February 1st marks the beginning of Black History Month. Each year U.S. residents set aside a few weeks to focus their historical hindsight on the particular contributions that people of African descent have made to this country. While not everyone agrees Black History Month is a good thing, here are several reasons why I think it’s appropriate to celebrate this occasion.
The History of Black History Month
First, let’s briefly recount the advent of Black History Month. Also called African American History Month, this event originally began as Negro History Week in 1926. It took place during the second week of February because it coincided with the birthdates of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Harvard-trained historian, Carter G. Woodson, is credited with the creation of Negro History Week.
In 1976, the bicentennial of the United States, President Gerald R. Ford expanded the week into a full month. He said the country needed to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Objections to Black History Month
Black History Month has been the subject of criticism from both Blacks and people of other races. Some argue that it is unjust and unfair to devote an entire month to a single people group. Others contend that we should celebrate Black history throughout the entire year. Setting aside only one month, they say, gives people license to neglect this past for the remaining eleven months.
Despite the objections, though, I believe some good can come from devoting a season to remembering a people who have made priceless deposits into the account of our nation’s history. Here are five reasons why we should celebrate Black History Month.
1. Celebrating Black History Months Honors the Historic Leaders of the Black Community
I have the privilege of living in Jackson, Mississippi which is the site of many significant events in Black History. I’ve heard Myrlie Evers, the wife of slain Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, speak at local and state events. It’s common to see James Meredith, the first African American student at Ole Miss, in local churches or at community events.
Heroes like these and many more deserve honor for the sacrifice and suffering they endured for the sake of racial equality. Celebrating Black History Month allows us to pause and remember their stories so that we can commemorate their achievements.
2. Celebrating Black History Month Helps Us to Be Better Stewards of the Privileges We’ve Gained
Several years spent teaching middle school students impaled me with the reality that if we don’t tell the old, old stories the next generation, and we ourselves, will forget them. It pained me to have to explain the significance of the Harlem Renaissance and the Tuskegee Airmen to children who had never learned of such events and the men and women who took part in them.
To what would surely be the lament of many historic African American leaders, my students and so many others (including me) take for granted the rights that many people before them sweated, bled, and died to secure. Apart from an awareness of the past we can never appreciate the blessings we enjoy in the present.
3. Celebrating Black History Month Provides an Opportunity to Highlight the Best of Black History & Culture
All too often only the most negative aspects of African American culture and communities get highlighted. We hear about the poverty rates, incarceration rates, and high school drop out rates. We are inundated with images of unruly athletes and raunchy reality TV stars as paradigms of success for Black people. And we are daily subject to unfair stereotypes and assumptions from a culture that is, in some aspects, still learning to accept us.
Black History Month provides the chance to focus on different aspects of our narrative as African Americans. We can applaud Madam C.J. Walker as the first self-made female millionaire in the U.S. We can let our eyes flit across the verses of poetry Phyllis Wheatley, the first African American poet and first African American female to publish a book. And we can groove to soulful jazz and somber blues music composed by the likes of Miles Davis and Robert Johnson. Black History Month spurs us to seek out and lift up the best in African American accomplishments.
4. Celebrating Black History Month Creates Awareness for All People
I recall my 8th grade history textbook where little more than a page was devoted to the Civil Rights Movement. I remember my shock as a Christian to learn about the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church because in all my years in churches and Christian schools no one had ever mentioned it.
Unfortunately it seems that, apart from intentional effort, Black history is often lost in the mists of time. When we observe Black History Month we give citizens of all races the opportunity to learn about a past and a people of which they may have little awareness.
5. Celebrating Black History Month Reminds Us All that Black History Is Our History
It pains me to see people overlooking Black History Month because Black history—just like Latino, Asian, European, and Native American history—belongs to all of us. Black and White, men and women, young and old. The impact African Americans have made on this country is part of our collective consciousness. Contemplating Black history draws people of every race into the grand and diverse story of this nation.
Why Christians Should Celebrate Black History Month
As a believer, I see racial and ethnic diversity as an expression of God’s manifold beauty. No single race or its culture can comprehensively display the infinite glory of God’s image, so He gave us our differences to help us appreciate His splendor from various perspectives.
