Editor’s Note: Kerra L. Bolton is the founder of Unmuted Consulting, a strategic political communications consultancy and online academy that helps individuals, communities and organizations spark and drive change. She also is a freelance writer and former political reporter and analyst in North Carolina. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
It is a strange thing to celebrate Black History at this jagged, racially divided, moment in US history. Some of the passages from the 1968 Kerner Commission Report on race and racial violence in cities, for example, sound like they could have been written in our own moment.
Meanwhile, observing Black History Month in American public schools has usually meant glossing over the brutal reality of slavery and Jim Crow in favor of nonviolent and nonthreatening role models.
Such a myopic view of American history allows white supremacy to flourish. If slaves were “immigrants” and the American Civil War was fought over “states rights” rather than slavery, then blacks today are unemployed and underemployed at greater numbers than whites because they are inferior, not because they are paid less and more likely to attend inadequate public schools.
However, a more accurate and complete view of American, not just black, history must be taught and learned if we are to heal persistent racial prejudice and division. There can be no reconciliation without truth. That truth begins through a brutally honest and painstaking examination of our national and personal history.
With the cultural, political, and social backdrop against which we celebrate Black History Month in 2018, one must ask the question: Is it time to revisit its observance?
The observance of Black History Month began in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, first known as Negro History Week and timed to coincide with the black community’s celebration of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14).
The purpose of the observance was to encourage the coordinated teaching of black history in America’s public schools. In 1976, President Gerald Ford made the month-long celebration official when he recognized it as part of the U.S. Bicentennial.
Today, activists and social media influencers such as Harriet’s Apothecary and Vintage Black Glamour are redefining the observance of Black History Month to include examples of African-American resistance and elegance – not just the same embodiments of excellence every February: Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, and Sojourner Truth.
Today, Black History Month includes symbols of modern resistance, like Sandra Bland. And Vintage Glamour runs all year long. These are the next, right, evolutionary steps in observing Black History Month because when we only note black excellence, we obscure the white tyranny that made such excellence improbable and extraordinary in the first place.
We cannot, for example, applaud the incredible courage of six-year-old Ruby Bridges, who in 1960, integrated Louisiana public schools without seeing the angry, contorted faces of the white women who marched behind her, screaming “nigger go home.”
The Obamas left the White House more than a year ago. President Donald Trump has unabashedly expressed racist views – whether he refers to countries from which black immigrants come as “shitholes” or defends white supremacists as “very fine people.”
Marvel’s Black Panther – a power struggle among royals with global consequences set in a fictional, technologically advanced African country – will be released next week. It is one of the most anticipated movies of the year. Meanwhile, we will mark on February 26 the six-year anniversary of the brutal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin at the gun of George Zimmerman, who is Hispanic.
In the waning days of Black History Month, ask yourself what your understanding of the role and history of blacks and America is. What did your parents teach you about race? What do you teach your children? Do you understand or are at least willing to learn how race as a social construct affects every segment of American society? Are you willing to challenge and change your beliefs, as well as those of your family and community, so that America is great in word and deed?
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Answering such questions is the first step in ensuring that Black History Month is not a one-time event, but a sustainable practice throughout the year. The inescapable truth is we are making black history in each moment – whether we choose to remain in silos of willful ignorance or unflinchingly look at the sins of the past and resolve to create a better future.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described George Zimmerman as white. It has been updated.