Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was the 16-year-old valedictorian of his high school class in 1964 — also known as “Freedom Summer” — when the slaying of three civil rights workers punctuated escalating racial violence in his state. What does he remember about the time? “Not much,” he told The Associated Press recently. What he does remember is revisionist, including claims that his generation attended integrated schools and the racist White Citizens’ Councils were civil rights champions.
In October, it was discovered that a textbook in Virginia elementary and middle schools claimed that thousands of black soldiers fought for the South in the Civil War. According to “Our Virginia,” among the hordes of African-Americans fighting for the Confederacy were “two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.” Though Confederate apologists make similar assertions, most historians reject the claims, the textbooks have been pulled and the publisher is replacing them at no cost to the schools.
Then there are clueless wonders such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who last month insisted that the founding fathers “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States,” a nation she said was founded on racial and ethnic diversity. But last summer, she claimed that President Obama was turning the United States into “a nation of slaves.”
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And folks still ask if we really need a Black History Month? Are they serious?
Actually, it’s a fair question if the inference is March through January are exempt. If that’s the case, designating February as the time to recognize, honor and celebrate blacks’ saga in America smacks of tokenism.
But considering the constant stream of half-truths and whole lies it must combat, Black History Month definitely has not outlived its usefulness.
Although we set February aside, there’s no real separation or division between black American history and non-black American history. Unraveling the two is no more possible than disjoining the commingled blood that courses through our veins.
So why bother?
Because even today, the full story still isn’t told. Even though society has made tremendous strides since 1926, when lynchings were community events that drew entire families, large segments of blacks and whites still don’t see the whole picture. Their frame of reference is limited by preconceived notions and stereotypes of “us” and “them.”
Too many blacks have succumbed to feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness, blaming “the man” for their condition, conveniently ignoring the success stories of those who defied the odds.
Likewise, too many whites believe that blacks are hopeless and powerless, blaming them for that condition, conveniently ignoring the centuries of oppression that prepped the still-fertile soil.
But you can’t determine how we arrived here without re-tracing the steps.
You can’t see how the high absentee rate among black fathers is related to the systemic emasculation of black males, dating to slavery. You can’t see how the achievements of a Barack Obama relate to the accomplishments of a Frederick Douglass.
Without studying the entire story, you won’t know that men such as John Brown hated oppression as much as the Bull Connor loved it. You won’t know that society’s sexualization of black females is tied to teenage pregnancy rates.
And you won’t know that lowlifes and ne’er-do-wells exist on both sides of the color line, but only blacks ones seem to besmirch their whole race.
The truth is, the way Black History Month is celebrated now — recognizing an assortment of achievers while corporate America tries to market the event — does as much harm as good. Our collective journey is boiled down to a handful of celebrities and consumer products, a 28-day break before resuming our state of forgetfulness.
It would be unfortunate if mainstream America decided emphasizing the whole story was no longer important, not even worth the year’s shortest month.
But even if that happened, we should continue to teach upcoming generations from whence they came.
Just like the Jewish pledge to “Never Forget,” it’s imperative that blacks remember the pain, the suffering, sacrifices and success of their ancestors. It’s crucial to remember the debt we owe them.
Do we really need a Black History Month?
Absolutey. Now as much as ever.