Why Black History?

It seems that at some point every February, someone will question the meaning, purpose, and existence of Black History Month.[1]The argument usually starts with a discussion of the existence of race as a social construct and ends with the prescription that racism would end if Black people would stop talking about it so much.[2]Despite my admitted bias, I think that Black History Month continues to have value – not only for Black people in this country, but for all of us.

There are three rationales that I believe justify the existence of Black History Month. The first is pragmatic, the second historical and the third empathetic. First, to not take time out to focus on the oppression and triumph of Black people in this country is, in my estimation, an attempt to divorce these events from the society we created. It is absolutely true that race is a social construct, created to establish one group of people as socially superior to another. Unfortunately, we created that society of division. (Furthermore, it is important to note that those divisions are never created by those who have been divided out – Black people did not make themselves Black to separate themselves from White people.) Inasmuch as those divisions are a/the cause of this history of oppression and triumph, we owe it to the oppressed to recognize that it is their difference that led to these unfortunate events.[3]The label that some seek to erase or ignore is a part of the cause of the evil, not some untraceable idea of evil itself. To erase that is to lose the ability to pragmatically describe the truth of the events before us, and therefore to adequately address the problems which led to the need to celebrate the history in the first place. We are responsible for the division that led to this tragedy – let us not now seek to run from our own creation in the name of breaking down the hierarchy that we created. It is true that no particular individual may be responsible for any of the things that I just described. However, I believe the very fact that some would seek to erase this emphasis is plugging into the very hierarchy we all say we want to dismantle.

Second, to remove this cultural touchstone is to effectively erase the history in which they reside. To do this is to ignore the real, lived differences of experience that oppressed groups face in our society. As much as it is true that race is a social construct, it is also true that Black people in America live a different life because of that social construct. It is true that Black people are incarcerated at an inordinately high rate when compared to other populations. It is true that Black people are often sentenced longer for the same crimes. It is true that Black people are less likely to get a particular job than a White person, even if the Black person is similarly qualified. The truth is that if we are talking about Black History Month as a celebration of oppression overcome, then it is a celebration of a continuing story. No one can argue against the idea that things are better than they use to be. However, the words of Malcolm X are apropos here – “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there's no progress.”[4]

Third and finally, there is an empathetic element to Black History Month. Simply put, it is important for others to see the history and empathize with the current plight of the African-American. Black History Month allows us to see how far we have come as nation and how far we have to go. But there is an element of empathy even for Black people. Black History Month is a reminder, even to Black people that others have suffered and do suffer in similar ways to this community, and that Black people should be as interested in their freedom as they are in their own. For everyone then, Black History Month becomes a sign of empathy, an acknowledgment that you saw someone’s particular plight and that you grieve with them and celebrate for them.

[1]I am reminded of an Andrews University student who raised this question inartfully in 2015. Moreover, in the spirit of full disclosure, what follows will be the lion’s share of my presentation to a local school on this question next week.

[2]One of these things is true and the other one is a logically faulty and unprovable conclusion.

[3]Of course, I support this not only for Black people, but for any systematically oppressed group with a history of state-sponsored prejudice and discrimination.

[4]Here’s the full quote – “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there's no progress. If you pull it all the way out that's not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven't even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound.

Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at Adventist University of Health Sciences. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.

Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/authors/jason-hines.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8586
1 Like

I am a white person as prone as anyone to the resentments that spring up when we must deal with troubling aspects of our own story or outlook. So in my head, if not always in my capricious heart, I am grateful for such a calm and well-argued reminder of why Black History Month matters.

Chuck

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I am all for Black History Month (especially for the reasons enumerated here) if there is equal billing for Hispanic, Asian, Native American, etc., Months. There will be no true equality in this country unless EVERY race is accounted for/held responsible in the “Good, Bad, and the Ugly” paradigm of this country.

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i no longer believe that black history month is a good idea, especially for college students who are unavoidably impressionable and vulnerable…racial tensions on one or more of our campuses seem to flare up every february, and why wouldn’t they, when innocent black kids are being spoon fed the idea that they are victims, and everyone is discriminating against them…during last year’s black history month flare up at andrews, no-one could cite an actual, tangible, and current grievance…it was conjured up images of persecution in the past that fomented agitation that forced the president to apologize - i still haven’t heard what for - and led to the formation of a vice presidency that no doubt will be looking for reasons to justify its existence…

black history month, and other reminders of race-based slavery and mistreatment that is far in the past, prevents black kids from assimilating and moving on in life with a clean slate…why should today’s black kids be forced to carry the scars of generations who are in the past…why should they feel obligated to shoulder pain that they, themselves, have never experienced…they should be free to be innocent, and to nurture the feeling that they belong to a multi-racial community…they should be allowed to learn lessons from their own experience…

i think it’s unwise to have the past forever intruding into the present, constantly informing people that they don’t belong…the fact that jason wrote this article at all implies that he has perceived the widespread burn out from black history month…i don’t see that black history month has improved black-white relations at all…

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I have questioned black history month in the past. I’ve even equated it with other, and stupid, months like “Save the Vaquita month”. For a laugh, see https://rowman.com/page/ChasesNEW There’s a month for everything. Toasters? Sure. Fly fishing? Of course. There are more special months than patron saints.

But I have changed. This post, I think, represents my current thinking well:

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I grew up in a Multicultural Asean Nation.

True. Inevitable. Diversity of race construct breeding social mistrust and tension.

However, each colour, each anatomy, each multiculturalism protect their ancestral water holes, economic pragmatic freely open the Silk Roads to social integration win win shared wits interdependency triumphant , to all these getting along construct empathetic to the developing arrival of fresh, fragile destiny - the future young generation of every colours.

Belong to a race a colour is pride.

Remove the apologists.

To apologize to another colour for being your uniqued colour lay the foundation for future bigots offence.

Your social whimper walks with destruction not construction.

The Bigots last laughs!

Brother Jeremy. Amen!

Nothing happens unless first we dream. America is social construct of DREAMERS - Full of it! America dreamers are the hues of God’s Morning Rainbows - crystal prism colours full spectrum - from black to white.

America’s social construct philosophy should read…

MY PHILOSOPHY IS I’M RAISING FUTURE ADULTS, NOT CHILDREN.

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I believe Black History is still needed. Black History in the USA involves white history. When President Obama was elected I was tempted to think we were on the verge of a post-racial breakthrough. President Trump’s campaign springboard of Birtherism demolished this fantasy. Some neoConfederates still are fighting the Civil War. They are proud of their Confederate heritage, the Confederate flag, etc. Thus, they deny that slavery was the root cause of the War; they deny that slavery was “all that bad.” In our new era of “alternative facts” this is like denying the Holocaust. Black History in February is like having the Sabbath to remember Creation.