February is a good month to celebrate. In Michigan, we are trapped inside by the dreariness and cold. While the weather may be crummy, we can at least remember some good things about us as a people. The great African American poet Langston Hughes, who had a February birthday, once wrote, “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”
This February is the start of the Winter Olympics in South Korea. That certainly is a celebration. As the “Wide World of Sports” used to pronounce years ago, we get to experience the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” We also get to experience world class athletes coming together on Friday for the opening ceremonies and lighting of the torch of the Winter Games. I can’t wait to see who will be this year’s breakout stars, the next Peggy Fleming or Dorothy Hamill in ice skating or Jean Claude Killy or Picabo Street in downhill ski.
We also celebrate our presidents, particularly Lincoln and Washington, but all of our presidents really. It is good to remember those leaders who stood out as exemplars we can point to in today’s political climate. While none of our political leaders have ever been perfect, many of the accomplishments of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan, and FDR are worthy of remembrance. We can point our children and grandchildren to the good about their leadership, maybe providing them with hope that the current political morass will someday pass.
Obviously, Valentine’s Day in the middle of the month is a day to remember the ones we cherish. Men will stand in line at the flower shop for the perfect bouquet or in the gift shops for a special box of chocolates. Ladies will browse through the greeting card section looking for the special card that is romantic, silly or sentimental. Children will exchange funny little cards at school which extol their favorite cartoon characters or Ninja Turtles.
February is also Black History Month. When I was a college freshman attending Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, I was blessed to enroll in a course in black history. Our professor, Lou Klingman, was an expert in his field. Indeed, if I remember correctly, he was the first professor in Michigan to be certified to teach black history at the college level.
Michigan, and our country as a whole, has a long way to go when it comes to issues of civil rights. We did make a lot of progress in the 1960s. Dr. Klingman would remind us of that with his tales of working with some of the great civil rights leaders of the 20th century. I particularly remember his tale of having to sneak the famous civil rights activist and sociologist W.E.B. Dubois into the Pantlind Hotel (now the Amway Grand) in downtown Grand Rapids. Dr. Klingman reminded us with his stories that segregation may have been more apparent in the south, yet it also existed in the north as well.
Apparently, there were no readily available black history texts in the early 1970s. So, Dr. Klingman wrote his own text of sorts for the class. I wish today that I had saved that document which was more than an outline, but less than a textbook. We started by learning about the history of some of Africa’s great and ancient civilizations, such as those in Egypt, Ethiopia, Timbuktu and elsewhere. Historian Louis Gates Jr. hosted a PBS series on “Africa’s Great Civilizations,” which I hope PBS will rebroadcast in the near future.
Dr. Klingman was an expert on black history. I cannot claim the same. As a boy growing up I learned tales about Abe Lincoln’s honesty or George Washington’s bravery at Valley Forge. As a young man, I briefly attended the Falls Church in Northern Virginia where George Washington had at one time been an active member. Our pastor at the time gave a rousing sermon and pointed to the pew where Washington sat to emphasize his connection to the church.
It is good to celebrate Washington and Lincoln. I think it is important that young people are taught the contributions of African Americans to our society as well. The great Frederick Douglass once said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” So true. Teaching all young people our collective history as a people builds stronger children.