African American History Month

a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
10:30 AM, Sunday, February 2, 2020



One day last week I got in the car to run an errand right in the middle of an NPR interview with science-fiction and fantasy novelist N.K. Jemisin. I had heard of her before but had never read any of her work. I read science fiction and fantasy when I was a teenager but had not read much from those genres since then. In 2016, Jemisin’s novel The Fifth Season won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, making her the first African-American writer to win a Hugo award in that category. Its sequels, The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky, also won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, in 2017 and 2018, respectively.


I didn’t hear the full interview, but two pieces that I did hear were compelling. She spoke with high assessment of the craft of the writing of H.P. Lovecraft, whom I had read and enjoyed in junior high but not looked at since. Then, continuing with the answer to the question, she pointed out how Lovecraft was a rabid racist and anti-Semite whose fictional tales of horror were strongly grounded on fear of the other, infiltrating, taking over slowly from the inside. The interviewer asked if it was possible to separate the racist man from the work several of us have read, at some point, and loved. Jemisin’s answer was that there was no way to separate the racism from the novels. It was integral to them. What she offered instead was redeeming the genre by writing, as she did, in a way tat turned the racism and fear of the other into the novel’s great horror.


In her essay “How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? The Toxins of Speculative Fiction, and the Antidote that is Janelle Monae,” she set the scene by reminiscing about watching The Jetsons:


…I watch the show now, as an adult, and I notice something: there’s nobody even slightly brown in the Jetsons’ world. Even the family android sounds white. This is supposed to be the real world’s future, right? Albeit in silly, humorous form. Thing is, not-white-people make up most of the world’s population, now as well as back in the Sixties when the show was created. So what happened to all those people, in the minds of this show’s creators? Are they down beneath the clouds, where the Jetsons never go? Was there an apocalypse, or maybe a pogrom? Was there a memo?

I’m watching the Jetsons, and it’s creeping me […] out. [1]


In the part of that NPR interview that I did hear, Jemisin also spoke eloquently about the importance of role models who share the identity of children who look up to them. The Black child who can see real achievers and heroes who are Black, just as the girl who sees real achievers and heroes who are women – statistically, they have higher achievement rates that people who do not see themselves in the chorus of inventors and scientists and athletes and artists and so on. And so it is telling that later, after her three ground-breaking Hugo-winning novels, she published a collection of her short stories named for that essay: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?


It is a telling title because on this second day of African American History Month, it is important to look what a month devoted to the study of African American pasts is really about. And I’ll give you a clue: it isn’t really to do with the past. Though stories of the past are bursting at the seams with offences against human decency and the public good. They are replete with massives harms done to minority and comparatively defenseless populations. But Black History is about the contributions and achievements of Black people, the ways Black people have made an impact in the world, even when credit was too often stolen by white people or erased from the narratives. How long until Black Future Month depends on how well we tell the stories and achievements of the past.


In 1976 President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month, during the celebration of the United States Bicentennial. He urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” But the government did not create the special month. Black History Month was first proposed by black educators and the Black United Students at Kent State University in February 1969 and was celebrated there one year later. Gerald Ford had used his bully pulpit to amplify the voices, the contributions of African Americans, to draw attention to the work being done by Black historians and activists.


The roots of this February observance are deeper than 1969, though. Forty years before in 1926, Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History established the second week of February as “Negro History Week.” The birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass fell in this week, and both birthdays had been celebrated by African Americans since the late 19th century. Carter Woodson was born in 1875, just ten years after the end of the Civil War, in New Canton, Buckingham County, Virginia, on the other side of Nelson and Albemarle Counties from us here. From his farm and mines background, and self-educated because work often kept him from attending primary school, he went on to earn a Bachelor of Letters degree from Berea College in 1903, joint Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees from the University of Chicago in 1908, and in 1912, at Harvard University, he was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy degree in history for work including a dissertation titled The Disruption of Virginia. Carter G. Woodson was, after W.E.B. DuBois, just the second African American to earn a doctorate.


Woodson became a professor and dean of the college of arts and sciences at Howard University. And in his association with the Washington DC branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he was instrumental as an activist, as well as an educator and historian. He worked to organize a boycott of businesses that discriminated against African Americans. His work was not universally appreciated by fellow NAACP leaders. It was seen as too great a risk by some. But forty years before the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott, Carter G. Woodson advocated using boycotts as a tool for leveraging for change and the betterment of conditions faced by African Americans.


It may have been a white man, George Santayana, a contemporary of Woodson and a Spaniard who was raised and educated in the US, who famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But Woodson transformed the study of history from cautionary tale to foundation for advancement of the oppressed. Woodson wrote, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”[2] He looked to Jewish history of an example of a people who flourished and had global relevance despite adversity and hatred. He attributed this success to Jewish culture’s keenly developed sense of their past.


