President Gerald Ford put it this way in 1975: “It is most appropriate that Americans set aside a week to recognize the important contribution made to our nation’s life and culture by our black citizens.” A year later, in proclaiming black history worthy of a whole month, he called Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Without a doubt, this was an improvement on the enthusiasm for D.W Griffith’s racist film, “Birth of a Nation,” (based on the novel “The Clansman”) that prompted President Woodrow Wilson to screen the film at the White House in 1915.
That same year, black intellectuals Carter Woodson and the Rev. Jesse Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History “to promote, research, preserve, interpret, and disseminate information about Black life, history and culture to the global community.” In 1926, the association began observing Negro History Week to coincide with the February birthdays of two emancipators, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
As we close out the 2015 installment of Black History Month, it’s clearer than ever that the observance has been compromised, commercialized — reduced to a casual acknowledgement of slavery and civil rights, Martin Luther King, Fredrick Douglass, Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. Good ol’ Abe gets an honorable mention.
And yet you still hear people gripe from the other side of the racial divide: “Why isn’t there a White History Month?” A more vitriolic attack is mounted on the many “Nigger History Month” websites to be found on the Internet.
The real problem with Black History Month, in my view, is the way it continues to separate black history from American history. That’s a failure to acknowledge how deeply slavery and racism were rooted in the very foundations of American “democracy” and the capitalist system it institutionalized. American history is not just white history. Black history is part of American history and of human history. They are intertwined; there’s no separation.
With an honest study of our shared history we would know that American racism was a pervasive ideology that underpinned an economy by no means limited to the South. We would know about events such as Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 in which Virginia’s planter class — the one percent of its day — reacted in horror to the threat of an alliance between slaves and indentured workers by redefining bondage in purely racial terms applicable to blacks alone. As Karl Marx noted in his study of American slavery, “A Negro is a Negro. He only becomes a slave in certain relations.” You could purchase an African slave and a white indentured servant at the same price — but the slave was owned for life, whereas the indentured servant gained her freedom after 10 years.
Racism was an invention. Its proponents were creating a “wedge issue” that has effectively undermined working-class solidarity across racial lines to this day. A hundred years after Bacon’s Rebellion, the American Constitution was written by men — our Founding Fathers — many of whom were slave owners.
As historian Barbara Jeanne Fields has noted, “American racial ideology is as original an invention of the Founders as is the United States itself. Those holding liberty to be inalienable and holding Afro-Americans as slaves were bound to end by holding race to be a self-evident truth. Thus we ought to begin by restoring to race — that is, the American version of race — its proper history.”
This early history left an indelible mark on the psyche of Americans, black and white, that persists to this day, but we have yet to fully address that history and its legacy. It undergirds the adverse perception of black men by the police and the general public alike and explains today’s gross and persistent racial inequality.
U.S. Census stats for 2013 show black households with a median income of $34,598, compared to $51,939 nationwide. Black youths drop out of high school at double the rate of their white counterparts. While about one in seven Americans is black, four out of 10 prison inmates are black. And so on.
“So many minority families and communities are struggling, so many boys and young men grow up in environments lacking role models, adequate education, and decent employment — they lack all sorts of opportunities that most of us take for granted,” FBI director James Comey recently observed — to howls of outrage from critics on the far right. His observations may be a breakthrough insight for a man in Comey’s position, but black leaders and scholars have been saying the same thing for generations — and have been largely ignored.
Douglass urged Lincoln to extend fair and equal economic opportunities, protection and education to emancipated slaves, only to see those advances reversed during Reconstruction and the rise of the Klu Klux Klan. We blame black folk for not picking themselves up by the bootstraps but fail to acknowledge that 400 years of race-based deprivation have deeply scarred not just African Americans but America as a whole.
Not to deny there’s been progress: A black man was elected president, but anyone who thinks that closed the book on an ugly chapter in U.S. history needs only to tune in the racist vitriol (sometimes coded) and political obstruction (as plain as day) to which Barack Obama has been subjected at every turn.
For 28 days a year, we glance toward the struggle that carried black Americans through hell to the inequities we face today, sing a rousing rendition of “Kumbaya,” and figure that’s enough for the year.
And yet Black History Month still has relevance. Comey’s bold speech — titled “Hard Truths: Law Enforcement and Race” — was delivered at a Black History Month event. “Much of our history is not pretty,” he acknowledged. “Many people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face.”
The good news is that we now realize these biases are taught and learned; they are not biological or ineradicable as the Founding Fathers may have believed. To get past them, we must work to see and listen to each other reciprocally, empathetically and honestly.
As Comey said: “We have spent the 150 years since Lincoln spoke making great progress, but along the way treating a whole lot of people of color poorly.” That’s a blunt recap of a shameful truth. He called racial biases an “inescapable part of the human condition” and acknowledged racism as “our inheritance.” The necessary escape from that imprisoning past is, he said, to learn to “speak the truth about our shortcomings.”
Easier said than done, of course, but near the end of his remarks, Comey also said this: “America isn’t easy. America takes work.”
So does Black History Month.
Eugene Thomas is a self-employed real estate broker, an attorney, a Sunday night DJ on WWOZ and an ordained Babalawo priest in the Ifa tradition of the Yoruba people.