God’s common and special grace even work themselves out in the providential movement of a particular race’s culture and history. We can look back on the brightest and darkest moments of our past and see God at work. He’s weaving an intricate tapestry of events that climax in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And one day Christ will return. On that day we will all look back at the history–not just of a single race but of people from every nation, tribe, and tongue–and see that our Creator had a plan all along. He is writing a story that points to His glory, and in the new creation, His people won’t have a month set aside to remember His greatness. We’ll have all eternity.
WOOING RELIGION REPORTERS: CNN Belief Blog editor Dan Gilgoff (left) moderates panel discussion with (left-to-right) Romney adviser Mark DeMoss and Obama surrogates Broderick Johnson and Michael Wear. (Photo by Explorations Media, L.L.C.)
Personal questions about faith should be off-limits, but questions about how faith informs policy shouldn’t, representatives of the Obama and Romney campaigns told reporters at the Religion Newswriters Assocation annual meeting in Bethesda, Maryland, October 5.
Speaking as an unpaid senior adviser to the Romney campaign, Mark DeMoss said he concluded six years ago that Romney, with whom he shares “common values” but “different doctrinal or theological backgrounds,” is “uniquely qualified and competent to be the president.” The fact that Romney (a Mormon) is “a man of faith” is a “bonus,” said the evangelical DeMoss.
“I feel strongly that no one should vote for any candidate at any level because of their faith. … That mindset, in my view, is similar to a Christian yellow-pages mentality … where you would just patronize Christian-owned businesses,” DeMoss explained. People generally look for quality and competence in daily life decisions, he said. “If the selected competent choice happens to be a person of faith, that might be seen as a bonus. If they happen to be a person of similar faith, maybe that’s a double bonus.”
DeMoss alone represented the Romney campaign at the discussion moderated by CNN Belief Blog editor Dan Gilgoff. Two representatives spoke for the Obama campaign: senior Obama campaign adviser and head of Catholic outreach Broderick Johnson and national faith coordinator Michael Wear.
“It’s fundamentally important that we can’t tell reporters what to ask and we can’t control those factors, but from our campaign … and Governor Romney’s campaign, personal faith is off-limits,” said Wear.
“Barack Obama has been more willing than many Democratic candidates to talk about how his faith informs him,” said Johnson. But, he said, neither candidate talks about how they practice their faith. Johnson seemed to contradict himself when he later said, “How they practice their faith and their values does matter and gives people an important set of barometers to make decisions about who they’re going to vote for.”
Wear also referred journalists to President Obama’s convention speech as evidence that his faith informs his decisions. In that speech, Obama quoted Abraham Lincoln’s statement about the pressures of the presidency sending him to his knees. “That wasn’t an off-hand gesture; it was actually a reference he made in his [National] Prayer Breakfast speech. … So this is something that he’s talked about, but he talks about it on his own terms,” said Wear.
After the panel discussion UrbanFaith asked Wear if the Obama campaign’s tone has changed from 2008 when then-Senator Obama spoke eloquently and personally about his faith during a Saddleback Church discussion with the Rev. Rick Warren and Senator John McCain in Lake Forest, California.
“I’d say our priority on the faith vote is in talking about the choice that people of faith have in this election,” said Wear. “The president doesn’t think that it’s his job to go out and convince folks about his faith. …It’s something very personal to him and it’s something that he’s not going to be tried about. He’s not going to manufacture things.” The best “on-the-record statement” about the president’s faith can be found in his recent interview with the National Cathedral magazine, Wear said.
Asked why President Obama was so forthcoming four years ago at Saddleback, Wear said the president didn’t bring the subject up and was “introducing himself to the American people.” “[They] wanted to know who he was,” said Wear.
Coincidentally, the Pew Research Center distributed a quiz to RNA journalists in Bethesda that included a question about whether more or less Americans question President Obama’s faith identity in 2012 than did in 2008. The organization reported earlier this year that in 2008, 55% of survey respondents identified the president as a Christian, while only 49% do so now. Four years ago, 12% thought the president was a Muslim. That figure has risen to 17%.
All three campaign surrogates advocated a broader range of issues that are informed by faith than so-called “culture war” concerns like abortion and same-sex marriage. Among those mentioned were the economy, tax policy, immigration, and heath-care reform. Wear said that if faith is a daily part of politicians’ lives, “they’re going to be looking through that lens on all their decisions.”
