The Case for a More Negative Black History Month

Canadian media coverage overwhelmingly celebrates the positive as well:

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 — 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.

I don’t exaggerate. We’ve already had lots of alarmed post-mortems about the recently concluded Senate impeachment trial in which the Republicans united to ensure no witnesses were called. The party is increasingly recognized as a cult that serves not people — after all, 75 percent of Americans wanted to see more evidence — but its own interests. It is flaunting this self-interest openly, à la Trump, even suggesting that racist, crude or unconstitutional acts by the president are simply idiosyncrasies — or executive privilege — that are ultimately good for democracy. America appears to be, as Susan Sontag might have said, at the end of seriousness.

But we have been at this end before. We have always been here. The institution of slavery meant that the Constitution, for all its worthy prescriptions that Representative Adam Schiff defended so eloquently during the House trial, was going to be a document undermined from the beginning by the founders’ tacit embrace of that institution. Black history rooted in slavery means that the country was always going to have to make ugly compromises with its own ideals, a process that became normalized. The longevity of slavery meant that business and the pursuit of profit, not justice, would be the dominant force in American life and the real energy driving even the most optimistic notions of American exceptionalism. Put in this context, the cult of Trump is not new, just another compromise with our ideals, albeit a far-reaching one that looks particularly bad in the allegedly enlightened post-civil rights era of the 21st century.

The good news may be that America is finally feeling the embarrassment about the flaws in its national character that it should have felt 400 years ago. Embarrassment is not moral outrage, but it’s a start. The civil rights revolt of the ’60s was greatly aided by the images on television of police dogs and white officers attacking black protesters who were only seeking the right to sit at lunch counters and shop at department stores. It was bad public relations for America, and in the end, bad for business.

That was then. Embarrassment — forget moral outrage — is totally lacking now among Republicans, who willingly take their cues from a man incapable of feeling remorse or regret for any reason. Far from being embarrassed, the cult now seems to be saying that racism and corporate supremacy are, if not actually good for business, conditions we all can and perhaps should live with. Again, not new — we all lived with the economics of Jim Crow for a hundred years. But in 2020 the consequences of clinging to the status quo are incredibly far-reaching.

What we must come to grips with is that the arrogance and myopia that made our race-based social caste system possible, that allowed us to dishonor our Constitution and delude ourselves on a regular basis, are the same arrogance and myopia that are now threatening the well-being of the entire planet. Denying climate change is part and parcel of denying the corrosive effects of segregation. The point is that America is very good at making its own reality, which is another way of saying it has always tolerated — even welcomed — fake news and alternative facts for the sake of power and political convenience.

All this month, I’ve wondered: Would Harriet Tubman, et al, have been surprised at this state of affairs? I think not. Disappointed for sure, but not surprised; I doubt any black freedom fighter expected a country so wedded to inequality to significantly change in his or her lifetime or ours. Yet if we as a country don’t significantly change our view of our own history, which is framed in black history, there will be precious little in the future to celebrate.

Source: The Case for a More Negative Black History Month

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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