Nell Irvin Painter


"Black History Month’s Most Important Lesson," Newsday, 25 February 2003

By Nell Irvin Painter

We need Black History Month now more than ever, even though there are always people who want it to go away. Every year some people want to abolish Black History Month. They have lots of reasons that sound rational, at least at first: (1) We should have black history every month, not just once a year. I say: Well, we should. But if we don't have it in at least one month, we risk the loss of black history out of popular culture entirely. Black History Month is one time when people who are not in school focus on the fact that African Americans have a history. (2) History dwells on the past. We should be looking to the future. I say: The future makes little sense without knowledge of the past. We know that people who ignore the past are doomed to repeat its mistakes. (3) Black History Month has become a feel-good opportunity for corporations to underwrite empty statements about dead black people. I say: This is true, but anything that succeeds in American culture becomes a feel-good opportunity for corporations. If we eliminated every instance of corporate piggybacking, not much would remain in our popular culture. (4) Black History Month doesn't do anything to improve the lot of poor black people. I say: Black history month may not directly improve people's lives, but it doesn't hurt them, either. Meanwhile, we need it badly right now

This year, when Democrats as well as Republicans want to take us into a "preemptive" foreign war, Black History Month reminds us of two important points: that accepted wisdom is neither the only or necessarily the best way of seeing things, and that the needs of ordinary, working Americans should come first in our national politics.

Think of the famous names: Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter White, A. Philip Randolph, Mary McLeod Bethune, Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Baldwin, to name just a few. Most of the people in Black History Month were in struggle against the truisms of American life. Before the Civil War, most Americans thought slavery was just fine and that abolitionists were crazy agitators. In the first half of the twentieth century, the vast majority of Americans had little problem with segregation, disfranchisement, even lynching. Most black people could not vote and were subject to violence, humiliation, and exclusion. Yet most Americans did not question the way things were. In 1946, before the great civil rights revolution, Life Magazine took a poll on race relations. Most Americans found relations between the races to be properly adjusted. At most points in our history, huge majorities of Americans thought everything just fine as it was. Yet decade after decade, black people and a few non-black allies waged a struggle against racial injustice. In that struggle they created a counter-tradition that questioned what most people took for granted about American life.

Right now we need to heed that counter-tradition of struggle against political truisms. We need a tradition to embolden us to think for ourselves. We are living in a moment when our government is lying to us, trying to scare us into thinking that we're about to be attacked by terrorists so we will be willing to go to war. Our government is lying to us that the racial playing field is level and that race-based remedies have no place. The Bush administration places the financial demands of its war above the needs of working people. Black History Month reminds us that the counter-tradition puts people's needs first.

The accepted wisdom in the United States February 2003 says Iraq threatens American safety and must be invaded. The United States was ready to pay $26 and one-half billion dollars to Turkey in order to wage this war. That is roughly the amount of money the states lack to pay their bills. Think of what $26 and one-half billion dollars would mean to schools, police, fire fighters, parks, and medical care!

Some thirty-five years ago Martin Luther, King, Jr., one of the most popular figures of Black History Month, watched the War on Poverty and the Great Society lose out to the Vietnam War. On 4 April 1967, the Reverend King spoke at the Riverside Church in New York City against what he called the "madness " of the war. King deplored the diversion of funds from domestic needs to warfare. He called the war the "enemy of the poor."

King realized the war damaged the people of United States as well as those of Vietnam. It killed the children of God, Vietnamese and American. He asked how he could urge the angry young men in black ghettoes to turn away from violence when their country used violence to get its way with another people. The war, he said, was making Americas into cynics. "It should be incandescently clear," King said, "that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America can ignore the present war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read 'Vietnam.'" This February let Black History Month remind us of the folly of such a war.

Nell Irvin Painter teaches history at Princeton University. She is the author of Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol and Southern History Across the Color Line.

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