9 Compelling Questions Regarding Black History Month

1. Have you ever considered that the blues aren’t really all that blue?

Okay, so the lyrics might be sad, but then how is it that the songs never fail to get your toes tapping? Maybe it’s because this musical tradition, created by the African American community around the turn of the 20th century, is about the power of getting to tell your story – even if it doesn’t have a happy ending. Not convinced?

Just think about some of the blues songs that you rock out to, like The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” (a traditional song, also recorded earlier by Lead Belly), Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” (first recorded by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie), or the White Stripes’ “Death Letter” (Son House). There’s a reason that rock and roll appropriated blues music, and it ain’t because it brings you down. For more, check out the Shmoop Blues page.

2. Hey, who was the Jackie Robinson of football?

Actually, it was almost Jackie Robinson. Before joining baseball’s Negro League, Robinson played college football for UCLA, where he danced circles around his opponents and actually led the nation in rushing yards per attempt in 1939. (He averaged twelve yards per carry.) Only after going un-drafted by a segregated NFL did Robinson try his hand at pro baseball. Read more about the first African Americans to play in the NFL here.

3. Did you know that African Americans fought on both sides during the American Revolution?

While some fought alongside the revolutionaries, there were many who considered themselves black Loyalists and fought on behalf of the British. Before you get your patriotic undies in a bunch, remember that that the British were making them an offer they couldn’t exactly refuse: freedom. Check out books like this for a more in-depth look at the times.

4. Who is missing from the ‘Rosie the Riveter’ posters?

Though the poster is now iconic, there were many other women who worked hard to help America during WWII, and many of them were black. Find out more with books like this.

5. What does Harlem have to do with the renaissance?

While Dante may have been a key figure in the original “rebirth” of classical ideas, Langston Hughes did the same thing in New York with his poems centuries later. Writing about “low-down folks, the so-called common element,” Hughes and his peers rejected the idea that ethnic minorities should strive to live up to white ideals or hide the grimmer aspects of urban life.

6. Does being a duke always mean you’re a member of the royal family?

Not if you happen to be incredibly talented. Edward Kennedy Ellington, an American musical virtuoso, earned the nickname “Duke” for his stately demeanor as a child; he then kept it by being one of the most influential musicians of the twentieth century. During his fifty-year career, he expertly composed and played jazz, blues, classical, and gospel music, created movie scores, and almost singlehandedly made the establishment recognize jazz as an art form rather than a fad. Tip your hat to the Duke here.

7. What does Solomon have to do with Black History Month?

Though you may be more familiar with the Biblical king, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon is a hugely influential novel covering four generations of African-American experience. What makes it so good is that it explores race not by lecturing or making broad sweeps about society, but by telling individual stories that are applicable to your own.

Morrison wants you to read and interpret the book however you see fit, as though you’re “in the company of [your] own solitary imagination.” Seriously, when’s the last time a Nobel Prize winner told you that?

8. Wasn’t the Invisible Man just a character from the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?

If you haven’t heard of Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece about life as a black citizen in America, it’s about time you did. Invisible Man explores what it’s like to be invisible not through the power of science fiction or fancy cinematography, but through the disempowerment of being identified solely based your race. Ellison intended the novel to be the literary equivalent of jazz music, meaning you’re in for some unforgettable passages in addition to an incredible story about identity.

9. Did you know that the authors of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Finn were next-door neighbors?

That’s right: Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain lived next to each other in Hartford, CT, for almost twenty years. (In fact, Stowe’s brother performed Twain’s wedding ceremony.) What did their books mean to the black commmunity? Check it out here for Twain, and here for HBS.

Not satisfied? Other links that may pique your interest:

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