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February Is Historical Accuracy Month

02/27/2015 08:50 am ET | Updated Apr 29, 2015
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Soon February will do double duty as Black History and Historical Accuracy Month. The snow brings with it flurries of concern about Brian Williams, American Sniper, and whether Selma got it right or wrong about President Lyndon Johnson. These arguments aren't just about facts; they are about power -- the crucial question of who decides what facts are -- and how they are portrayed.

For now February is just Black History Month, created by Professor Carter G. Woodson as a way to bring focus on the lack of attention paid to African American history.

For nearly 240 years, facts about our nation's history have been presented through a distorted lens. George Washington never told a lie; and Betsy Ross nobly sewed our nation's fabric together. Our textbooks, media, and political orations -- virtually any narrative created and disseminated by the majority -- have been incomplete, even rose-colored, in their portrayal of the mistreatment of the African people, among others, in this country. And even that timidity seems too much for some; an Oklahoma Representative has a bill to bar state funds for AP History because it places emphasis on "what is bad about America."

I was educated in Florida's public schools, the second state to secede from the Union, and served as a law clerk in Mississippi. I also was an aide to a Massachusetts Congressman and a member of the Clinton Administration. From none of these unique vantage points have I seen much candor or truth in the telling of the brutalization of Africans on this continent.

When you visit Robben Island off of Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela was held, the tour bus driver delivers a canned but explicit speech about apartheid and its system of physical and mental control. To the American ear it is blisteringly candid and harsh; you cannot believe this is a government-sponsored narrative. But it is, a government run by a previously oppressed people now free to tell their truth.

To this day, we Americans have wildly different understandings of the same facts that surround protean aspects of our everyday lives. What to older White people is a fluid interstate highway system that connects a city's north and south points, is to older Black people the government forced eminent domain that tore the heart from communities of their upbringing.

What to White people was the great northern migration of a restless Black population, is to Black people a massive internal refugee flow, where countless families were terrorized from their homes by the Klan and complicit government officials.

What to most White people was merely annoying -- and to some even necessary -- harassment of President Obama to provide his birth certificate to prove U.S. birth, was to Blacks a humiliating and disgusting assertion of alienness and un-belonging to a country that elected him President twice.

Innumerable facts of our past are not only still in dispute, they are not even visited with the same language or in shared fora.

The idea of Black History Month was to encourage interest and study of Black history. Black history for us all, as Americans, unlike Kwanzaa which is a holiday meant to be celebrated by and for African Americans. What is it going to take to have the real African American experience transform everyone's narrative of this nation's history?

The movie "Selma" was powerful not just as art, but because African Americans owned the lion's share of the production decisions in a White dominated industry. One needn't be African American to tell the whole truth; Brad Pitt's contribution as producer of "12 Years a Slave," and David Rubenstein's investment in bringing African American artifacts to life are testament to that. But we are nowhere near close to a comfort level in this nation for the facts of our history, many of which are quite harsh. But the truth sets us free.

As "Selma" proves, we are reaching an age when more and more minorities will be able to tell the facts of our history with less and less filter. Rather than continue to reinforce our own flawed conceptions of history, we should be having a more inclusive debate so that this great melting pot of America can reach an accurate understanding of our past. If we cannot handle the truth about our history in February, or any month for that matter, then we have no hope of agreement about our present.