This year’s celebration of Black History Month is weighed down by the ugliness of our politics and by the pitched battles over our past. Americans remain bitterly divided as the former president and his loyalists exploit deep-seated fears and hatreds. The problems of race sit at the heart of it all: We’re fighting, yet again, over voting rights and clashing over the stories we tell about who we are as a nation.
A slight revision of Mark Twain’s famous quip might be in order: History both repeats and rhymes.
Black History Month has always sought to achieve two things simultaneously. On the one hand, the celebration works as a corrective to the broad erasure of the contributions of African Americans to the nation. Not only is the significance of individual Black people and their inventions denied; slavery and Jim Crow, abolition and the struggles for full citizenship are rendered as mere bumps in the road on our way to a more perfect union. Black history, which we must remember is American history, fights that national fantasy with the details of our past that all too often are hidden from view.
On the other hand, the celebration aims to strengthen and fortify African Americans (and to offer an invitation to others to bear witness). As a child growing up on the coast of Mississippi, where I was taught to love Stonewall Jackson (can you imagine?), my eyes widened with surprise and joy when I learned of our achievements and of our resistance. I sang, at the top of my lungs and a bit off-key, Stevie Wonder’s “Black Man.” For me, then and now, Black History Month affirmed that we were, that I was, somebody.
Black history works, then, as a shelter from rough storms, and the head winds are particularly dangerous today. School boards are banning books that they say make our children feel uncomfortable or introduce values that run contrary to their view of decency. States, including Texas and New Hampshire, have passed laws that restrict how teachers can talk about the history of racism in their classrooms. Access to the ballot box is again being curtailed. Erasure is returning on many fronts. As historian Tera Hunter, author of “Bound in Wedlock: Slavery and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century,” told me, “Speaking and writing historical truths that are inclusive of African American lives and contributions are more under threat than ever in the public square.”
Some Americans clamor for a national history that corroborates this country’s greatness and virtue; they want a history that confirms our innocence and makes for a pleasant read. Black history, they seem to believe, darkens their polished version of the story. Nell Irvin Painter, a former president of the Organization of American Historians and author of “The History of White People,” put it this way: “The controversy raging now is over the degree to which American history, as we and our ancestors experienced it, is US history. [T]housands of our fellow citizens are up in arms against that very proposition.”
This is the central feature of Black History Month this year: an outright refusal to imagine this country as a truly multiracial democracy. What we thought was a racial reckoning after the murder of George Floyd and the massive protests in its wake has turned out to be an occasion to reassert the comforting power of our national illusions and to justify, once again, that this nation must remain white.
We are in the middle of this nation’s latest betrayal, and the pressing question is what can we do about it.
I cannot help but think about Carter G. Woodson, the Harvard-trained historian who launched “Negro History Week” nearly a century ago. Pero Dagbovie, a Michigan State University historian, reminds us that Woodson “launched Negro History Week in 1926, among other things, to help integrate the study of African American history into the K-12 educational system during the era of Jim Crow segregation.” Dagbovie pointed out that Woodson’s ultimate goal was to have “Negro History Year.”
But here we are in 2022 still confronting forces that want to ban that history altogether from the classroom.
Black History Month matters more than evergiven our current national malaise. We still have to tell a better, truer American story. Remembering the journey of African Americans in this country, says Cornel West, “fortifies our quest for truth, goodness, and beauty in a moment of escalating lies, evil, and despair.”
When I was a kid, I remember the horror of trying to wake up and not being able to move my arms and when I screamed no sound could be heard. Something weighed me down. Back home in Mississippi, when this happens, we say that “witches are riding your back.” That’s an apt image for what is weighing down this year’s celebration of Black History Month. Our past is riding us. We have to wake up.