The Past As Prologue: Why We Still Need Black History Month
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
A 2006 article by Mema Ayi and Demetrius Patterson from the Chicago Defender reported that “actor Morgan Freeman created a small firestorm…when he told Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” that he finds Black History Month (BHM) ridiculous.” Freeman goes on to say that “Americans perpetrate racism by relegating Black history to just one month when Black history is American history.”
I agree with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that as Americans we are tied together “…in an inescapable network of mutuality…Whatever affects one [of us]…affects [all of us] as Americans in this country.
As you can clearly see, the month of February dedicated to Black history continues to stir controversy. However, we can’t continue to ignore the fact that although we have made progress towards racial unity, we still have ways to go towards racial harmony, understanding and tolerance, if not acceptance.
Scholars and historians such as Conrad Worrill, chairman of the National Black United Front, agree that Black Americans still need February, and every day, to reflect on the accomplishments of Black Americans who contributed countless inventions and innovations to society.
Radio personality Cliff Kelley notes that capricious historians conveniently leave out certain parts of the story that do not corroborate their version of history, which consists mostly of White men. Blacks are virtually removed from the narrative to substantiate the White historical agenda. Plenty of Black youths do not know their history. Most of them think that their history begins and ends with slavery.
Former State Representative David Miller (D-Calamut City, Ill) asserted that Freeman was right in saying that Black history should be a year round thing. “We’ve shaped America,” he said, “but that Black History Month should serve as a reminder of our legacy.”
The recently deceased Howard Zinn wrote in his book A People’s History of the United States, “There is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important than the United States.” He poses the question, “Is it possible for Blacks and Whites to live together without hatred?”
When it comes to the evolution of racism, he had this to say: “…slavery developed into a regular institution of the normal labor relations between Blacks and Whites in the New World. With it developed that special racial feeling — whether hatred or contempt or pity or patronization — that accompanied the inferior position of Blacks in America…that combination of inferior status and derogatory thought we call racism.”
He goes on to say, “The point is the elements of this web are historical, not ‘natural.’ This does not mean that they are easily disentangled or dismantled. It only means that there is a possibility for something else, under historical conditions not yet realized.”
In a 2010 article in The Boston Phoenix, “Is There Hope in Hollywood?” Peter Keough extrapolates the medium of film is making an effort to bridge the race gap. They do this by portraying Blacks as heads of state — in movies like Transformers 2, 2012 and Invictus — although the contexts in which a Black man becomes president is often created by a catastrophe in which the White leader is killed. Or Blacks are still being portrayed in glaring stereotypical roles such as in Precious, with racist clichés like Precious stealing and eating an entire box of fried chicken.
The undercurrent of racism is evident even from well-meaning Whites like President Biden, when he ran against Obama for president. Biden declared that “[Obama] is the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean, and a nice looking guy.” Similarly, another fellow Democrat, the former Senate majority leader Harry Reid wrote in his book Game Change, about Obama that America is ready for a Black president, particularly because he is “light skinned and speaks with no Negro dialect.”
This leads me to extrapolate that despite all that Blacks have contributed to the making of America, this becomes extraneous compared to the first impression our colorful appearance makes. I am compelled to recall what Dr. King, Jr. so eloquently stated, that Black people should be judged “by the contents of their character” and not their skin color.
Many modern conveniences spring from the inventions of Black inventors: blood banks facilitating life-saving transfusions, the bicycle, the electric trolley, the dustpan, comb, brush, clothes dryer, walkers, lawn mower, IBM computers, gas masks, traffic signals, the pen, peanut butter…The list goes on and on.
Thanks to the Academy Award nominated film, Hidden Figures, we’re now all familiar with the amazing contributions of mathematical geniuses Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, whose work helped make Neil Armstrong the first man on the moon! All of these achievements have become part of our daily lives here in America and around the world as the result of African-American contributions to the economic and scientific stronghold known as America.
Sadly, we still need Black History Month to remind us!
Excerpted with permission of the author from Chain Letter To America: The One Thing You Can Do To End Racism by Jacques Fleury. 2019.
Jacques Fleury is a Haitian-American poet, educator and author. His book “Sparks in the Dark: A Lighter Shade of Blue, A Poetic Memoir about life in Haiti and America” was featured in the Boston Globe. His latest book, Chain Letter to America: The One Thing You Can Do to End Racism, explores xenophobia in America. Visit him at www.authorsden.com/jacquesfleury.