To escape marginalization, Black History Month must embrace ‘hard truths’

Lynching, this one in Rosewood, Fl., in 1923, remained an extra-judicial reality in the United States until after the mid-20h Century.

Museum of Black People Lynching

Lynching, this one in Rosewood, Fl., in 1923, remained an extra-judicial reality in the United States for well after World War II.

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.

It isn’t.

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.

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  • Great piece, now I can see our next generation of freedom fighters finishing this long drawn out battle of racism so we can have a beautiful future. The world hasn’t ended yet,

  • nickelndime

    Racism is one piece of the American dream picture. This country is a mess in a lot of ways. Keep pushing WE THE PEOPLE’S buttons and they won’t pay attention to the big picture. One in four hogs raised in the US is owned by China. How does that make us feel? We won’t see it coming. It’s calied the KANSAS CITY SHUFFLE. Learn Mandarin quickly. This won’t last. The survivors won’t have time to notice the color of anybody’s skin or cultural differences or celebrate anything. 02/27/2015 2:34 PM

  • Who are you, and what did you do with the guy who was writing about dog sh*t a few weeks back?

  • nickelndime

    It looks as though Eugene is multi-talented and might have an unusual sense of humor. Let’s move a couple of things around and change perspective. Eugene is a self-employed priest for some Babalowoian deity. He is also a traditional (in the sense of the Yoruba people) Ifa DJ, a Sunday night attorney, and an ordained real estate broker (it helps in this city). Eugene probably has at least one dog, or at least had a dog at one time. Eugene IS learning Mandarin and will not be caught “unaware” (as most of us will be) during the imminent takeover. Eugene has stock in pork bellies and can talk his way out of a ticket with a Louisiana State Trooper on a city street, but not on the highway. Yes, Eugene is the same guy who was writing about dog $hi* a while back, but now he has switched to another topic. Obviously, the guy does not mind pushing buttons, but then 99% of the people who “post” or write here do not mind pushing buttons. Some even are so bold as to write under their real names. Others, I suspect, may have the need to operate undercover for a variety of reasons. LMAspO! (that’s my pet snake ASP – and yes, that is my ASP’s real name) 02/28/2015 3:42 PM

  • nickelndime

    Eugene, U kno U is toyin’ wit us BUOY! That is one helluva picture. And at a time when the media’s reliability and truthfulness is being questioned. Either you is a Saint or one helluva Sinner. I can’t decide. 02/28/2015 11:27 PM

  • D. Wole Murray-Ifa

    Actually, I would like to thank The Lens for addressing this obviously important issue, and Eugene Thomas for doing an excellent job of writing about it!! And, YES, that photo IS appropriate! Why? Well, for one thing, notice several of these comment section responses: obviously, from some of the thoughts expressed here, there is a woeful ignorance about just what the African-American community has endured through its 300+ year experience in the United States…Now, what they continue to go through — the weekly murders (by governmental officials and others), the health, financial, educational, real estate, etc., etc. discriminations — I’m sure we are ALL more educated about — even if we choose to ignore, or even reject, them!! So, “I salute you” Eugene Thomas, and The Lens, for stepping up to the plate and taking a good swing at White Supremacy, and its totally ignorant, slavish followers… While much more work needs to be done in this regard, every journey of a seemingly long distance, requires one to not only take a first-step, but many many continual steps after that! Aboru aboye abosise Baba Awo ni Ase ooo IFA :-)!