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Race and the Truth

Philip Burrowes

So you spent every waking moment this February thinking of events in the context of black history. The Grammys underlined the pervasiveness of “black” culture in the mainstream, Colombian President Andres Pastrana’s request for increased American aid reminded you of the idiosyncratically debilitating “crack epidemic” of the African-American community, and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s current role in the Middle East contrasts with decades of segregation in the American armed services. Now, with March finally here, you can go back to viewing events through normal, unbiased eyes. Unfortunately, by regressing, you’ve not only missed the entire point of Black History Month, but you’ve exacerbated the conditions it sought to mitigate.

All the insights you’ve undoubtedly made during your intense internal and external scrutiny of racial biases are invaluable. They should not, however, be regarded as some sort of seasonal eye-opening exercise. What should be grasped is a fuller picture of the world around us, not the fractured one we are used to. The reality is that by untangling the seemingly solely black conceptualization from any occurrence, we are unlocking the human experience.

Convention holds that there are distinctly black elements to American society, that there is a black experience that cannot be comprehended through mere historical analysis. This is true insofar as nobody else’s life can be understood without living it. African-Americans -- as the term is meant -- have shared features but yet are born to live individual lives. Each ethnicity in this country could say the same of its members when obviously not each one demands segregated study. It is illogical, then, to contend that African-American issues could, let alone should, be reserved for specified discussion.

Clearly, there is merit to in-depth analysis of specific issues. That merit, however, lies not with possible racial or ethnic confusion; it emerges from the natural impossibility of absolutely comprehensive description. Still, the question remains how, exactly, so-called black issues benefit from incorporation into other discussions. Is there something added beyond greater perspective?

The advantage is twofold. First, specifically black studies tend to build on an assumed knowledge of “mainstream” studies that may or may not exist. Richard Wright, for example, makes sense with an understanding of the stratified white social hierarchy of the mid-20th century, yet becomes merely unduly frustrated and impractical within the more or less uniform black caste of the same time period. Comprehension of multiple facets of American society is necessary to best understand the circumstances of the often epiphenomenal nature of the black community.

Such effects were not merely one-way, and this leads to the second boon. “Mainstream” culture is hardly static and in fact was highly affected by the effects it had on African-Americans. In all honesty, does the growth of the suburbs, the current Republican hegemony in the south, or the perpetuity of Ivy League schools’ reputations exist independently of the changes African-Americans have experienced residentially, politically, and academically? A little more candor about the dependence of both segments of the country on the other would likely highlight unforeseen truths.

By faithfully adding black studies to historical curricula, the truth does not become blindingly obvious to the entire population. That there are several other ethnicities largely excluded from such studies makes the prospect all the more difficult. This neither provides an excuse to schedule token appreciation for African-Americans nor allow it to degenerate to an auxiliary field. No, not every month can be Black History Month, but people of this country should not go about blind to their own educational inadequacies.