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Correcting Black History

Philip Burrowes

Undoubtedly, some people wonder if there really is a need for a Black History Month. Well, there shouldn’t be. The relevant affairs of history should be taught no matter the background of the individuals involved. This was and is, however, not the case. There is a distinct bias in what America’s school systems teach and what media outlets report. So long as this persists, we must make a dedicated effort to offset their bias. Black History Month can serve that purpose.

Nobody should deny that “popular” conceptions of Africans and African-Americans were in the past totally inaccurate. Unfounded generalizations about these groups were of such a virulent nature that they should never be forgotten (if even forgiven). Political correctness prevents the people of this country from mentioning them, but ignoring that historical attitude does as great a disservice as the original comments themselves. We must confront that shady underbelly or we are left without a full understanding.

Consider the Voting Rights Act of 1965. President Lyndon B. Johnson had to send a bill to Congress in order to eradicate poll taxes, literacy tests, and other impediments constructed expressly to keep blacks from voting. Yet the 24th Amendment explicitly outlaws the poll tax as a means of impeding voting. Nearly a century before that, the 14th Amendment made state de jure denial of the right to vote (among other provisions being violated by poll taxes and their ilk) unconstitutional. In other words, on numerous occasions this country has persisted in violating its own laws for the sole purpose of harming blacks.

So what, one may ask. That is now behind us. What it means is that the country has barely been adhering to its own set of codes for three decades (not to mention the numerous laws, like visa quotas for Caribbeans, which currently exist and can be construed as perpetuating such injustice), an adherence surpassed by numerous Third World countries. What history teacher would ever say, however, that this country’s rule of law concerning peoples of African descent is barely on par with that of a consolidating democracy? Sadly, it is the case that America would be more willing to simply gloss over its own demons than dredge them up for the sake of education.

It is not just the negative that is ignored, however. The positive contributions of blacks are often overlooked because of the context from which they emerge. Slave labor was the cornerstone of the American economic juggernaut, but to attribute anything positive to the slave trade seems amoral. Blacks’ contribution to American music is enormous, but because of general misconceptions regarding art, it seems to reinforce intellectual stereotypes. Reconstruction-era strides made by blacks in state legislatures are rarely acknowledged because of their seemingly ephemeral nature.

Such apprehensive neglect does not appear with western European figures, however. Monarchs are heralded despite their wanton perpetuation of history’s firmest caste system. Chivalry is praised, unabashed sexism and all. Any war is littered with regrettable events, yet each is still recorded in detail within the annals of history. Buffalo Soldiers, Tuskegee Airmen, and the Nat Turner rebellion deserve that same respect. Otherwise, African-Americans are left to contend with a vast misestimation of themselves and their forefathers.

Acknowledging and confronting these historical biases one month a year will not do away with them, and in that the doubters of Black History Month have a point. In fact, it can easily reinforce the artificial dichotomy between the histories of the races. The solution to that quandary is not to sit by idly, however, for that breeds a complacency which prevents America from even wanting change. Instead, the open admission of the faults in this country’s chronicle of history should be an impetus for any self-respecting historian to incorporate the full truth into future texts. Black History Month exists so that, one day, it will not need to.