currents

Janus Adams on Black History Month

Remembering history, re-educating a nation, returning agency

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 2/17/21

CALLICOON, NY — In August 1963, a young Janus Adams and her mother left their home in the Bronx at 3 a.m., arrived in Harlem and boarded a bus full of demonstrators headed for the …

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currents

Janus Adams on Black History Month

Remembering history, re-educating a nation, returning agency

Posted

CALLICOON, NY — In August 1963, a young Janus Adams and her mother left their home in the Bronx at 3 a.m., arrived in Harlem and boarded a bus full of demonstrators headed for the nation’s capital to join 250,000 others in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

In a 2018 speech at her alma mater, SUNY New Paltz, Adams said that bus ride through the “blood-soaked soil of the northern South” was not her first bout with racism, but it was her “first time violently denied a restroom or food we could afford to buy.”

It was also Adams’ first time getting stormed by “screaming white hoards” who disapproved of the mission that beckoned the busload of northerners across the Mason-Dixon Line. Sheriff’s deputies stood “idly by” while the crowd surrounded and shook Adams’ bus from side to side, apparently hoping to knock the vehicle over, or at least send it back to New York City.

It’s no surprise that no one intervened. After all, as Adams put it, those sitting in the bus were seen as “outside agitators... troublemakers,” who came to destroy the way of life for that screaming hoard, made up of true “Americans, citizens.”

The young girl on that bus grew up to become the Janus Adams as she’s known in her home of Sullivan County today: an Emmy-award winning journalist, a scholar of African American and women’s history, the author of 11 books, a producer and publisher, and a classically trained pianist.

During this year’s Black History Month, I wanted to talk with Adams about the way history is written. Specifically, how does it shape mainstream American history when, for so long, the predominant conception has been that the real Americans are those attempting to violently upend or reverse progress, and those attempting to ride peacefully toward a more equitable future are the outsiders, making trouble?

“That is the proof that the history that we think of is not accurate; it is absolutely the proof that what we hear about American history on a regular basis is manipulated and is not true,” Adams said. “That, to me, is the best reason that we should have Black History Month and Women’s History Month, because we are not only filling in the gaps of history but we are talking about the accurate repercussions of history being written by the victors... leaving out what they don’t want to hear.”

At the roots, it’s an issue with how history is taught and learned at a young age. Adams has seen the evidence for this firsthand, as well. As founder of BackPax Kids—her publishing company, which offers multicultural, anti-racist education materials to children—Adams recalls running a special in which customers could purchase a six-book series at discounted prices. Schools around the country were purchasing five out of the series, but consistently leaving out the sixth book, “Underground Railroad.” When Adams called to inform them about the discount they could be getting, almost everyone answered her the same way: “We don’t need that sort of thing here.”

While running an earlier book club—Harambee, the first national book club for African American literature—a school district was interested in using multicultural-perspective books in its curriculum. When Adams arrived at the school to meet with administrators, she was informed that the plans were off. Adams asked why, and an administrator responded, “Parents and teachers are concerned that if we tell the children the truth, they’ll think their ancestors were bad.”

“We have a whole nation of children being educated at a blockade of lies,” Adams said. “What we have here is a Swiss cheese history... you’re looking at all these holes in the story; that’s what’s wrong with it.”

Adams is the author of a historical trilogy: “Glory Days,” “Freedom Days” and “Sister Days.” Respectively, each portrays 365 moments in African American, civil rights and African American women’s history. Works like these are attempts to fill in the gaps of the Swiss cheese history. But they’re more than about just filling in holes, Adams said.

“I [wrote] them to give proper agency to the people whose history it was,” she said. “I wrote those books for... African American people of whom our agency, our inventions, our creativity, our achievements have been completely stripped.”

In other words, African American history goes deeper than learning about Fredrick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks—often the only figures taught in public school, as another historian has pointed out.

During the month of February, which has been officially recognized as Black History Month in the U.S. since 1976, Adams encourages people to educate themselves about Black history. Read more books, watch programming on television and listen to radio shows and seek out the ocean of information that is right at our fingertips, yet so often left unexplored.

“Just be willing, and Google it!” Adams said. “You don’t even have to Google Black History Month; you can just Google Black history. But also Google women’s history, also Google Latino history, definitely Google indigenous, Native American history so you know something about this land.”

Beyond February, people can continue their education through Adams’ own work. She just launched the Sister Days Mother/Daughter book club, “a timely, life-affirming, leadership-building, intergenerational conversation starter” rooted in her “Sister Days” book. The seven-week virtual retreat, running Wednesday, March 10 through Friday, April 30, includes online gatherings, breakout sessions on member-defined themes, and a socially distanced and virtual pilgrimage to the home and gravesite of Harriet Tubman. Registration for the retreat is open now at www.janusadams.com.

If leaving out massive, impactful pieces of the story so far is the first mistake, perhaps the second is failing to recognize the importance of what’s happening right now. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations that swept the region, the country and beyond last summer—and in the more immediate aftermath of the Capitol Building riot—Adams is feeling a fair amount of “anxiety.” It’s not her first time seeing a violent crowd of people who consider themselves true Americans.

“They didn’t just rock my bus, they rocked the whole nation,” Adams said of the rioters in Washington. “I don’t want to talk about divisiveness... this country has always been divided... I want to talk about denial; I want this not only to be a time of reckoning, but a time of healing, and you don’t heal a disease that you haven’t diagnosed.”

More information about Janus Adams and her work is available at www.janusadams.com.

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