Friday, February 24, 2006

History Friday: A Different View Of Black History Month

Writing in the Detroit News, African-American Aubry Kaplan expresses an opinion of Black History Month that is somewhat unconventional:
I hate Black History Month. I don't hate black history, just the month: the marketing tool it has become, the reductive and self-congratulatory tone of the "Honoring African Americans" public-service ads it sets off, the rush toward penance it inspires, as America overcompensates for the rest of the year in which we actively diminish or ignore the concept of black history, much in the way people rush to church or temple on major holidays to revive a faith they don't otherwise keep.

Anybody who knows me knows that I wring my hands over this every February. But because the present course of American history feels so ominous, so freighted with bigger transgressions against democracy and equality that are fast obliterating old-fashioned concerns with black people and their history, this year deserves a special wringing. So here goes.

I hate the separation of stories that has become synonymous with Black History Month, the assumption that black people exist on a different, almost otherworldly plane than everybody else in this country. Certainly in many ways, they have.

But Black History Month should be about connecting the dots of American history, not arranging them into neat, monochromatic piles that reinforce a false notion that Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. were admirable creations only of black culture (and not of white oppression or, more broadly, American culture) who resonate just in black circles.

Of course, America is obsessed with cultural niches of all kinds, and Black History Month is no exception. But there's something deeper at work, some stake that whites (and some blacks) have always had in keeping their narrative apart from that of black people.

Public-service ads notwithstanding, white people don't want the taint of all the negativity that blacks have come to represent in the popular but unarticulated imagination, from slavery to street gangs. Whites, and many blacks, resent the pall that the black struggle has always cast over the shining American myth of equality and individualism.

One hypocrisy is that Black History Month routinely ennobles the fight against slavery, when most of the time, Americans practically laugh any debate of it out of any room. What, that old saw?

We sneer at the notion of black reparations, not because it's so outrageous but because it dares to invoke the possibility that some 250 years of slavery, 100 years of legal segregation and 50 years of something we still can't quite categorize just might have some bearing on the unqualified mess blacks are in today.

As everyone surely knows, blacks are entrenched on the wrong side of just about any troubling statistic you can think of -- high school graduation, incarceration, unemployment. That such conditions continue to exist, unchanged, is one question we should be raising during Black History Month. But we never do. The problem is that black history is ongoing and unresolved. Although it's had bright spots of relative success, it's not pretty.

It still demands accountability at a time when accountability is almost permanently out of fashion and blackness itself is being subsumed by the rise of other ethnic groups and new paradigms such as multiculturalism and multiracialism.

A good friend of mine says that blacks are on the wrong side of U.S. history and always have been. As a black person, I'm resolved to that fact, but as an American, I'm equally resolved to change it.
It's amazing that here in the 21st century, questions of race and racism continue to be a part of our national dialogue. It's even more amazing that there continues to be a need to have that dialogue.

The promise of an equal opportunity for all children to obtain an excellent public education continues to be a promise that remains unfulfilled. The discussion must continue.
See our latest education-related posts right here.