By Gordon Hurd and Vera HC Chan
Wed, January 31, 2007, 4:22 pm PST
Every February well-known African American figures soar in Buzz. Over the last week, we've started to see increases in queries for Thurgood Marshall, Benjamin Banneker, and Maya Angelou, to name just a few.
But what we dig about African American History Month is unearthing information about lesser-known figures. To help ring in a month-long pursuit of knowledge, we present you with the Buzz Log's First Annual Black History Quiz. Our little test features folks who aren't necessarily top of mind, but who pop up up every year around this time. Enjoy...
Question #1: Bessie Coleman left behind Jim Crow and race riots in Chicago to learn how to fly in France. What didn't the first black pilot do in her short 34 years? a. Daughter of a sharecropper, she helped the family out during the cotton harvest. b. She supported herself as a beautician in 1920s Chicago. c. She lied about her age on her passport. d. She opened up a pilot school for blacks.
Answer: d. Queen Bess, as she was known, intended to open up a pilot school, but died tragically before she could do so, although her namesake does live on.
Question #2: As we still bask in the glow of Serena's triumph over Maria, we look back at a pioneering swinger, Althea Gibson. Which statement below about the all-around athlete is true? a. The feisty Harlem native picked up tennis in an exclusive girls' school in the upper East Side. b. She was knighted for being first black player to win at Wimbledon. c. Her patron was the same man who helped tennis great Arthur Ashe. d. She also became the first black woman to earn an LPGA card, then tried to break into the PGA—40 years before Michelle Wie's attempt.
Question #3: Which African-American artist made his name with a series of vivid paintings called "The Migration of the Negro"?a. Romare Beardonb. Jacob Lawrenced. John James Audubonc. Archibald MotleyAnswer: b. Jacob Lawrence, who died in 2000, produced a number of painting series around social themes. Yes, Audubon was a trick answer.
Question #4: Prolific inventor Garrett Morgan held a number of fascinating patents including the following:a. Peanut butter and gas tanksb. Heated toothbrush and sewing machinec. Gas mask and traffic signalsd. Permanent hair dye and crosswalks
Answer: c. Garrett Morgan, a successful businessman, newspaperman, and inventor held patents for a smoke protection device and a traffic signal, among other inventions. He wasn't the first person to invent these devices, but found ways throughout his life to experiment and improve upon existing designs.
Question #5: Entrepeneur Madam C.J. Walker created a larger-than-life persona, which sparked many myths. Which of the statements below is true?a. She invented the straightening comb. b. Her beauty products made her American's first black millionaire. c. She created a special line when she found her products proved surprisingly popular with drag queens. d. She obtained the Walker surname from husband number three, but the marriage only lasted six years.
Answer: d. As for her millionaire status, her "official" source notes that depends on whether one combines adds personal and business assets.
Most African-Americans still know precious little of their ancestral lineage. Generally, they can trace their roots back to around the end of slavery, at which point they hit a dead end. By design, that sinister system of exploitation divorced its victims from any connection to their family trees by deliberately destroying black family structure.
Legally considered property instead of human, slaves were treated like beasts of burden and forced to mate indiscriminately at the whim of their masters, ala thoroughbred horses or prize cattle. And because offspring were often sold at auction to the highest bidder, this means that the average African-American family tree is a hopelessly-tangled mess.
A familiar refrain in the black community is to claim to be partially of European or Cherokee extraction, though this could rarely be substantiated, since Indians are pretty much extinct and probably the last thing a white person is going to admit is being descended from slave owners who slept with his chattel. For this reason, African-American Lives turned-out to be a fascinating and very-revealing TV program.
Narrated by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., this four-part PBS series follows the extraordinary efforts of nine notables to find their roots. Besides Gates, the others partaking in this serious search for self include talk show host Oprah Winfrey , televangelist Bishop T.D. Jakes, comedian Chris Tucker, neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, Quincy Jones, astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and Oscar-winning actress/comedienne Whoopi Goldberg.
While the entire show is excellent, segments 3 and 4 are not to be missed. Courtesy of DNA evidence, Gates is certainly surprised to learn that more of his ancestors came from Ireland and France than from Africa. By contrast, Bishop Jakes’ is enabled to pinpoint his forefathers’ point of departure from Africa. Upon his travel return, he is greeted by a long-lost relative with, “Welcome home!”
A visibly-moved Jakes responds, “You’re strangely familiar to me. I swear I know you, but I can remember where from.” As he explains the experience, “I can’t really describe what it was like for me to get off a plane and have somebody say ‘Welcome Home!’ and try to process it, and ask myself, ‘Is this true? Is this home?’ It‘s like a set of twins who were separated at birth and raised in two different parts of the world meeting for the first time. And for the first time in my life, I wondered what I would have been, had my ancestors not been enslaved.”
Others are equally eloquent and emotional during the revelation of their sub-Saharan roots, particularly Oprah, Quincy, Chris and Ben. Whoopi, by comparison, is relatively blasé and has a tendency to joke, but then I don’t think it comes as a shock that she’s not really Jewish. Some subjects who figured they had Native-American genes actually did, while some, to their amazement, didn’t. Most had European skeletons in their closet, but to varying degrees.
In sum, African-American Lives is an alternatively intimate and informative return-to-roots saga of nine outstanding individuals made possible through an unprecedented combination of DNA, genealogy and oral tradition.
Note: African-American Lives will air on PBS during Black History Month. Check local listings for times in your area.