Commentary: Black history still matters after February

The State (Columbia, S.C.)March 11, 2012 

"Black History Month ended the last day of February. The articles on civil rights, if necessary, should have been carried then."

I'll never forget that short but puzzling letter to the editor we received — and published — back in March of 2003; the writer was responding to our newsroom's award-winning series on civil rights in South Carolina.

What was the letter writer really saying? That all things black-related should cease to be addressed or even exist when February comes to an end? That African-American issues are of no import outside of a designated time period? That the civil rights movement, during which America found its soul and sense of morality, was only about black people?

Black History Month ended on Wednesday. Funny thing; when I woke up Thursday, I was still here. And still black. So were the millions of other African-Americans in this state and country. We don’t get to choose another race or ethnicity at February’s end. Nor would I want to.

And the many issues, past and present, that confront African-Americans don’t cease to exist just because we turn a page on a calendar. Whether it’s self-inflicted wounds such as teen pregnancy, black-on-black crime, crime in general and poor educational achievement or outside assaults such as racism, discrimination, insensitivity and poor educational opportunities, black people must contend with these matters — as must everyone else — many of which have their origins in our collective history.

If we fail to grasp history, we’re subject to squandering present opportunities and fumbling away our future.

Black History Month gives us the chance to recognize the contributions of the many who have gone on before us who weren’t given any credit, who weren’t given any respect. On the contrary, black people for so long in this country were enslaved, disenfranchised, abused, overlooked and left out. Chronicling black history isn’t an attempt to overshadow other ethnic and racial groups and what they’ve experienced. It’s an attempt to complete — not rewrite — the historical record of America. Black people’s experience here is unique; black people suffered in America in a way that few could say they did.

But even in the midst of that suffering is a story of grit, triumph, accomplishment and spiritual renewal. It’s a truly American story that must be told and retold.

While the month often seems to center around what amount to the answers to trivia questions (who invented the fountain pen or lawn mower) or repetitive studies of Martin Luther King Jr., Harriett Tubman and other noteworthy giants in American history, it’s important that we also seek to have productive discussions about what’s going on in today’s society. For example, it’s critical for us to know the role African-Americans played in transforming this nation’s heart from stone to compassion during the civil rights movement.

The discussion of the history of black people in America can’t be relegated to one month, and then shelved until the next year. Frankly, black history should not be relegated to a single month. It should be a year-round experience. It should be integrated into U.S. history books and taught in the nation’s schools.

No one disputes that we should teach students American history. Guess what? Black history is American history.

While there have been some attempts to teach more black history in our schools, we have yet to truly integrate it into the curriculum. That is why we take time out each February to give special attention to the achievements of black Americans. Some schools and districts do better than others, but for the most part, it is taught around the edges.

Of course, one reason many don’t want to deal with black history — whether in school or in the halls of government or in communities — is that it’s not a neat little story; even as it uplifts moments of pride and progress, it unearths atrocities and degradation heaped upon a race of people. It raises unresolved questions of race and equality — questions that will never be put to rest without meaningful dialogue followed by direct and sincere attempts at solutions and resolution.

The fact that some criticize setting aside time to recognize African-Americans’ contributions to our nation’s history and culture is a sad testament to why we continue to lag in giving black Americans their due for their struggles, exploits and triumphs that helped shape the United States.

We need to be reminded of things we must never forget. Black History Month helps us do that. It helps us catch up on all we’ve missed and omitted and helps integrate the black experience into American history. Black people have been in the United States at least as far back as colonial times, but it was the 20th century before they really began to be included in history books; even then it was often in an inferior or negative light. That’s why Carter G. Woodson, the son of former slaves and a Harvard graduate, concerned that history books virtually ignored black people, pushed for change. In 1926, he established Negro History Week; that became Black History Month in 1976.

Since then we’ve witnessed the growth of the black middle class, the rise of African-Americans as CEOs of major corporations and the selection of two black U.S. secretaries of state. America watched in amazement as Barack Obama surged to the presidency in 2008.

But despite all the positive change, there are still hills to cross, bridges to be built and barriers to be knocked down. Look no further than our State House grounds, where the Confederate flag continues to fly.

The lack of a full understanding and appreciation of our past is what allows this state to so blatantly offend so many of its citizens.

Ultimately, the key to our future lies in our past.

So that we’ll appreciate it. So that we’ll learn from it. So that we won’t repeat and relive its ugliest moments.

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