I have always committed myself to the truth, but these are times that call for more than truthful comments. It should be clear to anyone and everyone who cares at all about the legacy of Black History Month that since January 20, 2017, that legacy has been challenged, insulted and degraded.
It should be clear to anyone and everyone who cares about the legacy of Black History Month that its legacy has been challenged and under attack. And it should be clear to anyone and everyone who cares about the legacy of Black History Month that the challenge and attack emanates not only from the current occupant of the White House – the challenge and attack emanates from America itself.
How else do we explain how over 62.9 million American voters – overwhelmingly white – chose a man to be President of the United States who openly and blatantly challenged the citizenship and legitimacy of the first black President of the United States for the sole reason that he is black. Donald Trump employed the dog-whistle of race politics like the racist virtuoso that he is – and over 60 million white Americans came running. But in the final analysis this should not have been a surprise, because the legacy of Black History Month teaches us that we are long way from even approaching post-racial nationhood in these United States of America.
And as we observe and celebrate Black History Month, some perspective on history can be useful. Black History Month began as Negro History Week in 1926 – originally celebrated during the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln – February 12th and Frederick Douglass – February 14th. Negro History Week was the result of the advocacy of noted historian G. Carter Woodson and the Association for the Study of the Negro and was intended to celebrate and highlight the accomplishments of the African diaspora in the United States. Here is a quote by Dr. Woodson regarding the reason and need for Negro History Week:
“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Jewish people have keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of the worldwide persecution of the Jewish people they are a great factor in our civilization.”
And it is important to understand the historical context within which Black History Month has its origins. From 1882 to 1964 at least 3,446 black Americans were lynched in the United States. Men, women, children, returning war veterans in uniform, the aged, crippled and blind were killed by “civilized” white American mobs. In 1926 black people lived in a reign of terror throughout the United States and not only in the South.
In 1926, the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision – which declared state-based racial segregation to be constitutional – had been the law of the land for 30 years. And it would be another 28 years before the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision began to roll back the absolute racist villainy of the Plessy case.
In 1926 voting rights were simply unknown for many black Americans. And in 1926 the great migration of black Americans from the South to the North, Midwest and West Coast was moving at a rapid pace. Of course “migration” is not the correct word, because many of the men, women and children leaving the South were refugees from the organized and casual terrorism that circumscribed the lives of so many and too many.
In 1926, the Black National Anthem, words by James Weldon Johnson and music by John Rosamond Johnson, had been introduced and sung since 1900. And during those 26 years Jim Crow segregation was cemented into the American way of life. During those 26 years President Woodrow Wilson reinstituted segregation in the Federal Civil Service and allowed the racial obscenity of a movie, “Birth of a Nation” to premier in the White House. During those 26 years too many black soldiers who served in World War I were lynched in their uniforms upon returning to America.
And so, as we observe Black History Month I would like to refer to “Lift and Every Voice and Sing”, the Black National Anthem, to provide some frame of reference and an historical perspective.
Consider the first verse:
“Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty,
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.”
Remember that these words were written in 1900. Remember again that the horrors of human bondage were a recent memory and that the terror of the Ku Klux Klan and lynching were very much in the present tense. Remember that as these words were written the American shame and disgrace of Jim Crow were very much in the present tense.
Yet, listen to the power of hope and the absolutely magnificent belief in the promise of freedom and dignity – despite the fact that the fulfillment of this promise of the American dream had been so cruelly denied. Listen to these words and you begin to understand the strength and resilience that has sustained a people through the unimaginably worst of times.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Listen to these words and you hear that recurring theme of faith. The “dark past” is not a euphemism in this song. The “dark past” refers to the slave ships, and the centuries of bondage and human trafficking and rape and torture and degradation. And yet, despite and through these horrors, there is faith. And through faith resilience rises and through resilience comes the hope that sustains even during the present tense of 1900 and the present tense of 2018.
And we should understand, that the resilience reflected in these lyrics are accompanies by the theme of resistance. This is not a passive anthem. This is not a hymn in praise of eternal suffering. This is a call to action.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
Consider the words – “new day” is such a clear reference to the dawning of a new era occasioned by Emancipation. We sit comfortably in the 21st century and find it difficult if not impossible to understand what it could have been like to have no living relative who had ever lived in freedom. We find it difficult to imagine the profound effect that the extinction of the vile virus of slavery must have had on an entire people – both slave and free.
But if we try, we can imagine that the glorious day of Emancipation must have provided not only faith and hope, not only resilience, but also the will to resist encroachments on that new found freedom. The faith and hope and resilience also provided the strength to resist and to claim all of the rights that are due to every American citizen. And so, we begin to understand the strength and determination that underlies the words “till victory is won”.
Victory was never about just a seat on a bus or a seat in a public school. Victory was not about the first ballplayer or the first black president. Victory has always been about claiming dignity and humanity and finally being acknowledged as a full partner in the enterprise known as the United States of America.
And in a very real way, the struggle for humanity, dignity and full citizenship is a struggle that has been undertaken on behalf of all the participants in the gorgeous mosaic known as America. And we have seen that the civil rights struggle has empowered women – white and black, Latinos, Asians, the differently abled and men and women across the spectrum of gender choice. And what we know is that this country, imperfect as it is, is a better place because of the resistance and resilience of black Americans.
It would be interesting to find out if the “faith and hope” themes of the 2008 Obama presidential campaign were part of a subliminal message drawn from “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. But what we do know is that faith and hope are not the exclusive possession of black Americans. Indeed, faith and hope are the pillars of support that all people need.
In closing, it should be clear to all of us that the challenges of today fade into a light orange hue compared to the challenges referred to in the Black National Anthem. We should be clear that if there was ever a time to renew the call for resistance and resilience it is now.
And we should never, never forget that Black History Month is about so much more that a litany of achievements. Black History Month is a solemn occasion to reflect on the unfulfilled promise of greatness to which this country has aspired and will hopefully achieve on some great and wonderful day.