Woodson’s drive to promote a better future through uncovering and bringing to broad attention and appreciation the achievements of African Americans of the past resonates deeply. On February 21, 2016, 106-year Washington DC resident and school volunteer Virginia McLaurin visited the White House as part of Black History Month. When asked by the president why she was there, McLaurin said, “A black president. A black wife. And I’m here to celebrate black history. That’s what I’m here for.”[3] Born before the second African American earned a Ph.D., there she was face to face with a mixed-race Black President of the nation, something that became possible on the basis of decades of the gathering and teaching of the achievements and contributions of African Americans to the development of this nation. We all know about the historic obstruction of the presidency of the first US President of color, the raving intention to destroy his legacy after his second term in office ended. But even if every political effort of President Obama is obliterated, the fact of his presidency cannot be erased as long as people are committed to telling the truth about the past. And the political achievement of becoming President and being reelected to the presidency and serving two full terms as President is forever on the record of what is now never more something that can be seen as impossible, as unachievable. No, African American History only sounds like it is about the past. No, African American History is about creating from the achievements of the past possibilities for the future. Study today, achieve even greater things tomorrow. And yet:


Woodson believed that history was made by the people, not simply or primarily by great men. He envisioned the study and celebration of the Negro as a race, not simply as the producers of a great man. And Lincoln, however great, had not freed the slaves—the Union Army, including hundreds of thousands of black soldiers and sailors, had done that.[4]


Remember back in your high school or college history classes how the entirety of the movement of civilizations, nations, peoples, and empires was organized around the work and ideas of a few so-called “Great Men”? Certainly for many of us that was the way history was taught. But already in the second decade of the Twentieth Century, Carter G. Woodson was saying that it is not just the presumed “great” nations and “great” men and “great” races, as seen by some, who make history and shape the world but the people, often forgotten, working out of the public view, their achievements so often stolen and presented as the work of someone with a favored identity, a favored race. This was a revolutionary shift in the understanding of what and who are ultimately important in shaping our understanding of who has contributed and can contribute to the betterment our nation and, indeed, of all humanity.


So in the time that remains, cognizant that we are looking only at a grain of sand on the beach of the world, let’s look an African American mostly overlooked by dominant history, who contributed meaningfully to the development of this nation:


Few details are known about the birth of Onesimus, but it is assumed he was born in Africa in the late seventeenth century before eventually landing in Boston. One of a thousand people of African descent living in the Massachusetts colony, Onesimus was a gift to the Puritan church minister Cotton Mather from his congregation in 1706.

Onesimus told Mather about the centuries old tradition of inoculation practiced in Africa. By extracting the material from an infected person and scratching it into the skin of an uninfected person, you could deliberately introduce smallpox to the healthy individual making them immune. Considered extremely dangerous at the time, Cotton Mather convinced Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to experiment with the procedure when a smallpox epidemic hit Boston in 1721 and over 240 people were inoculated. Opposed politically, religiously and medically in the United States and abroad, public reaction to the experiment put Mather and Boylston’s lives in danger despite records indicating that only 2% of patients requesting inoculation died compared to the 15% of people not inoculated who contracted smallpox.

Onesimus’ traditional African practice was used to inoculate American soldiers during the Revolutionary War and introduced the concept of inoculation to the United States.[5]


Did you know about Onesimus? And at what age did you learn? It changes the story, doesn’t it? Or how about Bessie Coleman, the first licensed African American Female pilot, who performed thrilling stunts at numerous airshows until her death in 1926. She refused to perform at shows to which Black people were not admitted. And did you know that one in four American cowboys in the 1800s were Black, pursuing opportunity in places where the restriction on African Americans in much of the country were rendered moot by conditions? Or what about Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old schoolgirl who refused to move to the back of the bus, nine months before Rosa Parks’ stand that launched the Montgomery bus boycott. Rosa Parks was made the icon for solid, pragmatic reasons, but Claudette Colvin and others were already also doing the labor of resistance.


Whose contributions do you know? What study are you going to do this month, African American History Month 2020? How are you going to expand your knowledge of the contributions of Black people in every area of American life? What are you willing to pursue to build in your knowledge in your commitment to ever increasing equity?


The theme of this year’s African American History Month is African Americans and the Vote. In this election year, with everything that is at stake in this upcoming presidential election, this seems like an easy place to start your study. Please take the opportunity of this month of research and learning and growth seriously as an obligation to the future we dream of.


How long is it to Black Future Month? Because history, if it is to be its most meaningful, is really about the future.


Amen and Blessed Be.




[2] C.G. Woodson, “Negro History Week,” Journal of Negro History, vol. 11, no. 2 (April 1926), p. 239.

[3] “‘I am so happy’: 106-year-old woman dances with joy as she meets Obama”. CTVNews. February 22, 2016.