Black History Month

Note: In recognition of Black History Month, I republish, with slight revisions, my blog post of February 1, 2015 and February 3, 2017 under the title African American History Month, and of February 4, 2020 under the current heading.

Although I am one who, on reflection and reconsideration, characteristically changes his mind, this word still rings true in my heart, soul, and spirit.

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In 1976, as a part of the United States Bicentennial Celebration, Black History Month was recognized by the federal government as an annual occasion, in the words of then President Gerald Ford, to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Black History Month’s forerunner, Negro History Week, was established in 1926 by historian Carter Godwin Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Negro History Week was observed in the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass; February 12 and 14, respectively (dates since the late 19th century held in honor in black communities). Negro History Week focused on advancing the teaching and study in public schools of the history of black people in America.

I am a nearly 70-year-old African American educated in St. Louis public schools. I remember the dearth of system-authorized black history instruction. This glaring deficiency in content and in spirit was addressed and assuaged by the committed efforts of my nuclear and extended families and my elementary school teachers. They all, in conscious collaboration, fulfilled my grandmother Audia Mae Hoard Roberts’ proclamation, “Paul, to know yourself, you must know your people’s history.” Hence, I have an elemental, perhaps eternal affinity for Black History Month.

More expansively, I think of America. In the words of Irving Berlin’s fabled song, God Bless America, this “land that I love” has yet to incarnate fully the dream of Langston Hughes, who, speaking for all peoples, native and immigrant, white and black, said, “O, let America be America again; the land that never has been yet, and yet must be; the land where every man is free.” Therefore, in my view, for America to know herself, she must know her black people’s history.

Nevertheless, as a pluralist who rejoices in our racial diversity and as an inclusivist who equally relishes our common humanity, my inner inquisitor wonders and, sometimes, worries about Black History Month.

How fair is it to the concept of our universal humanness to dedicate any period (a day, a week, a month, a year or more) to the history of any one race?

And how fair is it to relegate the study of black history to any period when my people’s history, a vivid, inerasable thread in the rich tapestry of our national being and becoming, is American history?

(My aunt, Evelyn Hoard Roberts, an English professor, cherished the idea, the ideal of interdisciplinary and interracial – that is, shared, not separate – approaches to education. To that end, in 1977, she published American Literature and the Arts Including Black Expression.)

Yet, as Langston’s prophecy remains to be fulfilled, I continue to pray in his words:

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

As I believe that true equality is achieved in real part when all of us know the histories of each of us, I will commemorate and celebrate Black History Month.

© 2021 PRA

6 thoughts on “Black History Month

  1. Dear Paul,

    Thank you for marking, once again, the beginning of Black History Month and recording again its history and its reason for being. Your grandmother’s words about the necessity of knowing your people’s history in order to know yourself are so wise. I deeply respect your questions that point to recognition of the fact that ALL Americans should have the opportunity and privilege to learn the history of ALL Americans, that there should be no necessity to set aside a period of time to focus on one group of Americans’ contributions, struggles, experiences, and triumphs as if it were a separable piece of the fabric of American history. The fact that such single focus has been, and sadly still is, unequivocally necessary for the history of Black Americans or any other group sends a glaring spotlight on one of the issues that should be of greatest concern and immediacy for all Americans, particularly in these years of turmoil and division – the issue of equality, of dignity, of respect, of opportunity, for each and every American, regardless of ethnic background, skin color, native language, or sexual and/or gender identity.

    What I have been gradually learning over the past several years – and more deeply and with greater commitment in this moment – is that the same forces and factors that made and make Black History Month absolutely necessary particularly for Black Americans, but in actuality for all Americans, have also deprived me, as a descendant of 17th and 18th-century immigrants from mostly England, Scotland, and Ireland, of being able to know myself in the way your grandmother suggested to you, by knowing “your people.”

    Knowledge and connection to my own particular British Isles working class (largely woolen and textile, so far as I can discern) farmer and worker ancestors were obscured and discouraged by the colonial forces of wealth and political power that, for their own purposes, deemed that my and my ancestors’ chief identity as Americans should be “white.” Their purpose, I am learning, was to deter my ancestors, some of whom, I am sure, were indentured servants, by offering them limited societal privilege, from relationship, community, and any temptation to economic or political solidarity with enslaved people of African descent and with enslaved or exploited indigenous people, with whom my ancestors probably had a great deal more in common than with their European overlords.

    I am just beginning to grasp the startling knowledge of how my ancestors, and later groups of American immigrants, were undoubtedly exploited in return for the privilege of calling themselves “white” and to connect that reality to the growth of a poisonous white supremacy that, I now understand, was purposefully built into the colonial foundations of law and culture in the future United States by the politically and economically powerful designers of America as the ultimate opportunity for their own enrichment.

    You perhaps know all of this much better than I do, Paul. I find myself still reeling from what I am learning now that I have finally committed to explore in depth what it has meant and what it means today to be “white” in this country. Your post on Black History Month and your grandmother’s words to you suggest to me that Black Americans and other “non-white” groups have done a much better job, even in the face of terribly difficult history, of examining their roots, their heritages, and their history and the meanings of all those things than we who are deemed “white” have done to come to grips with the truths of our own pasts.

    Thank you again, Paul, for keeping ideas, questions, and challenges before us, for challenging complacency, for telling your life’s truths so that I and others feel called to look at and name our own. May Black History Month be filled with the energy of sharing life-affirming information, with celebrating the courage of heroes, with marking triumphs, with mourning deep and senseless losses, with expressing gratitude for the grace and truth of never-ending struggle and progress. May it also challenge every one of us to see the important truths embedded and sometimes hidden in our own histories.

