In some ways whites need Black History Month more than African-Americans. At the least whites need Black History Month as much as blacks. (We need Indian History Month too, but that’s another article.)
It’s difficult to talk about history these days for history has become a tool for political, and sometimes religious, agendas. Perhaps it has always been this way for those in power require myths to sustain their power; they require legitimization, a historical fiction to justify their position. Usually the fiction is a mix of fact and lie, and sometimes the lie is a lie that people actually think is true, especially second and subsequent generations of power holders. People often think these lies are true because they don’t question them, they don’t ask, “Is this true? Does this really make sense? Is this the whole picture?” It is easier to go along to get along, especially if the power structure either benefits you or is no threat to you.
It is also difficult to talk about history because in the West we live in a post-modern culture. Because post-modernity views events and ideas in isolation from each other, because it does not insist that there be correspondence and coherence and a systemic matrix when viewing art or music or philosophy or education or politics or history, we don’t have a cognitive or emotional problem when we are confronted with facts or narratives that are contradictory, for we live in a society of contradictions, e.g. what a politician says at 10:00 A.M. will have a new spin at 1:00 P.M. and yet another spin at 4:00 P.M. and still another spin at 8:00 P.M. and as long as we support the politician we gloss over the spins. All of this to say that history need not make sense to us and that we don’t see the value in seeking coherence and correspondence in history.
The night before the 2012 St. Patrick’s Day a collegiate basketball player with an Irish name made a winning shot for his team; the headlines read “Kyle O’Quinn makes winning shot on eve of St. Patrick’s Day”. These headlines were accompanied by a photo of the player making the shot; the photo was of an African – American; no one apparently saw a need to stop and consider the facts before them, an Irish name, a black player – behold post-modernity. Were we to go back to this basketball player’s family 300 years ago it is not likely that its surname would have been O’Quinn.
During the week of St. Patrick’s Day last year a conversation in our office went like this:
Sam, “Well, St. Patrick’s Day is coming up, Susan, are you Irish?”
“No, I don’t think so. I think I’ve got German and English in me but I’m not really sure.”
Sam, “How about you, Frank, you must have some Irish?”
“I might have some, but I don’t really know.”
Sam, “Well Kelly, with a name like Kelly O’Shea you’ve got to be Irish.”
“You’ve got that right, in fact I’m the only girl in the family without red hair.”
Sam, “And Veronica, what about you, do you have any Irish in you?”
Veronica smiled, looked at her arm, pinched it and said, “Well, I guess I’m Black.” Veronica is an African-American.
Veronica could not say, “My roots are West African, or East African, or South African, nor could she refer to a particular clan within a region or modern nation in Africa, she could not refer to her lineage in ethnic terms such as Irish, or Scot, or English, or German, or French, or Italian, or Spanish, or Cherokee, or Mattaponi; she could only pinch her skin and say, “I guess I’m Black.”
I’ve heard white folk say, “Why should there be a Black History month? There isn’t an Italian History month, or an Irish History month.” But there is a difference, to be Italian or French or Scot is, historically speaking, to be white European – and while European subcultures may have much in common, they also have distinctions, and to have a White History month makes no sense because of the identifiable diversity of European subcultures. On the other hand, while rich cultures are indeed on the African Continent, African - Americans generally cannot trace their individual lineages across the Atlantic to African subcultures. It would be as if Europeans were brought here as slaves, intermarried as slaves, lived as slaves for hundreds of years, and then achieved freedom. After generations of intermarriage would whites be able to say, “I’m Italian, I’m Irish, I’m Polish”? Look at historical examples of intermarriage among certain ethnic groups in Europe, can the average white citizen of England tell whether he is Anglo, or Saxon, or Norman? I imagine most are amalgamations of these and other ethnic groups. Suppose inhabitants of the United Kingdom had been transported elsewhere as slaves and intermarried and lived as slaves for generations – would they be able to identify whether they originally came from Scotland or Wales or England, or of any of the subdivisions of these lands?
To white people who ask, “Why should there be a Black History month?” I also add the fact that if a white American wants to trace his ancestry that he has a fair chance of doing so; even though few white Americans really care about their lineage at least they have a choice and a chance of tracing genealogical lines back to Europe – that is an option open to few of our black fellow citizens.
Europeans, whether they are Europeans in what is now the United States, or Europeans in the Caribbean and South America, robbed the ethnic identities of Africans when they brought them to the Americas as slaves – what they have remaining is the racial identity of being black.
Beyond the issue of ethnic identity is the issue of heritage and history, and here is where political agendas can wreak havoc on objectivity, here is where discussions occur in minefields.
