On Black History Month

It’s that time of year again, when America as a whole makes a lip-service attempt at atoning for past injustices in the hope that it will absolve them from actually having to do anything about current injustices…

Why am I not surprised that it is the shortest month of the year?

It is also the time when teachers all over the country give their students assignments related to the observance. Prepare book reports, essays, and other presentations on African-American people of historical importance, in the hopes of learning something about their struggle. Unimaginative students and teachers choose the same people year after year – Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, etc.

While not to denigrate those who do choose to study those great people, there are many others who deserve at least a passing look in the grand pageant of history.

In chronological order:

Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman – who won her freedom in the Massachusetts court system in 1781 (Brom and Bett v. Ashley), thereby causing that state to become the first one to ban slavery two years later.

Hiram Revels of Mississippi, Benjamin Turner of Alabama, Jefferson Long of Georgia, Robert De Large, Robert Brown Elliott, and Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina, and Josiah Walls of Florida – the first African-Americans elected to Congress. Or P.B.S. Pinchback, the first African-American state governor.

Bert Williams – Born in the Bahamas, so the “African-American” tag isn’t quite accurate. But he became a legendary entertainer on the American vaudeville stage.

” I have never been able to discover that there was anything disgraceful in being a colored man. But I have often found it inconvenient … in America.”
– Bert Williams

Marcus Garvey – Born in Jamaica, so he’s got the same technical issue as Bert Williams. Founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which became the largest black organization in history.

Lincoln Perry, Willie Best, and all the other talented African-American character actors who were stuck taking demeaning roles because that was the only work they could get in the 30s and 40s.

Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Mary Louise Smith, and Susie McDonald, who fought segregation on public transport months before Rosa Parks; Irene Morgan, who fought it years before; and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Jennings Graham, who fought it a century before…

Curt Flood, All-Star baseball player for the St. Louis Cardinals who fought against the institutionalized slavery of baseball’s “reserve clause”:

“After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.”
– Curt Flood, letter to baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, 12/24/69

Critics have noted (with justification) that having a separate “Black History Month” implies that African-Americans have a history that is separate from the rest of America. And “separate but equal” is a concept that needs to be relegated to the past. So “Black History Month” has been quietly fading away. What has been coming into more prominence is “Juneteenth”, a commemoration of the date when the abolition of slavery was announced in Texas. Personally, I’d go with December 6, the date in 1865 when the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution (the one abolishing slavery throughout the US) was officially ratified – but what do I know.

I do have to wonder, though. Could Juneteenth become for African-Americans what Columbus Day has become for Italian-Americans and Cinco de Mayo for Mexican-Americans? Those specific dates actually have little real historical relevance for Italy and Mexico; instead they provide an excuse for celebrating the assimilated / “Americanized” culture of that nationality (or, if you want to be cynical, an excuse for marketing). I tend to feel that it won’t. Unlike other immigrants, Africans didn’t really come here voluntarily. And they’ve been dumped on a lot longer and a lot harder than any other ethnic group. Celebrating assimilation and acceptance as part of America isn’t going to come easily. If anything, they are still waiting to be accepted as fully American.

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