Counting the Cost

Pathfinders for Black History Month

2/23/2017, midnight

I love Black History, and so revel in Black History Month. Not that Black History should be constrained to a month. Indeed, when I wrote my book “Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History” in 2010, I hoped that some folks would touch the book each day and talk about the many ways African American people have shaped our nation’s economic life, from building this country, to being the basis of our bond system. Despite my work, and that of others, Black History Month celebrations seem to center on the men in our history, and on the familiar names. Our 45th president has lifted up Frederick Douglass, touting his many accomplishments, as if he is still living. Omarosa, don’t you give this man talking points? He needs to be locked into the Museum of African American History and Culture, and then forced to watch Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro.” But I digress.

You’ve heard of Frederick Douglas (1818-1895), Ida B. Wells, Dr. Dorothy Height, W.E.B. DuBois and Mary McLeod Bethune. But do you know of Venture Smith, Mary Bowser, James Forten, Charles Wiggins, Clara Smith, Paul R. Williams, and Jackie Ormes? These are among the pathfinders that Tonya Bolden has lifted up in her book, “Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls.” Her book is extraordinary not only because it features the biographies of relatively unknown and amazing African Americans, but also because Bolden puts their lives in context. Thus, each biography talks about what was happening historically during the subject’s lives. She also highlights their contemporaries, expanding the reach of the book and, perhaps, challenging students to do their own research about other notable African Americans.

Bolden is an award-winning children’s book author, but Pathfinders is no children’s book. To be sure it should be ordered in every school library and purchased by many parents. But young people will not be the only ones enhanced by a book that highlights 16 stellar African Americans, many unknown. Bolden says, “Without denying racism and oppression, I did not want to talk about racism, but about accomplishment.” So she set out to offer a range of occupations for the young people who will read her book. “I wanted to give kids variety,” she told me. “I also wanted to expose them to people who had done something.” Black folks have done amazing things, and Bolden says she wants to encourage young people to “dream big and take chances.” Her book reflects that, lifting up Richard Potter, a Black magician who traveled the world as a cabin boy before joining a circus, studying with a ventriloquist, and stepping out on his own, says Bolden, “the first magician born in the United States to have success in the land of his birth.” Or who would have thought that Sissieretta Jones, the daughter of enslaved people, would have had a successful career as a concert singer? Jones performed at Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall, sang at the White House for President Benjamin Harrison, and completed a European tour. Bolden says she wants young people to “think big.” Well, in spotlighting Sissieretta Jones, she encourages that dream. While the average American earned about $400 a year in Jones’ heyday, her earnings were more than $8,000 a year. She was one of the highest paid Black entertainers in the United States.