    Much love to you, my brother Paul,

    Karen

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  2. My beloved Karen, this seemingly eternal tension between openness to all (in recognition of the commonality of our humankindness) and closeted-ness from all others (with our identified and recognized kith and kin) runs deeply and inherently in the human consciousness and unconsciousness…

    And what you address as the monochromatic-naming of whiteness as opposed and superior to all else, yes, historically has abolished/rubbed out our lines of discrimination (in the best sense of clarity of discernment) of our roots and, thus, our rootedness. Moreover, as you point out, manifold are the connections across lines of color in terms of history and economics, which the system of discrimination was designed to obliterate…

    In this regard, one of the questions I have asked myself repeatedly, particularly o’er these past four years: How is that one, Donald Trump, who has presented himself to the world as an uber-accomplished-uber-wealthy oligarch, found such appeal with working-class folk? Could it be that he tapped into political-status of what it is to be white-in-this-world, which is a universal-identifier irrespective of socio-economic class? If or then so, it is, in my view, a false modifier, for, ultimately, we – each and all – are more alike than different. Oh, why cannot we seek AND see the value of our commonality?

    Love,
    Paul

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    1. Oh, I wish I had an answer for you, Paul. The fostering of bitter division based on race and ethnicity is seen as great business savvy by a certain ilk of wealthy and powerful people, and there’s something that allows it to succeed. I can only guess that narcissistic character and behavior must look like strength and competence to people whose own egos are desperate and struggling, not strong enough to stand on their own and without a sufficient foundation of trust in either a loving God or ordinary fellow human beings to be able to reject the puny “privilege” of identifying with corrupt power.

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  3. Dear Paul and Karen,
    Once again you two have brought me joy!! I have always had mixed feelings about Black History Month too primarily because I’m often mad at myself that I haven’t made it priority every day to learn as much as possible about US. I also like Paul want to learn about everyone else for a month too. A month is NOT NEARLY enough to learn about our people and our struggle, but it’s better than a week.
    I did start my reading yesterday (a day early on purpose), reading a couple of essays of MLK. I hope to get to another couple of books and series too this month but it’s a really busy month. I’m taking two classes on the Speaking Business and writing two talks. I put a couple of Smithsonian events on my calendar just to ensure I don’t forget to attend.
    When I think about Paul’s question about how Trump has such appeal, even fanatical appeal, I am at a loss for words. It’s one of my loss for words situations of my life and at times the weight of his appeal causes me to give up. It’s then that I swing back loving Black History Month because it reminds me that our history and everyone who contributed to it is exactly WHY I can’t give up even when or especially when there are so many questions I can’t answer.
    Much love to you both.

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  4. Karen, I think…I feel that your analysis is, sadly, yet surely right: “…narcissistic character and behavior must look like strength and competence to people whose own egos are desperate and struggling, not strong enough to stand on their own and without a sufficient foundation of trust in either a loving God or ordinary fellow human beings to be able to reject the puny ‘privilege’ of identifying with corrupt power.” For Mr. Trump, among his manifold foci, in my view and hearing, has narrowed and does narrow his attention and emphasis to the imagery of vigor and power, the employ of force, and being strong. Yes, I can understand how and why this appeals to one and ones who feel and believe they have been oppressed or dispossessed. Nevertheless, I wonder how and why I, should I desire some recompense and, as the olden bromide has it, “by any means necessary,” to address and ameliorate my sad condition of life, do not and cannot understand that the exercise of force cheapens the attainment of my goals and, even more, stirs a like response, compelling the use of counter-force against me. On a similar note, it occurs to me that when one, in this case, Mr. Trump, desires…needs adulation and appreciation of others (doubtless, I believe, because at some deep level of his own knowing and unknowing, he is aware of his fundamental existential lack of stable selfdom), it, his way of being and speaking and acting, can appeal to one, aye, to me, when and if, one has, I have the same need (whether one is, I am conscious of it or not).

    Loretta, now, it occurs to me that you, as an African American person, woman, in your ongoing efforts to incarnate care for caregivers, which flows from your own depth of love for your mother and for yourself, are making history. In this, I think that history — that ongoing, ever increasing record of human endeavoring — and individuals are joined in an inextricable bond. Thus, history provides a place for human being and action and human being and action make history. Thus, as I’m wont to say: Carry on!

    Love you, each and both, always and in all ways,
    Paul

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  5. Dear Paul,

    Amen to your thoughts on Trump and his appeal. Brokenness from its perch in the glaring spotlight it has created for itself, roughly pasted over with bravado and cheap gilt, looks like salvation to the brokennesses with little or no ability to construct such synthetic and superficial defenses for themselves.

    And Amen also to your conviction that Loretta is making history every day! I don’t think that anyone has ever suggested that Black History Month (or any history for that matter) be only backward-looking. Those people who are engaged in MAKING tomorrow’s history are as surely, if not even more, engaged in its honoring and celebration as we who are reading books, listening to historic speeches, and attending events and exhibits in an effort to catch up with what we weren’t given the opportunity to learn in the past. I learn so much from Loretta every time I hear from her, not only about her pursuits, but about the extraordinary vibrancy and dedication of her life and how she came to craft it from the influences of her own history with her mother, her sister, her own health issues, Tim, their travels, her remarkable women friends, her jobs, etc. I love it when you say to Loretta, “Carry on!” But to be very honest with you, I can’t even imagine Loretta for one single minute NOT carrying on!

    So much love to you both. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to have each and both of you in my life. As far as I’m concerned, you are both making history daily!

    Karen

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