Black History Month diametrically opposes the thrust of Dr. King’s dream—but it helps to drag us into the sort of internal division that our current rulers love to exploit.
On this subject, I feel as though I might be talking to my son in his pre-adolescent years—during that time, you know, when kids crave patently contradictory things every day. “I want to play in the big game, but I want to go to the air show, too.” “Okay, you can do one of those—but not both. The air show is only going on this Saturday afternoon, at a time overlapping your game. There’ll be another show next year, probably.” “But can’t you tell them to move the game to Friday, Daddy?
If you are an American of African descent, I would ask you not to be offended at once by this analogy, but rather to ask yourself honestly if you see no justice in it before your blood pressure rises. What do most people of good will desire of American society with regard to race? That skin color should not matter—that Dr. King’s dream should come true of a place where people may work, worship, play, make friends, marry, and raise families without having to pass a “color test” anywhere along the line. What exactly is National Black History Month supposed to accomplish? Heighten the awareness of those distinctive contributions that Americans of African descent have made to our ways and manners (“distinctive” being defined not with respect to the contribution, but with respect to the skin tone of him or her who made it.) Does this objective not increase our racial self-consciousness? Obviously. Is a fair society not one in which such consciousness is minimized? Such was the belief of Dr. King. Then why do we yearly undermine the objective of greater fairness by reminding ourselves that our epidermis is not uniformly tinted?
(This reminder, by the why, infuses its poison into every racial distinction of the American salad bowl. Black people may not realize it… but such enterprises as Black History Month latently put the rest of us in mind of less remarkable distinctions: Asian versus Caucasian, dark and light Hispanic, “Indio” versus African Latino, Semitic versus Nordic… I was profoundly shocked a few months ago to realize that today’s college kids even harbor some idiotic, semi-serious prejudice against redheads. Personally, I’ve always been a sucker for girls like the luminous russet wonder on the Wendy’s commercials. What is driving this sort of speciated bigotry, if not the postmodern passion for triage by coloring? What could possibly be less fair, more dumbed-down—more tribal—than such line-drawing? And where is this all coming from, if not from such “race consciousness” endeavors as Black History Month?)
I’m sure that the counter to my complaint would run thus. The achievements of black Americans have been suppressed throughout much of our history: we therefore need Black History Month so that black children and teenagers, especially, will not consider themselves somehow inferior when they find history books to be dominated by white people. The same rationale has also been advanced to promote the “ramping up” of the female presence in textbooks and cultural discussions—and the same two profound flaws obtain in both cases. 1) If blacks and women were indeed kept from occupying positions of power in the past, as they surely were, and hence largely denied opportunities to influence society and culture, then how can we dredge up dozens or hundreds of cases where they exercised such influence? For the very existence of these cases would undermine the major premise of the “special history” argument. 2) More importantly from a moral standpoint, why would we assume that a young black or female child would view Thomas Jefferson or Edgar Allen Poe or Orville Wright as an “alien”—and achiever who remains “one of them”—unless we have already primed that young mind to see in such terms? I find Julius Caesar’s engineering accomplishments (e.g., his bridging of the Rhine) fascinating, yet most of them came as he pursued the subjugation of my distant ancestors. His exploits in Gaul were nothing short of genocide. I regard Milton as an artistic genius, yet several tenets of his religious faith make me squirm, and his politics supported the persecution of some of my more recent ancestors.
If I can admire Caesar as an engineer or Milton as a poet, why can a black kid not admire Chief Seattle or Anna Akhmatova or—gasp!—Douglas MacArthur as a model of some specific set of achievements, or even generally as a human being? Why does a “color test” have to be administered first?
We should not forget the days of slavery and Jim Crow, of course, any more than we should forget the indentured servitude of English citizens in early colonial times or the Irish Potato Famines or—for that matter—the Mexican government’s slaughter of peaceful demonstrators in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas before the 1968 Olympics. We should teach history thoroughly and with the highest degree of impartiality possible. The risk of brushing inhumanity under the rug is a generation that underestimates the human being’s potential for doing evil actively or succumbing to it passively. Then we will have on our hands a wave of voters so obtusely naïve that… well, that they surrender all of our lives into the hands of a wicked despot just because he claims to care about us.
The risk of singling out one historical incidence of inhumanity, however, and drumming upon it incessantly must be to generate a permanent awkwardness between the targeted group and the rest of society. Instead of asking, “Where is the black Orville Wright?” our minority child will more likely be thinking, “Why do they keep telling me that Josh Gibson was the black Babe Ruth and that Colin Powell is the black Eisenhower?” This child is bound to infer that the color line remains alive and well—that such distinctions have a validity untarnished by more recent history. And if he doesn’t already have a chip on his shoulder, he will probably begin to wonder if this is because he has so far been duped by the oppressor. Isn’t he supposed to have a chip on his shoulder—isn’t that why his teachers, leaders, and favorite TV personalities chatter about Black History Month every February? Isn’t it because the racial divide between blacks and all the other races will never subside into a mere history lesson—that “black history” will always have to be handled with special gloves because the American black is still and forever being airbrushed from human events?
I should footnote, in concluding, that I understand the sin involved in choosing “black” over “African American”. I understand that we cannot say “African American History Month” due to a factor of unwieldiness, just as I understand that the NAACP cannot become the NAAAA out of regard for a rich past (along with a fear of a-a-a-absurdity). I understand it all… yet I refuse to acknowledge the sinfulness of writing or saying “black”. Nobody asks me if I wish to be called “white”, although my skin is about as white as a tree’s bark is green and the color white, by the way, is associated with coldness and cowardice as well as with purity. I am tired of being expected to circumlocute one syllable with seven: it is an extorted bow-and-scrape which I will not perform, and I’m convinced that it exists only and precisely to extract a tacit, deferential, and repeated apology. White people obsessed with fake guilt—i.e., with that bigotry they claim to see in other whites morally inferior to themselves—don’t mind the seven-syllable excursion at all. Indeed, the brief interruption of meaningful speech draws attention to their guilt, and hence to their moral superiority, and hence to their magnanimity for assuming a guilty burden not truly their own. For those seven syllables, they become Jesus Christ. The rest of us, though—black as well as white—have better things to do with our time than kneel at their altar of egotism as they kneel in everybody’s path, decked out in sackcloth and ash.
The many decent black people I know do not need or want constant apologies from white people. They want the “color test” dropped, completely and for good. So do I.
Naturally, this will not happen in the foreseeable future. Our somewhat-black president (a fan of the Pancatantra might call him the Blue Jackal, deeply dyed in indigo) has too much to gain by turning us against each other.