Black History Month celebration doesn't feel adequate

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There is guilt and shame for a history of rejection that has driven us to limiting such a celebration to 28 days a year.

By Steve Doyle

So let me get this straight: In 1976 the federal government decided that we would devote February to the celebration and development of African-American history, calling it Black History Month and expanding it from a whole week. Are we to take from that, after having spent so many centuries denying African-Americans as being whole parts of society, that 28 days each year seems a fair mortgage payment against that debt?

Surely my logic is faulty, but in this celebration don’t you see yet another sample of segregation? Are we to be limited to when we can study and rejoice in the contributions and accomplishments of about half the human race? Must we create a special time so we don’t forget?

Sorry if that sounds harsh and feels wrong. But I continually get the impression that those who decide such things believe that if we didn’t designate February, this whole subtext of the American culture would be lost forever in the cyclonic forces that keep us all spinning in absolute orbit around ourselves.

Should we have to do this? Should we celebrate a certain chapter of our history founded simply on skin color? We’ve been doing that at least since the Good Samaritan stopped by the side of the road, I guess, so what’s one more little episode?

The whole issue of definition-by-color is troubling anyway. Football coach-turned-author-turned-commentator Tony Dungy offered a good piece of advice I read recently: If someone identifies a person by the color of his or her skin, ask the speaker why skin color matters. The response likely would be a learning experience.

Sure, skin color does matter sometimes. When police are seeking a suspect who is on the loose, it’s important for citizens to know the full description of that person.

But otherwise should definition-by-skin-color remain a central adjective in the public discourse? We all do it. We have made it a futile failsafe of our vocabulary and nomenclature. It’s as routine as slang for some of us and cursing for others, no matter our skin color.

My mother used to tell me that people use curse words because they aren’t smart enough to think of the right word. I agree. And I also think people use color because they don’t take the time to notice something more important.

This whole practice arises from a thousands-of-years indoctrination, almost as if some of us see imperfection in God’s divinity simply because some of us are of a different hue.

But who among us was around to meet Adam and Eve and see their skin color? Given God’s artistry, maybe he painted them purple. We know Jesus was Jewish, which likely meant his features were darker. Given evolution, is it unreasonable to suggest that his skin might have had more pigment than a person we now would identify as being Jewish?

And, even so, does it really matter? Isn’t it the pink in all of us that matters?

A boy asked me the other day why so many African-Americans play basketball.

I offered the perfunctory: Each of us has particular talents and unique interests. The players we see on TV are often the best players around. What I should’ve done was ask why he cared.

Haven’t about 50 years passed since men and women died so that all of us would have equal rights? Surely in all that time (yes, insert sarcasm) our society should have something more important to use as a descriptor. Of course, that wondrous concept is ignorant of history.

If you have lived at least those 50 years, you remember when we sent our young people to class rooms on High Street rather than Main Street, on Lincoln Ridge and in Montclair and not Simpsonville or Finchville.

We encouraged some of our residents to live in neighborhoods where they would feel more welcome, like Martinsville or Montclair. Some of our sort-of neighbors weren’t welcome at certain churches, as if God thought some Baptists or Methodists were different from others. A man living on your property couldn’t sit with you at some restaurants, and tickets at the old movie theaters were for balcony only.

There were water fountains and restrooms marked by color. When black men and women worked in the fields with whites, they were given their own water jugs and cups, as though that were a kindness dictated only by race.

We didn’t allow people of color to swim in our public pools – tax money only goes so far, you know? – though we might allow them to get dirty on our sports fields. As recently as the late 1970s, there were schools and sports leagues created to be exclusive.

There were different places to be born and to die and to be buried.

Yet, embarrassing as those crimes were, they were tepid. Fifty years before that, the divisions were much deeper and angrier and deadlier. In world wars, men weren’t allowed to fight on equal footing, even if they were allowed to die on the same battlefield. Not every life was the same even if the souls arrived simultaneously at the Pearly Gates.

And I, for one, feel guilty about all of that. I feel guilty for every bad word I’ve said, every assumption I’ve upheld, every segregationist theory or practice I’ve overlooked or accepted. I am humiliated by enlightenment and scornful of the darkness from which my embarrassment emerged.

It’s that sort of shame, I believe, that led us to bracket our shortest month into a celebration of a single culture.

Shouldn’t we simply say that African-American history is American history? Can’t we be one people with one history? Must our books and our calendars maintain yet another form of continuing segregation?

I’m one very guilt-ridden sotto voce confessor in the wind, but I will, as Tony Dungy suggested, try to think differently from today forward – for more than 28 days a year.