Admittedly, I've been one of those people who over years have viewed the annual truncation of everything black and historical in America into one month we call Black History Month rather ambivalently. On the one hand, I have considered the annual parade of PBS documentaries, made-for-television historical dramas, and lecture circuit bonanzas as a marginalized display of politically correct tributes and marketing stunts. It was as if the achievements of African Americans were worthy of only a one-month media safari for the larger culture to voyeuristically taste the soul food then move on to the stories of the Americans who really matter. Those "real" Americans as we heard from the GOP during the 2008 presidential campaign. Nevertheless, I have always enjoyed seeing my people and our stories on screen. I have been seduced by the huge displays of black books at bookstores, the radio exposé, the speaking engagements of black thinkers, even if during the shortest month of the year.
My sentiments on Black History Month have in no way meant to disparage the noble intentions of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the lauded, Harvard-educated historian who founded what was then known as Negro History Week back in 1926. Woodson understood the magnitude of recognizing the contributions of African Americans to this country and the world at a time when blacks still lived under Jim Crow in the South, when most blacks still could not vote, and most attended segregated and substandard schools.
Now over eight decades later, some would argue that this celebration is irrelevant. "We are one country with one history," is the argument. The election of Barack Obama as the nation's first black president has only added fresh fuel to the debate, hastening a call by some for ending the Black History Month and other "set-asides."
It is hard to debate the simple fact that we are one country with one history. And a country with a past as torrid as ours yet which could still look past racial differences to elect a black president, has unquestionably evolved. But has it matured to a point where it has demonstrated an ability to respect the histories, the complicated, unique stories of all Americans? Do we collectively as citizens seek to truly understand the journey of not only Americans of European descent but those of Native, African, Asian, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern backgrounds? Do we not see the interconnectedness, the oneness of our stories in the realization of the American dream? I don't think so.
Newly appointed Attorney General Eric Holder, the first black to hold the position, in a speech this week called Americans "cowards" for our unwillingness to discuss race matters head on. Holder's point is arguably no better underscored by a The New York Post's cartoon this week depicting what many see as President Obama as a chimpanzee. It is hard to believe that the artist -- or his editors for God's sake -- did not understand the demeaning connotation of such a portrayal given the historical representation of blacks in the media and popular culture as apes as well as the black community's suspicion of the police attributable to the number of innocent black men who have been shot and killed by the police. Many people, however, unbelievably do not see any racial overtones whatsoever. But given that lack of intelligent dialogue around race in our country as suggested by Holder, it is easy to see how such conclusions might be reached. The half-apology sans taking full responsibility by the Post is emblematic of a wider disconnect between what some deem offensive and others see at worst as tasteless humor.
While celebrating Black History Month certainly will not erase bigotry in our society, it remains one of the all-important cornerstones to continuing any meaningful discussion of race relations in our society. Any conversation around race must be examined in a historical context and with a breath of knowledge of the histories and struggles of all Americans. Last March, then Senator Obama broached this subject in his speech on race in Philadelphia in the heat of the Democratic primary race following a media fest surrounding sermons of his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Yet the lack of respect for African American history is not the whole issue. It is a component of a larger American crisis. Americans seem to be suffering an overall ignorance of history in general. A recent study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute found that only 21% of Americans who took a recent test on their country's history, government and economics, knew that the phrase "government of the people, by the people, for the people" comes from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Only 24% of college graduates knew that the main issue of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates was the expansion of slavery into new territories. What's most shocking is that the study found that nearly one-third of our elected officials did not know that "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence. And overall, Americans flunked the test with an average score of 49%.
In a society where pop culture sits on the highest throne, we as citizens owe it to ourselves to study African American history not only during Black History Month, but to make studying American history in its most comprehensive form of utmost importance throughout the year. The two are not mutually exclusive. Our educational, cultural and civic institutions must make the incorporation of the histories of all Americans -- from the Native to the newest immigrant -- a perennial priority. This concept must cease to be a discourse in multiculturalism that tends to become easily marginalized as alternative -- the outsider's story. These stories must be viewed collectively as our story. The American story. Then and only then can we authentically be the United States of America.