Peniel Joseph: Trump's version of Black History Month turns our unfolding national racial tragedy into a reality TV farce
He writes: Trump's comments on Douglass aren't only evidence of a need for more and better black history at the White House
Editor’s Note: Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.” The views expressed here are his.
During what he characterized as “our little breakfast” to celebrate Black History Month, President Donald J. Trump, without the least hint of irony, awkwardly praised Frederick Douglass, the nineteenth-century black abolitionist “is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.” Trump’s language prompted immediate speculation that Trump might not know Douglass had been dead since 1895. Twitter lit up with ridicule, with Trump drawing eye-rolls from academics and celebrities alike.
The volume and tone of the response to Trump’s remarks is owed in no small part to the President’s open and successful courting of the alt-right during his campaign, and elevation of Steve Bannon to a position of power inside the White House. It’s particularly jarring to hear Trump speak this way about Douglass, the former slave who penned a best-selling autobiography, who developed a friendship with President Abraham Lincoln and became one of the era’s leading public speakers and critics of slavery and racial injustice.
Douglass is perhaps best known for his 1852 address, “The Meaning of July 4 for the Negro.” In that speech Douglass contrasted Independence Day celebrations promoting freedom and liberty with racial slavery and subjugation that, he argued, crippled America’s democratic aspirations.
Douglass’ speech seems particularly resonant in our current moment. It reminds us that Black History Month matters more than ever. In the age of Trump, Black History Month provides ballast against the President’s two-faced efforts – on full display at the breakfast – to portray himself as a civil rights champion by ham-fistedly invoking the memory of America’s most revered black abolitionist even as he’s aligned himself, in both word and deed, with the kind of white nationalists who Douglass spent his life opposing.
Black History Month, created by the Harvard trained black historian Carter G. Woodson as Negro History Week in 1926, is more vital in our own times than ever for at least three reasons.
Its descriptive intervention allows us to embrace the fullness of American and world history on a previously unimagined scale. By allowing the voices of black women and men, icons and ordinary people, to join in our larger democratic story, we come to see how African-Americans expansively transformed the United States. The struggle for black dignity, both its triumphs and travails, offers a universal story through the particular experiences of African-Americans, one that immigrants, women, people of color and LGBTQ communities can all relate to.
Black history is also prescriptive; it offers a window into how civil rights struggles can fundamentally change democratic institutions for all people. Black politicians after Reconstruction passed legislation that led to public schools. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited gender discrimination that has aided millions of white women and helped to usher in female athletics on college campuses. The Voting Rights Act innovated provisions that increased poll access to Latino citizens. King’s example has inspired freedom struggles on several continents.
And perhaps most importantly, black history is alive. That is to say, from Barack Obama’s historic election to the galvanizing presence of Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the events, social movements, political breakthroughs and human drama that make up Black History Month continue.
Trump’s comments on Douglass aren’t the only evidence of a need for more and better black history at the White House. Reading from prepared remarks, Trump once again used the term “the African-Americans,” keeping up with his (perhaps subconscious) verbal tic of characterizing blacks as an alien other, separate and apart from conventional (read white) American society. Turning to his former campaign rival and recently confirmed HUD secretary Ben Carson, Trump praised the smattering of blacks he met on the campaign as “incredible people.”
After praising Martin Luther King Jr., Trump’s comments took a turn for the worse as the President lingered on erroneous reports that he had removed a bust of King from the Oval Office. Although the report was quickly corrected, Trump characterized it as “fake news” and a “disgrace.” After citing a list of black leaders, including Rosa Parks, Douglass and King, who did “an amazing job” promoting racial justice, Trump praised the group of black conservatives in attendance, while failing to mention that such supporters represent only 8% of the black electorate.
The entire scene could have been mistaken for an updated episode of “The Twilight Zone,” because it shamefully distorted Trump’s actual relationship with the larger African-American community. The pied-piper of racial animus, mistrust and division pronounced himself a champion of Black History Month before a handpicked group of black supporters, journalists and photographers.
Trump’s puerile efforts to endorse a minstrel show version of black history turns our unfolding national racial tragedy into a reality TV show farce, co-starring Dr. Ben Carson as the unfortunate stand-in for every hapless sidekick in Western history whose grinning posture hides unspeakable amounts of pain and humiliation.
The man who smeared the first black president with the birther lie, surrounded by conservative black supporters expounding on the importance of black history, makes for a new kind of racial vertigo. When Teddy Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington into the White House, he didn’t pose for photo ops as Trump did with his band of racial conservatives, a mix of faith leaders, military veterans, and radio and television personalities. Nor would Lyndon Johnson have threatened King with federal intervention to halt violence in Chicago, a statement Trump reiterated at the breakfast.
The “amazing” civil rights heroes Trump mentioned during his “little breakfast” would have unequivocally protested his White House’s draconian views on racial justice, especially King. King spoke of the “fierce urgency of now” in opposing war, materialism and racism. More fundamentally, Black History Month (and black history more generally) is about more than just “amazing” people from the past or political messaging. Black history represents how everyday and heroic experiences, achievements, successes and failures of African-Americans shape our country’s story.
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Trump’s political vision for America – supported by a White House Cabinet populated overwhelmingly by white men who support policy, legislative and legal views that are hostile to the idea of African-American citizenship and racial equality – denies this reality, focusing instead on the supposedly pathological behavior of black communities.
Black History Month offers a different vision, one President Trump and our country both desperately need to see right now.