What do you think?
Should questions about the candidates’ faith be off-limits?
WELCOME TO TAMPA: Some 200 protesters braved inclement weather from Tropical Storm Isaac today to rally against the presence of the GOP convention in Tampa, Florida. Protesters cried out against Republican policies on immigration, health care, and the economy. (Photo: Mladen Antonov/Newscom)
News that a Republican candidate is getting a low percentage of the black vote typically draws a yawn.
But prominent black Republicans, such as Romney-Ryan adviser Tara Wall, likely gasped at the new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll that suggests the ticket is currently getting zero percent of the black vote. How do you get zero percent with all those #BlackConservativeForMittRomney tags on Twitter?
Truthfully, the poll’s results aren’t literal, being within the 3.1 percent margin of error. But there’s a link between the poll and Romney’s actions that should cause black Republicans like Wall to do some soul-searching.
Since May, Wall has been Romney’s senior communications adviser emphasizing African American outreach (UrbanFaith news editor Christine Scheller spoke to her back in June). Wall held a similar role with President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign where he gained 11 percent of the black vote. She’s among a group of black advisers who have been schooling (apparently not well) Romney on what black voters need to hear from him. They don’t expect to outpoint the nation’s first African American president, but want Romney to at least hold on to the 4 percent of the black vote that McCain received in his 2008 loss to Obama.
I interviewed Wall last week on my radio show and her comments about the poll were predictable: You can make numbers say anything you want. Obviously, black Republicans weren’t among those polled. Excitement for President Obama has dipped as people continue to struggle economically. Efforts to appeal to black voters are gearing up (at this writing there was no section on Romney’s website under the “communities” geared specifically towards black or Hispanic voters).
However, I was struck by Wall’s response concerning the GOP’s elephant in the room — its race-baiting tactics.
It’s often said that blacks, particularly black Christians, are as socially conservative (pro-life, pro traditional marriage) as the Republican platform claims to be. So why aren’t black voters aligned with Republicans over Democrats? The GOP’s racist bent is what keeps black voters at bay. Wall objected passionately.
“That’s false. I reject that notion,” she said. “… Racism comes in many forms. I think that is a discussion in a broader context that we as a community have to have on an ongoing basis. But to simply blanketly [sic] say that Republicans don’t speak out and are racist, I think that’s patently false. There are racist elements in society everywhere and in every party and in every place.”
TOUGH TASK AHEAD: Tara Wall is charged with shaping the Romney campaign’s communication strategy — including its message to the black community, which is presently showing no love for Mitt.
That last sentence is certainly true. Democrats play race games as well and President Obama has been tepid on addressing racism. However, it’s well documented that much of today’s Republican base is of the Dixiecrat tradition — anti-big government, pro-state’s rights, segregationists. In response to Democrat President Lyndon B. Johnson signing civil rights legislation in the 1960s (Northern moderate Republicans urged him to), Southern conservative democrats began fleeing to the GOP. They were lured by the GOP’s “Southern strategy” during the Goldwater and Nixon years. To compete with Democratic gains, the GOP saw white southerners as fertile ground for new voters. Understanding the buttons to push, they stirred fears of big government and black people to win them over. No deep ideological motive, just money + votes = power.
Blue states turned red. The party of Abraham Lincoln took on the spirit of Andrew Johnson. Blacks fled the GOP. The legacy continues today.
Wall and other black Republicans know this history well. She has been among those critical of the GOP’s alienating minorities, especially in light of America’s “browning” as Hispanic populations grow. She has even produced a documentary about this titled, Souled Out that has apparently been tucked away for the moment.
As an independent who votes his interests, I admire black conservatives who are truly sincere in their beliefs to diversify the GOP. Think about it. If Romney beats Obama, who would be at the table of influence in the West Wing fighting for black issues? We need advocates in both political parties. Besides, there are sellouts on both sides who dine and grow fat as the masses of black people suffer from high unemployment, health disparities, incarceration rates, and wealth gaps.
The gentleman in me held my tongue from lashing out at Wall about the race baiting. I didn’t have to. The following day her boss, during a campaign stump in Michigan where he and his wife, Ann, were born, pulled a line from the Southern strategy playbook. Before an overwhelmingly white audience, Romney quipped: “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate; they know that this is the place that we were born and raised.”
