Today is the first day of February. February is important, because I was born in February. Okay, maybe Presidents Day is what makes it important. Celebration of freedom and all that. No, it’s the Super Bowl, that’s the main event in February.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. February is the most important month in the calendar because of its celebration of Black History Month.
Rather than decrying the paucity of Black history we hear about during the rest of the year, let’s take what we have here as a good starting point. For a variety of reasons, much of America knows next to nothing about Black history.
How many American kids first heard of Rosa Parks when she sued Outkast? In your average public school you’re lucky to get George Washington Carver, much less Paul Robeson or W.E.B. Du Bois. So take this month to learn something – Even if you’re not African American, this month is vitally important to you, because Black folk have done more than any other segment of our population to force the United States to live up to its lofty ideals, to strive towards the actualization of "created equal" and to make America truly the Land of the Free. We’ve got a long, long way to go until this is a reality, but we’ve come a long way, and the driving force behind true equal rights for all Americans has been the collective impetus of African Americans.
Two summers ago I was back home in Kentucky visiting my family and my grandmother pulled out a huge collection of correspondence from the antebellum South. Reading a particularly eloquent passage, she went on to say, "You know, many people were wonderful to the black folk they owned – well, I like to say – lived with…" I was shocked. I absolutely could not believe that my grandmother, an intelligent, kind, well-read woman, would say something like that.
However, I’m afraid that this sort of view is much more prevalent than many of us would like to believe, even among our generation. It’s the root of the ideology, ironically couched in the rhetoric of equality, that claims Affirmative Action is "preferential treatment." It’s the root of the impatience many white folks feel when hearing about the horrible trials underwent by African Americans throughout their history: Just get over it! Why is it always about race? This attitude is untenable once you’ve attained the proper frame of reference. My grandmother (whom I love dearly) didn’t mean to be hurtful – she had no idea she was being so. The only way to fix this is through education.
So, when better to go learn about this stuff than Black History Month? Listen, it’s not trite or P.C. – it’s essential. Take the time to educate yourself a little bit. Google "Benjamin Banneker" and "Mary McLeod Bethune" and be amazed at what these brilliant Americans accomplished. Pick up "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" and discover the fierce genius of one of the last century’s boldest political thinkers. Or simply explore the poetry of Walidah Imarisha, Claude McKay or Esther Popel. A great history sourcebook is "Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America," by Lerone Bennett, Jr. Or, better yet, talk to the experts – wander up to the Black Studies department (it’s on the 3rd floor in Neuberger) and see if they have some suggestions for where to start.
If our country has any future, if it has any hope of embodying the beautiful myths upon which it was founded, our only hope is to move forward in unity with one another. My home state’s motto is "United we stand, divided we fall," but this could easily be our pledge of allegiance. Only in solidarity can we create a better, more humane world. Only by openly, honestly confronting the crimes of the past – and the smoothing over of these crimes – can we hope not to repeat them. Euphemisms and lionization only serve to cover the wounds; they will never heal them. African Americans, indeed, all Americans, deserve far better.
Riggs Fulmer can be reached at [email protected]