By Julian Turner
Aaahh, here we are again, another African-American History month. Per usual I hear the questions from all races and ethnicities about the relevancy of this continued observation as if we are reflecting fondly on some piece of nostalgia like a Jackson or Lee statue or Confederate battle flag. We’ve all heard the stories. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. blocked a bridge in Selma. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Now, fifty-three years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, and ninety-one years after the first Negro History Week, can this still be relevant? We just had eight years of an African-American president, proof positive that all is equal in the United States of America and the disparities of its past eradicated. All anyone has to do is go to school, study, work hard, and they can be anything they want, including president. The American Dream. Over the years since Carter G. Woodson dreamt up Negro History Week much has changed. African-Americans have been Coloreds, and Negros, and Afro-Americans, and Blacks, and now African-Americans.
There has been undeniable progress through the passage of time – from slavery to convict leasing, through Jim Crow Segregation and the race-based guidelines of the Federal Housing Administration, bus boycotts and the Civil Rights Movement, red-lining (sort of), and more. “Starin’ at the world through my rearview/Go on baby scream to God, he can’t hear you.” The words of the late hip hop artist Tupac Shakur. Is that what I am doing? Is that what Black people are doing, holding onto ghosts of the past? Feeling as if we’ve been crying out only to have the sound of our own voices reverberate back as if alone in a cavern. As the unique place of Black people in U.S. history gets lost under the mantra of “people of color,” I declare there is absolutely a need for Black History Month. Not simply to recycle the same handful of notable Black names conjured every February, but to look beyond and celebrate Kathrine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, Ella Baker, Ava Duvernay, Assata Shakur, and Angela Y. Davis; To look at the contributions of Bayard Rustin, John Henrik Clarke, Marion Barry, Charles Drew, Lewis Latimer and Mumia Abu Jamal. To hear more than short simple excerpts (some not even in context) of speeches but to read and listen to the fullness of what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Sojourner Truth had to say and write, their universal desire for the equality of all. Some may have been flawed, or made terrible decisions, but then again so did J. Edgar Hoover, Christopher Columbus, Bull Conner, Oliver North, John C. Calhoun, and yes, Bill and Hillary Clinton. We learn about those figures because they are part of the history, good, bad, or otherwise, of the United States of America, just as Black history is a part of this country’s history but is not taught equally. History is taught in schools named for slave owners, racists and white supremacists, Washington, Jefferson, Tillman, Lee, Roger Taney, and Curly Byrd. Conversely I have been unable to locate a single public school named for Nat Turner, Stono River, Hiram Rhodes Revel, Edward Brooke, or Gabriel Prosser.
The divide between Blacks and whites has not been erased when it takes Carolyn Bryant, Emmitt Till’s accuser, sixty years to recant her allegations of “lewd advances,” the equivalent of rape given the racial dynamic, that led to the brutal lynching of a fourteen-year-old Black boy. The legacy and impact of harms have not been addressed, much less healed, when it takes LaGrange, Georgia leaders, over 76 years to acknowledge and apologize for the murder of 16-year-old Black teen Austin Calloway who was shot multiple times. (Calloway was in jail when a mob of six men snatched him out of a jail cell and murdered him. There has been no documentation discovered detailing the allegations that prompted his arrest.)
Only when the 13th Amendment can be fully illumed and all are aware of its caveat for continued slavery. Only when voting rights for all exists without impediment. Only when the United States of America can reckon with the horrors of its past genocide of First Nation peoples, the theft and slavery of Africans, the abuse of Chinese railway workers. Only when the U.S. does not continue to behave as if these atrocities have not occurred. Only when the U.S. stops acknowledges the continued impact of edicts like the electoral college and again, the 13th Amendment. Only when political parties stop using Blacks for votes or pitting poor Blacks against poor whites. As our current president, in a recent interview, so bluntly stated “You think our country’s so innocent?” When these things that are in the rearview are appropriately addressed and resolved, then we can whimsically discuss, “Do we still need Black history month?” or “Remember when we had to have a Black history month” and it will not be an insult. Until that time, Black History Month is still relevant and must continue to be observed.
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
- The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
- A Testament of Hope by Dr. Martin Luther King