Uncovering black history is always important


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When Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was a young boy, he was told by one of his teachers that black people have "had no history, heroes or accomplishments." He could have believed it and let it ground whatever fledgling dreams had begun to take flight in his young mind. He could have taken it as an excuse to never strive to improve his lot in life. He did neither. Instead, he became the foremost authority on African and African-American history in the world in his lifetime.

He was born in Santurce, P.R., to a German merchant and a free-born black midwife from St. Croix. It was a birthright that afforded him many advantages and opportunities, not the least of which was an education at time when most black people were one generation or less out of enslavement and still forbidden to learn to read and write in many parts of the world. He did not take his opportunity to attain knowledge for granted. This man, who is best known as Arthur Schomburg, spent his life seeking information and spreading awareness of the accomplishments of African-Americans and Latin-Americans of African descent.

He was a historian and writer who amassed a vast collection of literature, art, narratives and African historical pieces. His collection eventually became what is now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library in Harlem.

Schomburg spent his life unearthing the story of our people. His legacy is the knowledge that future generations will be able to know the breadth and depth of our contributions as a people to the human story. The irony of that is that here we are, only a few generations later, questioning or worse ignoring, the importance of Black History Month. Schomburg knew there was more to the story than he was expected to believe, according to his teacher. His life's work should do more than inform us, however; it should inspire us to continue the search.

There has not been a day or a week in which people of African descent stopped making history. There has been no cut off to our accomplishments. Our story continues because we continue. That is the main reason why Black History Month is still relevant and important. Black History Month grounds us and lifts us. It ties us to our past and present and gives us guidance for our future.

It is great to learn about the great men and women of our past. Garrett Morgan was an amazing inventor whose products seismically changed the way we live our lives. We go through traffic lights dozens, if not hundreds of times a day. The gas mask has saved millions of lives.

We also need to know about Dr. Henry Sampson, the first African-American to earn a PhD in nuclear engineering. In 1971, he invented the gamma electric cell, which converts radiation into electricity. Why is this significant you ask? It allows sending and receiving audio signals though radio waves without wires. This technology led to perhaps the most ubiquitous product of modern times, the cell phone.

It's important to know about the Dogon people of West Africa. Among the many interesting things about them is the amazing amount of knowledge they were known to have about astronomy, particularly the about the star Sirius. They knew astronomical facts without the aid of machines and instruments considered essential by modern astronomers.

It is equally as important to know about astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. He has a list of awards and accomplishments as long as Shaq's arm, including the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal. If there is such a thing as a rock star astrophysicist, he is one. He is perhaps best known, however, as one of the people who decided Pluto was no longer a full-fledged planet anymore.

History has the odd distinction of being linear and circular. Our story does not stop. We don't know its beginning and will never see its end. The responsibility of learning and telling our story is picked up by every generation from its predecessors and passed on to the next generation. We don't have to find our history just in libraries and museums. We can look around us and see it every day. We can live it through our actions and aspirations.

We have to uncover our past because it has been deliberately buried and distorted to make us devalue ourselves. We also need to write our present so that future generations will always know their worth.

- Mariel Blake writes a weekly column for The Daily News.

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