Seeing Black History in ContextRoundup
tags: African American history, Black History Month, Black History
Erin Aubry Kaplan, a contributing opinion writer, teaches writing at Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is the author of “Black Talk, Blue Thoughts, and Walking the Color Line” and “I Heart Obama.”
Black History Month is traditionally a time to honor black Americans and, theoretically, accord them their proper place in American history. Every February we re-examine the exemplary lives of Harriet Tubman, Charles Drew, Frederick Douglass and those of lesser known but truly significant leaders, artists, scientists, thinkers and others.
The occasion has always felt too narrow to me. We are eager to celebrate our favorite figures and their trailblazing achievements — Barack Obama is the latest — but less eager to examine the fact that their heroism was based more often than not in fighting an American system that fought — and still fights — against their status as full Americans. Perhaps it’s because black people don’t want to ruin the Black History Month party and white people would rather not examine their role in the racism that made the month necessary in the first place. I’ve grumbled for years about the shortcomings I see, but have always come down on the side of celebration. We deserve it.
But the party (though God knows we could use one) can’t be the point this time. In 2020, at this very perilous moment in the history of us all, it’s urgent that we turn the lens around, take it off the worthy black individuals and put it on America as a whole. It’s time to acknowledge what black history really reveals — not individual heroism or the endurance of democratic ideals, but their opposites. Time to examine what black history has always shown us: how hundreds of years of codified oppression, groupthink, hypocrisy, lies and political cowardice have made possible, and palatable, the political oppression and moral corruption of the current moment that threatens to wipe out democracy for everybody.
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