We Must Accept and Learn From Our Past -- Not Drown in It

02/28/2011 05:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Hey, you boys play ball?"

It rolled off her Alabama tongue almost as easy as "War Eagle," the battle cry of her favorite team, the reigning national champion Auburn Tigers. That question interrupted a debate in the lobby of the Conrad Hotel in Indianapolis between Chester Pitts, player and leader on the Seattle Seahawks, a pair of sports lawyers and me, about the expectations of a student-athlete. Chester and I replied, "Yes" and made room for her and her friend to join our discussion.

Aside from calling two adult men "boys," she said something else during the course of our conversation that gave me pause. Quickly after proclaiming Remember the Titans -- a movie starring Denzel Washington about the integrations of a Virginia high school played on the backdrop of a memorable football season -- the best movie she had ever seen, she proudly proclaimed: "My sons don't even know what segregation is."

I realized this woman from Alabama thought she was doing the socially responsible thing by not exposing her young sons to the more tragic features of American history. I imagine that she viewed herself as less prejudiced than her parents, and her parents as less prejudiced than her grandparents and so on, that this march toward tolerance was sustained by moving on from past transgressions by "forgetting" them altogether.

I became a first-time parent three months ago, so I am very careful about not passing judgment on other parents, but I think this way of teaching our children about history is troubling.

Too often, our society tries to forget history -- from omitting references to slavery when Congress read the Constitution at the start of this session to eliminating the word "nigger" from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Not only does revising history ignore the progress for which so many have fought, it also impedes us from reaching our proper destination in the future. If we as a society cover our eyes and walk, we are more likely to end up lost than arrive safely where we want to be as a nation.

In our current moment, especially with the election of President Obama, a lot of people have been excited about the possibility of a "post-racial" moment. This phrase means all sorts of things to different people, but where it means that we should turn our backs on the past as if it never happened, we will surely do ourselves a great harm. Not only will we lose the ability to explain the origins and character of our contemporary social problems, but we will also undermine the power of many great examples in our nation's history that can continue to inspire us personally and politically.

This notion reminds me of a piece from my collection of civil rights artifacts. It is a letter written and signed by Malcolm X, historically one of the world's most complex, fascinating and impressive men. The letter is a reply to a note from a woman that implores her to recognize that in the same way the experiences of a young individual shape and define the adult he or she becomes, our country's history defines who we are as a culture today. This is especially true where complicated social issues like race are concerned.

I began collecting civil rights-era artifacts as a tangible manifestation of the inspiration and guidance I draw from the commitment and sacrifice of some of the noblest Americans in our history. I draw from the sacrificial and compassionate spirit of that period in my own work off the football field with a non-profit youth program I developed in my hometown of Baltimore, Baltimore BORN (, which addresses the plight of young men in my city and helps them to develop the reading, writing and decision-making skills they will need to fulfill their dreams.

I also draw from the spirit of fairness and a healthy respect for the unifying powers of sport with my work in the NFL Players Association to help the NFL and NFLPA avoid a fast approaching and very dangerous lockout.

I know I am not alone in remembering the lessons of history and its pioneers and allowing them to shape my heart and mind, but I also know that the woman who approached me in Indianapolis is not unique either. I understand her fears and I share her horror at the mistakes of the past, but I cannot share her approach. James Baldwin once wrote: "To accept one's past -- one's history -- is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought."

Black History Month is an important opportunity to accept our past, and more importantly, to learn to use it -- as warning, as inspiration, as knowledge -- to walk toward our future together, with our eyes wide open.

Domonique Foxworth, a cornerback for the Baltimore Ravens, is a respected leader and was elected by his peers to serve on the NFL Players Association's Executive Committee. In this guest column, he shares his thoughts about what Black History Month means to him and describes lessons he's learned through life experiences on and off the field.