This isn’t some “let’s not talk about black history, let’s talk about human history” spiel, similar to sentiment put forward by Morgan Freeman a while ago.
I completely disagree with Mr. Freeman, but my reasons for that can be answered better in a different post.
This is a Shame Day post directed against “black history,” or rather, the reprehensible white-washed version we, the people, are spoon fed each February.
Now you all know who this is:
And you could probably tell me who this is:
We’re getting a little more obscure, but the literary-minded among you might even recognize who this is:
And even if you can’t reference anything he actually said or did, you should know at the very least this man’s name:
But could you tell me who this is?
Or this woman?
Or this man?
Probably not, but y’know what? We can forgive that…
If you can tell me who this is:
Or who he was:
Or who she was:
Chances are strong you wouldn’t be able to- and that’s only part one of the overall issue at play here:
For the vast majority of us, “Black History” is just Rosa Parks, MLK, and George Washington Carver.
But we already knew that. You know it, I know it. And there’s not a ton wrong with that. Yes, countless men, women, and children sacrificed to overcome one of the greatest injustices in American history, but alongside them are countless men and women of science who gave their lives to the pursuit of enlightenment, truth, and the betterment of the human condition for one and all. Can you name the inventor of the polio vaccine off the top of your head? Who was the father of modern surgery? Whose life’s work was integral to the discovery of quantum mechanics?
So why attack ignorance of black history, rather than ignorance as a whole? Because unlike other sectors of human knowledge, the reason we know so little about black history is not only due to ignorance, but due to a general movement to whitewash the entire subject.
The way it’s told, the civil rights movement began in the late 1950s, led by MLK and a handful of close associates. Through purely nonviolent means and peaceful boycotts, the unified movement of African-Americans and sympathetic whites pressured congress and the president into ending segregation. By the time King was assassinated in Memphis (skipping over why he was in Memphis), the battle against evil Southern bigotry had been won and we did overcome as a people. The movement disbanded and everyone lived happily ever after.
That’s the way it’s told. Roughly none of that is true.
Congressman John Lewis (a major player in the nonviolent wing of the movement and head of SNCC for a while) recounts just how unbelievably sectarian the movement was. This wasn’t a spontaneous eruption of unanimous dissent, this was several key organizations struggling to cooperate with each other just as much as they were trying to make a stand for racial equality.
As noted in an earlier post, MLK’s own legacy has been cut down strictly to his involvement in the civil rights movement. His anti-war campaign, his struggle for labor rights (that’s why he was in Memphis) and demands for economic justice (look up “The Poor People’s Campaign”) were equally as important to him. However, seeing as how calling for an end to war while crying out for financial equality and worker’s rights is downright socialist, Fox News and CNN’s half-hour specials on him are probably going to leave out those elements.
And speaking about leaving out embarrassing truths, let’s talk about about Northern racism. The South, as the former seat of segregation, gets the focus (almost exclusively) when it comes to racism. Although we are doing a better job of recognizing it, too often we paint the Southerners as being the sole villains in this respect. Non-bigoted Southerners who marched alongside their black neighbors are ignored, while white racists in the rest of the country are let off with a free pass.
But perhaps most importantly, it must be understood that racism did not go away with segregation. I’m talking about the lingering of a few pockets of bitter resentment in isolated parts of the country- I’m talking about full-blown institutionalized and cultural bigotry. One might go so far as to assert that the notion of peaceful protest died out in the final years of the 60s, as the Vietnam War, rampant and disproportionate poverty, and violent racism against the black community continued on in spite of the advances of the civil rights movement. The failure of the peace and love generation gave birth to militant philosophies that so often- too often– get reduced to nothing but a footnote in American history.
Let’s be honest. How many of you would stand idly by while your parents get harassed. How many of you wouldn’t feel justified- if not downright heroic- for taking a physical stand against an often deadly threat to the wellbeing of your family? Could you- should you– do nothing while your loved ones get beaten or murdered before your eyes?
Those are the sentiments that produced the Black Power movement of the 70s, most notably the Black Panthers, who armed and organized poor, urban black communities across the States and instituted a wide variety of grassroots education and public welfare campaigns. You take the lunches schools provide to your kids for granted? You have the Panthers to thank for that.
But you don’t hear about the Panthers. You don’t hear about Eldridge Cleaver, or his wife Kathleen. Angela Davis, Freddy Hampton, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale- all left out of history.
Perhaps it was because these people are all represented a left-wing mentality that mainstream America could never really accept- the history books only have room for those people who fit the preconceived notion of what’s acceptable politically.
Or perhaps it’s because of the greater economic issue. Maybe the nation has to keep the issue of race and economics separate- we can’t have people demanding total equality, now can we?
Or maybe it just comes down to this. America needs to force the idea of the docile black population. Maybe we hail MLK- our twisted, watered down image of MLK- as the be-all, end-all of African-American history because we’re not threatened by it. Because there’s nothing scary or intimidating about people who have committed to never raising their voices, let alone a fist, against except in song. And so what do we have?
A generation of men, women, and children condemned to anonymity simply for the crime of believing that they we’re not obliged to do nothing while their families were beaten, tortured, and killed.
And that is just a shame.