*Before the end of February, if it hasn’t happened already, a white acquaintance may come to you and ask, “Why do we have to have black history month?”
Such persons may inquire in hushed tones, in an effort to show that they are genuinely curious and do not wish to offend, or they may be forceful and indignant in an effort to show you that they are offended.
Yes, some white folks are actually offended by the idea of a special month to honor the achievements and contributions of blacks in America. They are similarly opposed (though sometimes less vehemently) to other annual ethnic celebrations such as Hispanic/Latino Heritage Month (mid-September through mid-October), Native American Heritage Month (November) and Pacific American Heritage Month (May).
For myself, I refuse to honor such indignation because it seems to flow from a vicious and close-minded place. But I’m happy to explain why I feel Black History Month is a great thing, not just for our people, but for all Americans. If you’ll grant me a moment, I’d like to share three basic reasons:
- An Opportunity for Unity: Black History Month reminds us that the American Story was (and continues to be) written by men and women of all racial and ethnic groups. February provides a wonderful chance for us to study and celebrate that story in its fullness, embracing the racial and cultural diversity which has always been definitively American (despite racist efforts to conceal this fact). In doing so, we must be honest enough to denounce the racist oppression which defined our nation for most of its history. In this way, we will honor the sacrifices of fallen heroes, remind ourselves of the enormous social progress we have made and reaffirm our commitment to making the noble concepts of “e pluribus unum” and “liberty and justice for all” real now and forever.
- Black Achievements Can Inspire Everyone: You needn’t be descended from Mother Africa to be motivated by the towering accomplishments of great black men and women throughout history. I defy anyone, of any heritage, to not feel a charge of excitement while reading about how Dr. Daniel Hale Williams performed the first successful open heart surgery, how Harriet Tubman bravely led hundreds of people from slavery to freedom, how the intellectuals of Egypt and Timbuktu pioneered mathematics and astronomy, how Garrett Morgan descended into a fume-filled tunnel to rescue trapped workers using his invention — the gas mask, how Mary McLeod Bethune built schools from scratch, how Matthew Henson discovered the North Pole, how Shirley Chisholm shook up national politics with a bold bid for the White House in 1972… Yes! We could go on ad infinitum! As blacks, we take personal pride in these and countless other true life heroes. But their greatness will surely energize anyone who hears their stories.
- Racism Still Exists: Some critics claim that Black History Month is no longer relevant because the U.S. has made such huge strides in race relations. Unfortunately, racism is still with us, so the need for understanding and respect across racial lines is still crucial for our national health. There is no denying that our country has come a mighty long way. Legally-sanctioned segregation and discrimination were dismantled by the court decisions and legislation that grew out of the Civil Rights Movement and everywhere you look black folks are living the American Dream, rising to unprecedented heights in all areas of commerce and society. Indeed, the election of President Barack Obama was a glorious sign that America had taken giant strides forward in her collective attitude about race. Ironically, Mr. Obama’s election also revealed the stubborn persistence of racial hatred.
Even before he was voted into office, Mr. Obama faced an unprecedented number of death threats. His national origin and U.S. citizenship are still questioned by some white conservatives.
He’s continually mocked on racist t-shirts, bumper stickers, caricatures and protest signs depicting him as everything from the cartoon monkey Curious George to a Tarzan movie-style witch doctor.
Right wing media figures stoke white paranoia by claiming that President Obama is out to destroy democracy; Glenn Beck even claimed that the President is building “a Black Panther S.S.” to terrorize white folks. Mr. Obama’s approval rating among whites plummeted after he chastised the Massachusetts police sergeant who arrested a black Harvard professor at his own home.
Obama was pilloried even after police and judicial experts across the nation (including the retired judge who works as legal analyst for Fox News) said the arrest was unjustified.
On the broader scale (and despite a flourishing black middle class), African-Americans still have the highest rates of poverty, joblessness, disease and educational failure — much of it linked to institutional obstacles.
I’m reminded of the recent Harvard study on hiring which revealed that many employers eliminate applications and resumes from job seekers with “ethnic sounding” names. You know, names like Luis Guiterrez or Tameka Jefferson. Again, we could go on ad infinitum.
Suffice it to say that, while our nation has made amazing progress on race relations in the post-Civil Rights era, Dr. King’s dream still eludes us because some Americans are simply opposed to racial equality.
So, yes, America still needs Black History Month – and all of our special months, including Women’s History Month (March) and Gay and Lesbian Pride Month (June).
This nation belongs to all of us. It always has and always will. Because it was built, molded, nurtured and refined by all of us. Therefore, I happily and hopefully invite everyone to seize the opportunities to commemorate and learn about black history — during this month and throughout your lifetime.
Thanks for listening. I’m Cameron Turner and that’s my two cents.
THINK! IT AIN’T ILLEGAL…YET!