We are approaching the 400th anniversary of the first Africans being brought to the English colonies as slaves. While acknowledging that a section of North American was first colonized by Dutch and French, and then later by Germans, it is fair to say that what we know as the Original Thirteen Colonies were English colonies. Now consider that in North America the Irish have lived alongside the English for less than 400 years, as have the Italians, as have the Poles, as have the Jews, as have the Swedes – and yet more history is taught about these Europeans and their contributions to the United States of America than is taught about Africans who have lived alongside the English for almost 400 years. Is this objective history?
I sometimes hear whites say, “Well, Europeans have always oppressed each other. That’s history. Look at all the European wars down the centuries. Look at the English starving the Irish in the 1800s. Look at the conditions of the English working-class into the 20th Century.” It is as if the speaker is saying, “We’ve had to deal with these things down through the ages, blacks need to learn to deal with these things too.” And to all of this I say that here is yet another example of why all history should be read through the lens of Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” We need to look at ourselves, at our own nation, and not at others. The fact that injustice has been perpetrated elsewhere does not excuse our nation nor should it permit us to gloss over our own history.
A difference between looking at oppression in Europe and oppression in America is that we are Americans, it is our history we are talking about; not England’s or France’s or Germany’s. And while we may get goose bumps at hearing the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” the fact is that not all men have been treated equally, the fact is that there is a bloody and oppressive stain on our history that did not end with the Civil War.
Whether lynchings in the South, or race riots in both North and South; or economic, political, social, and educational disenfranchisement throughout the country, most white Americans, including me, have no sense of the deep injustice and pain inflicted on our fellow black Americans. But our need as European - Americans for learning Black History is much more than awakening an awareness of the evil side of history, it is also about realizing the contributions of black Americans – whether educators or scientists or poets and authors; or soldiers, sailors and airmen; or spiritual leaders. For me, perhaps more than anything, learning Black History is a lesson in courage and inspiration.
I cannot read about the Freedom Riders or watch video about them without weeping at the hate they endured and being awed by their courage. The story of the Civil Rights Movement is a story of courage as worthy of telling as any story in American history. How unarmed men and women and children could expose themselves to physical harm and possible death in a nonviolent manner is courage second to none; it is moral and spiritual courage impelling physical courage. How children and teenagers and college students could walk into schools filled with hate demands my admiration; and how parents could support their children integrating schools of hate – knowing what their children would face – is a lesson to all parents that giving our children a moral vision in a cesspool society can be done if we have the will to do it.
To the white person who says, “Look at this or that in Dr. King’s life or in Thurgood Marshall’s life – how can you admire a man who did this or that?” My reply is not only that they were sinners like the rest of us, but give me any white person who we place on an historical – leadership pedestal and I can likely demonstrate that they too were sinners, they too were imperfect, they too did things that we would not instruct our children to do. Of course the best answer is to look in the mirror and consider our own sins and imperfections. After looking in the mirror then we can ask ourselves, “How does my moral courage compare with Dr. King or Justice Marshall?”
In a society that takes the easy way out we need the example of the steady moral courage Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In a society characterized by violent deeds and rhetoric we need the nonviolent irenic example of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. In a country where race is often still an issue we need to be reminded that Dr. King was concerned about people of all colors and nationalities – many people don’t know this. (I use Dr. King as a representative of the thousands of courageous men and women in cities and towns and rural areas who demonstrated courage and moral vision during the Civil Rights Movement and its precursors).
As I bring this piece to a close I want to also say that blacks need Black History Month too; it saddens me that many of my African – American coworkers don’t know about the Civil Rights Movement; King and Marshall and Vernon Johns and Ralph Abernathy and Rosa Parks and the Howard Law School are just names when they could be icons and saints, sources of inspiration, examples of courage.
And lastly, the American church could particularly learn from Dr. King, for our political polarization has resulted in angry rhetoric and thinking, a poison that colors life and kills compassion for our neighbor; politically – polarized white people in the professing church need Black History Month for we need a better way to live and witness, a way that shows us that we can peacefully disagree with others…even if it means suffering…even if it means death. If we want to talk about entitlements perhaps we should examine whether we think we are entitled not to suffer – that is not something that Dr. King subscribed to.
[There are many video documentaries on the Civil Rights Movement, among them I highly recommend Freedom Riders, part of the American Experience series on PBS; and Dr. King’s appearance on the Mike Douglas Show. Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, by Juan Williams, is both a compelling biography and a portrayal of the Civil Rights Movement – this is not hagiography, Williams portrays Marshall with warts and blemishes; but picture yourself with Marshall if you read this book, would you have the courage to stand with him?]