It was an obvious wink to the birthers who believe Obama is un-American, unqualified, and should go back to Africa.
Growing up in the North, it can be puzzling to hear of Southern whites who insist on celebrating their racist past.
Whether it comes up in the hoisting of the rebel flag at a state capitol, or opposing the stripping of a Confederate soldier’s name from an elementary school, my simplistic, New York Yankee, public school education teaches that those folks are just clueless rednecks. The South was violent and intolerant compared to the North, we learned. During the Civil War, the bad guys wore gray and wanted to keep blacks enslaved. President “Honest Abe” Lincoln freed all of the slaves and kept America unified. During the civil rights movement, the good whites from up North went down South and helped black folks bear the dogs, water hoses, and end the lynchings. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached about his dream during the March on Washington and segregation finally ended.
But a good college education, deeper history books, and wisdom born of life experiences have taught me that America’s racial heritage is much more complex than that. Besides, living several years now in Virginia’s Hampton Roads area, the epicenter of America’s birth and the “War Between the States,” I understand the different sides of racial tension a lot better. While most blacks saw the war as a tragic but necessary event that led to their people’s freedom from slavery, many whites in Southern states saw it as an assault by the north on their heritage and sovereign rights. Both are true.
This year, as the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War nears (April 12, 1861, is recognized as the date of the war’s first shot), yet another firebomb from the past is flaming racial tensions in the Deep South. The Mississippi Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans has proposed a specialty license plate to honor Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. This “war hero” also led the 1864 Fort Pillow Massacre, where several disarmed black Union soldiers were killed while surrendering. Forrest was also a founder of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Confederate veterans say Forrest and other soldiers were brave men who “put it all on the line” for a cause they strongly believed in. They were protecting their families, land, and livelihood. As for his Klan ties, Forrest renounced his membership later in life, in the same way that Supreme Court Judge Hugo Black and Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia had.
According to published reports, the state’s NAACP President Derrick Johnson said the license plate idea is offensive, mainly to black Mississippians who comprise 40 percent of the state. The Klan is “a domestic terrorist organization,” he said adding that the NAACP planned to insist Gov. Haley Barbour denounce the license plate.
Meanwhile, Barbour, who has GOP presidential nomination aspirations, has said he’s sure the proposal won’t pass in the state legislature and that if it does he won’t sign it; however, he refuses to denounce the license plate proposal outright. For Barbour, 63, it has been another misstep on race. Last year he claimed to have gone to integrated schools and that during the civil rights movement he just didn’t “remember it being that bad.” After Gov. Bob McDonald of Virginia, apologized for failing to mention slavery when he proclaimed April as “Confederate History Month,” Barbour said the controversy “doesn’t amount to diddly.”
Barbour is obviously pandering to the far right-white vote, but both he and the NAACP’s Johnson represent a deeper problem. When leadership is unwilling to have an honest open dialogue on race and retrench instead, it’s more likely the rest of us will follow to our predictable, polarizing positions behind the color lines.
In 1998, President Clinton, a Southerner, vowed to lead the country in an “unprecedented conversation about race.” It fizzled out, but at least he tried.
Now in 2011, with ironically, the first black president in office, we are perhaps even more polarized. After hearing Obama’s profound speech on race during the 2008 campaign, it seemed he might be the one to lead us to a more substantive conversation. But President Obama, a Northerner by way of Hawaii, and his administration are spooked by race. They avoid the discussion by any means necessary.
It’s sad, but maybe it’s best that the leadership on race come from the state, local, and personal level.
Gov. Barbour and Johnson of the NAACP could better serve Mississippians by flipping the predictable race conversation. Lead an open and honest discussion about race, instead. Use the opportunity of Confederate History Month to build a sense of respect and understanding of Mississippi’s black and white histories that are both true and inseparable. It could lead to healing and even racial reconciliation.
It could become a model for how we together acknowledge the dark and bright sides of America’s history.
With all the Abraham Lincoln buzz this month, in commemoration of our 16th president’s 200th birthday, every night brings something new to watch. Tonight, we’re looking forward to catching scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Looking for Lincoln on PBS. From the look of the previews, it promises to be a fascinating documentary. Here’s what media columnist Richard Prince had to say about it at his blog: