As I stated in my preamble, Eric Holder’s speech on February 18th regarding Black History Month left me with a variety of topics to cover. The trick, of course, is trying to categorize them in a way that makes sense to people other than me. At this point, my intention is to go with three main topics over the next few days: Black history as part of American history and the public discourse surrounding it, Black culture, and the importance of learning from early slavery instead of just harping on it. More or less. We’ll see.
In his speech, Mr. Holder begins by calling us “essentially a nation of cowards” for what he sees as a lack of discourse regarding race relations. More than once, he proclaims that American history can not be appreciated without an understanding of Black history.
Of course, American history also cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of Irish-American History, Asian-American History, Hispanic-American history, or the history of any other group that may or may not have been exploited in the building of this great nation. We are, truly, a melting pot. Each culture that has entered our borders has brought its own set of values, its own list of trials, and its own share of great minds to contribute towards getting us to where we are today.
How do you think a push for “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant History Month” would go over?
Yeah, me too.
Obviously, there is one significant difference between the Black population and others—they were the only ones who lived through government-sanctioned slavery. Certainly, that is a blight on our history. It, and the years of segregation that followed, were a time when horrible people did unforgivable things. It is a time we should remember and learn from.
But, it is a time that has passed.
I will not pretend that discrimination is dead in our society. It is alive and flourishing. It has the potential to intimately effect all people, regardless of age, gender, or skin color. If you don’t believe me, do a search on college scholarships exclusively for African Americans. Now, do a search on scholarships for which you will only qualify if you are white.
Mr. Holder is right about one thing—honest discussions on race are hard to come by in a multi-racial setting. This is because, as non-minorities, we are taught to feel that we should continue to bare the responsibility of, and make amends for, the actions of our ancestors. Never mind if they were actually slave owners or not, we still remain guilty by nature of being the recipients of “White Privilege.” And, of course, that status as Privileged makes it politically incorrect to suggest that people strive to be judged on the capacity of their minds or the content of their character, as opposed to the amount of melanin in their skin.
But, Mr. Holder makes impassioned pleas that we strive to acknowledge the pigmentation, not just the accomplishments.
He loses me, however, in his insistence that Black history needs to be more thoroughly incorporated into the study of American history. Growing up, I learned about Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln (oh, wait, does he count as part of Black history?), Frederick Douglas, and Rosa Parks. I even learned how the Civil Rights movements following Ms. Parks refusal to move to the back of the bus was really more about a seething reaction to the treatment of the murder of Emmit Till than because people were really that mad that a tired lady couldn’t get a seat up front.
I learned about the Civil War, Reconstruction, segregation, and the Civil Rights movement. I studied mandatory busing and saw the devastating effects that it had on some of the schools close to where I grew up.
I really don’t remember if I learned any of these things during the month of February. All I know is that I learned about them in their historical order, as part of a comprehensive look at American history. I didn’t spend one month learning about “them” and the rest of the year learning about “us” as Mr. Holder’s speech seems to imply. I just learned OUR history.
Of course, there are things about our history that I don’t remember ever learning. Too bad for Mr. Holder, they fly in the face of some of his assertions. Mr. Holder claims that other significant civil rights movements, such as feminism, “were all tied in some way to the spirit that was set free by the quest for African American equality (during the Civil Rights era).”
As if fated, the history lesson that I did with my kindergartener today was on Susan B. Anthony. Like Mr. Holder, I have always seen the fight for women’s suffrage as coming after, well—not the Civil Rights era for goodness sakes, but after the end of slavery. After all, that is the order in which they are studied, right? Today, however, I learned things that I never remember learning before.
Susan B. Anthony, who was born in 1820, was an impassioned abolitionist. By the time she was 25, she and her family were holding weekly anti-slavery meetings which were, at times, attended by Frederick Douglas and William Llyod Garrison (another noted white abolitionist).
Please tell me that I’m not the only one who was never taught that Frederick Douglas and Susan B. Anthony knew each other and worked together to fight slavery.
Susan B. Anthony—one of the most notable pioneers of feminism—began her work for women’s rights because she was sick of not being taken seriously as an abolitionist because she was a woman. The fact is, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton worked for Black Suffrage at the same time that they were fighting for Women’s Suffrage. Their dedication wasn’t spurred on by the success of the anti-slavery movement (and certainly not by the Civil Rights era), but by their desire to have a strong enough voice to HELP MAKE IT SUCCESSFUL.
I didn’t notice Ms. Anthony or Ms. Stanton on Mr. Holder’s list of people that should be studied as part of Black history.
I read Mr. Holder’s remarks on Black history, and I am left with the strong suspicion that he was the type of kid that just couldn’t help picking at scabs. He’s right on one thing—there is healing that needs to occur. It won’t happen, though, if we insist on constantly ripping open old wounds.
This country’s history is OUR history—all of us, no matter what the color of our skin is. It needs to be acknowledged. It needs to be viewed for what it was. It needs to never be forgotten so that it will never happen again.
And then we need to move on so we can acknowledge our present and the tremendous progress that has been made.
Because, in case you didn’t notice, Mr. Holder, in 2008 the majority of our country elected a minority President.
That’s got to count for something.