Monday, February 15, 2016

Curiosity and Black History Month

                                        Black History Month and Curiosity

“The thing about Black History is that the truth is so much more complex than anything you could make up” Henry Louis Gates

“Black History is not only a separate history-it is American History.” Morgan Freeman

   It is February, and in schools, newspapers, websites, museums and more that means that it is Black History month, a time to place a special emphasis on the accomplishments, experiences, and importance of African-Americans in, to, and in spite of American culture. While I have some problems with how the month tends to be looked at in a lot of places, the month does often provide me with opportunities to experience and learn new and exciting things. I look forward to a lot of the activities during the month because I often hear interesting interviews with fascinating people, see some wonderful art work, get introduced to musicians, writers, and thinkers I may not have heard of before, and get greater insights into an event, time period or a person about whom I knew a little. Such was the case Saturday, February 6th when I took a trip to Doylestown’s Mercer Museum to see a first person presentation on the life of Maryland’s Benjamin Banneker, the great colonial writer of almanacs, astronomer, and a surveyor on the team that laid out the city that was to become Washington, DC. He has long been one of my heroes, and this program promised to provide me with greater details about him and his life.

   As a kid in the 1950’s we had Negro History Week, and as an inveterate reader and devourer of all types of information, I loved learning about things that were not part of the regular school curriculum or in my history books. I went to a majority black elementary school, and my teachers and parents nurtured my curiosity and encouraged me to read, ask questions, and to explore. I got my first library card in the 2nd grade, and the libraries at 52nd and Sansom, 54th and Media, 40th and Walnut, and 19th and the Parkway were sacred places to me. They and magazines such as Jet and Ebony were sources that gave me a lot of basic information on Black people from all different times and places that were not covered in school or in the mainstream media. So I had known some things about Banneker from my own study. I knew he had written an almanac, created a clock, had surveyed the land that later become Washington, DC., and that he had an ongoing relationship and correspondence with Thomas Jefferson. But the Doylestown presentation offered a chance to see him portrayed and to have his life brought off the pages-to sort of encounter him. And there was a great chance that I could get more detail and learn more things that I did not know about him and his life. 

   I was not disappointed. Bob Smith from Baltimore has made a career of doing what he calls, “First Person Presentation”, and he presented us with a Banneker that had a sense of humor, unbridled enthusiasm, curiosity, ingenuity, and an intense commitment to education and freedom. And I learned some important things about what it was like to do the work that Banneker did in colonial America-what it took to track and study the stars outside at night in all types of weather to be able to put together an accurate almanac, for example. Or how physically hard and uncomfortable it was to do the surveying to lay out DC. And how he had taken apart and put together a pocket watch several times until he could do it blindfolded, and then used that memory to attempt to build the first clock in the colonies. It took him three tries and two years, but he was able to create the first clock made in colonial North America in 1756. It kept perfect time until his death in 1806.
    The other fascinating things that I found through Bob Smith’s portrayal were details of Benjamin’s family and of the help of the Ellicott family, Bucks County PA Quakers who had moved into the Baltimore area to establish a grist mill. When Ben was 40 George Ellicott lent him a book on astronomy and a telescope; those fired up his enthusiasm and took his interest in astronomy to a new level. It was George's cousin, Andrew Ellicott ,who recruited him to be a part of the surveying team for the District of Columbia. The Ellicotts definitely played a big role in Benjamin’s life. I also learned a lot about his family-his grandmother was apparently an English indentured servant who had served her full term, was given land as the term of her indenture, and who bought, worked with, freed, and married “Bannake,” an African who became Benjamin’s grandfather.  And Bannake’s son, when he was made an inheritor of the family farmland, included 6-year-old Benjamin on the deed, making sure he could never be taken and sold into slavery.  To complete the picture of Benjamin’s life and times there were also some colonial era tools, a printing press, a telescope, maps from the time period, and more. It was a fascinating look at an impressive person, some unusual people, and a special time.

   As the Gates’ quote above notes, truth is often stranger and more involving than fiction. Benjamin’s story makes that clear.  For me seeing the presentation at the Mercer was also a chance to add on to that knowledge that I first came across as an eager-to-learn young person. And as I continue to read and haunt libraries and dig through websites and museums I suspect I will find out more about this incredible individual and be led into other paths and interests as well. I hope that whatever your interests, questions and/or points of curiosity are that you devote some real time to feeding and nurturing them-to indulging that spirit of curiosity that seems so vital to human life. Museums, libraries and trips are especially wonderful ways to feed and nurture that spirit. And when we do that perhaps we can better make sense of the world around us and our role in it. It is definitely worth a try. Surprises and wonders await.

   (For more information on Benjamin Banneker go to:

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