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Adele Elliott: History


Adele Elliott



"History is not was, it is."  


William Faulkner 




The South, and especially our little part of the South, is so lush with history that we wear it like a cloak. It is an aura, a soft cloud, most of the time invisible, that envelopes us like a shroud. We cannot remove it any more than we can strip away our own skin. 


February is Black History Month, a time set aside to honor the contributions of people of African ancestry. This is an international event, celebrated in the United States and Canada and in the United Kingdom (October in the UK).  


As history goes, this is a relatively new observance. The roots of Black History Month date back only to 1926. Historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History chose February because it marked the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass (Wikipedia).  


Black History Month gets a lot of criticism. The most common argument is that there is something unfair about devoting so much time to only one race. No matter that the race is about 15 percent of the U.S. population and about 38 percent of the population of Mississippi (U.S. Census Bureau). 


There are, of course, other history and heritage months: Filipino-American History Month; Women's History Month; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender History Month; Irish-American Heritage Month; Jewish-American Heritage Month; and National Hispanic Heritage Month, just to name a few. The list is quite long, but you get the picture. It seems that none of these strike such passionate chords, either good or bad, like Black History Month. 


In Mississippi, we embrace a time when ladies in hoop skirts and gentlemen landowners sipped syllabub on the verandas of antebellum mansions. This is a "memory" accepted as truth by people who were not there. It is a history created by a ruling class. 


Sometimes we pretend not to know that slavery, violence and horrible abuses have been perpetrated on people who were unable to defend themselves. It is amazing that the victims survived at all. 


I find it interesting that Columbus was a stop on the Underground Railroad, so important that it is mentioned in a song that served as a map for the escaping slaves. 


"Follow the Drinking Gourd" has messages encrypted in the lyrics. The "drinking gourd" is the big dipper. One line says, "the riva's bank am a very good road." This actually refers to the Tombigbee, one leg on the journey to the North. It is a piece of history that I have never heard mentioned during Pilgrimage. YouTube has many haunting versions of this song. Yet, when doing research, I could find no musicians here who were familiar with it. 


Did you also know that some of the Freedom Riders were housed right here on their journey from north to south during the 1960s? At the time it was happening, this was top secret information. Now, it is buried under decades of uneasy tension and fear of retribution. 


We can no more sweep away select parts of our history than we can change the phases of the moon. Our history is what makes us who we are. Whether we are braver and stronger, or weaker, because of it, we must embrace the whole of our past. Believing tiny snippets of approved and established lies does us no good. 


I have no problem with Black History Month, or with any of the other months that honor a race or ethnicity. I just wish I knew more about all history, no matter what peoples are involved, because it adds up to making each person who we are today.


Adele Elliott, a New Orleans native, moved to Columbus after Hurricane Katrina.


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