African American or not, there’s so much to learn and appreciate. Thankfully, there are month-long celebrations for several other cultures, too—May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, September 15-October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month and November is National Native American/American Indian Heritage Month.
This month there are great speakers, musical and cultural events, special programs—you name it and there’s something wonderful to explore. Today is a perfect opportunity to learn about local heroes and heroines—well-known ones and ones in our very own homes. In my early days as a budding journalist, we lived in Paris, Tennessee, home of the world’s biggest fish fry, and I did a series for one of the local radio stations on people, places, and things.
I was fascinated by all I learned – Dr. Mordecai Johnson, Howard University’s 11th president, was born here and at 36, was named president at this esteemed institution—its first African American leader. World-renowned gospel legend-educator-businessman, Dr. Bobby Jones, had a file at the local paper the size of a New York City phone book, and the list of impressive people went on and on. I’ve proudly explained that Haywood County, Tennessee, where I was born, is the home of icon Tina Turner, and basketball great Tony Delk, who played on the 1996 University of Kentucky championship team and professionally for the Charlotte Hornets and the Golden State Warriors.
Black History Month is designated each February and certainly we need to take time to learn about our culture and accomplishments but the shame comes if we only talk about this heritage and pride these 28 days. The feats of survival and the triumph of our ancestors, now 400 years in the Americas, must be shared with the generations, lest we forget how African Americans got here and why. The ravages and inhumanity of slavery and all that transpired must be taught, not to garner hatred, revenge, or hostility, but to foster a sense of pride and dignity at ALL it took to make America great.
Here’s what I mean: My beautiful and patient great-grandmother often said she had been a widow for more than 30 years. I discovered she was widowed in 1916 during her pregnancy with my grandfather. By 1929, she had remarried, was widowed again with two children to raise, and maybe a third-grade education. Before coming to live with us, she lived in her employer’s home and cared for their family. She was never bitter or mean, and was, in my humble opinion, just about the best *“play-pretty,” any curious little girl could have.
There is still enough we don’t know to make a whole brand new world, but we do know Irene Prewitt Wilkes Jones, Mama, raised a mighty, hopeful, and powerful generation, now in its seventh iteration, and this Black History Month, we are proudly celebrating her life and legacy.
*I’m not quite sure what a Play-pretty technically is, but for me, it meant endless hours having her all to myself, storytelling, hair styling, and asking a million questions. When she got tired, she’d pronounce “I’m not your play-pretty,” but she really was!
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