At its best, Black History Month serves two important purposes in today’s American culture. The first is a needed expression of black pride.
The second, of growing importance to public policy, is to fill the large gaps in American history that have been glossed over in our textbooks and collective memory.
The first, black pride, is a counter-weight to the stereotypes and misconceptions about black people that still saturate American culture. Black History Month and the oft-maligned African-American Studies curricula at American universities provide education and encouragement for young black people. The stories of triumph over slavery, terrorism, and oppression help inspire today’s youth to overcome their own obstacles.
A great irony is that black historical education is attacked for teaching blacks “to be victims,” often by aggrieved conservatives who think “their” country needs to be “taken back.”
The fact is, there is still a large amount of shame associated with being black. Many politicians and talking heads speak of a debauched and harmful “black culture” that explains the many socio-economic disparities in the United States.
Indeed, much of the rhetoric today about racial disparities comes off not so much as white racial supremacy, but black cultural inferiority. That the terms have shifted away from the biological to some nebulous, undefined cultural deficiency of black people is white supremacy re-packaged as a cultural norm, even if it comes out of Mia Love’s mouth.
The scapegoating of “black culture” for the problems of the black community begs the question, presuming that “black culture” has developed independently of how blacks have been treated by American society. The externalities that American society puts on black people—ghettoization, substandard public schools, abusive criminal justice systems, and decreased economic prospects—are swept away by social condemnation and absurd allegations against hip hop.
If America created the negative aspects of “black culture,” then perhaps some solutions also lie outside of the black community. Many Americans would prefer to absolve America for its hundreds of years of exploitation, oppression, terrorism, and subjugation of black people, and instead blame an intangible “pathology” of unknown origin for the current state of affairs.
This is why the second role of Black History Month is so crucial.
Generally speaking, the way America teaches history is deplorable. The watered-down fairy-tale version of our history can be found in our folklore, grade school textbooks, and throughout our media. Race aside for a moment, how we think about war, government, technology, religion, and nearly everything else tends to be framed in false dichotomies and trivial facts without contextualizing how and why events happened, let alone how events were perceived by those who lived through them.
But in America, despite the best efforts of many, we cannot put race aside. Racism has been omnipresent in American history, but it has been far from static. Slavery and its justifications spawned a particularly awful strain of anti-black racism in America. Racism evolved to seek selfish economic ends and justify punitive unconstitutional laws. It has justified social and economic benefits to some while depriving them to others. It has allowed a tolerance of abuse by both government and private citizens.
Racism has broken apart families and even the nation itself.
American slavery was a remarkably violent institution of rape, subjugation, brutality, and slaughter—far from the benign ‘peculiar institution’ it is still often believed to be. In the years following Emancipation, black American towns and settlements were literally destroyed by white mob violence. At least one black-run government was destroyed in a violent coup d’état. Decades later, homes of black families who tried to integrate white neighborhoods were bombed—in places like Chicago, not just Birmingham. And, most famously throughout this time, the history of American lynching as method of social control has more victims than may ever fully be known.
Before “black culture” was an epithet to explain bad economic outcomes, it was an active target of murderous white terrorism all over the country. The history of racism in America isn’t just about segregated lunch counters and water fountains.
Simply put, it is a history of violence.
Violence and abuse have been part of the black experience with law enforcement in America since the days of slavery. A person could recite this speech by Malcolm X about police brutality in many black neighborhoods, and it would be just as relevant more than fifty years later. If one stops to think about the years of injustice meted out by those charged with protecting us, he might start to understand why quality of life in many black communities has gotten worse instead of better over the past half century.
This nation and its government have repeatedly and continuously abused its black citizens. This is no accident of history; it has been part and parcel of our legacy, and it continues to play out in America’s streets, jails, and elsewhere. The circumstances faced by poor blacks in America today are in no small part due to the national inheritance of abuse and neglect.
Clearly, socio-economic circumstances have improved for many black Americans. But that the United States has enabled more black Americans to succeed has not erased the legacies that continue to stifle the black underclass. There have always been successful black people in America. But their success didn’t negate the unfairness and violence that kept far more blacks indigent and oppressed.
Black history is a guide to more fully understand American history and, therefore, the American present. Without it, social commentators are left with the same tired assertions of black cultural inferiority, without the slightest consideration of American cultural failure.