Black History Month began as a way to counter the awful lies, misconceptions and derogatory characterizations of Black Americans that has been part of the American tradition since 1619. There is no way that horrors of slavery, racism, discrimination, Jim Crow, Klan domestic terrorism, mass incarceration and lynching could be rationalized without America being able to characterize Black people as “less than” and “the other”.
When Carter G. Woodson wrote “The Miseducation of the Negro” in 1933 he intended to provide a basis for Black Americans to understand the true history of Black Americans as opposed to the mythic characterizations that served to justify the mistreatment and abuse suffered by so many. That knowledge, especially self-knowledge, is an essential aspect to liberation, and the study of the truth about Black history in America has always served to provide a foundation for rights movements from abolition to the ongoing struggle for civil rights to the Black Power movement to Black Lives Matter.
But there is still more educating that needs to be done. That is due to the fact that while the “miseducation” of Black people is an ongoing concern, the “miseducation” of all Americans has been, and continues to be, a matter of grave concern as well.
Too many Americans refuse to believe that absolute and unspeakable horrors of the institution of slavery and the complicity of most white Americans of that era in some aspect of this “peculiar institution”. Efforts to sanitize slavery tend to minimize the ongoing impact of two and half centuries of legal and absolute bondage followed by almost two centuries of residual oppression, racism and discrimination. The New York Time “1619” project is certainly a step in the right direction, but certainly not enough Americans have read it, and even fewer have absorbed its awful importance.
The “miseducation” of all Americans has resulted in the continued celebration of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the other famed slave masters who were part of the group known as the Founding Fathers – as eight of the first ten Presidents were. The idea that for the first decades of its existence the elected leadership of this nation were slave masters is a stain on this country’s legacy that has yet to be acknowledged.
The “miseducation” of Americans has transformed the Civil War into a conflict that “ended slavery” when in fact abolition did not prevent the continuation of abuse, oppression and inhumane treatment of Black Americans. And that “miseducation” has perpetuated the obscene myth that the Confederate military leaders and it’s soldiers were “heroes” when in fact they were traitors and defenders of an evil institution – making them unworthy of praise much less being commemorated with statues and the memorializing of their names on universities, streets, towns and cities throughout this country.
Certainly this “miseducation” has persuaded too many people that the race-based disparities in these United States – income inequality, mass incarceration, higher infant mortality rates, lower life expectancy rates, higher incidents of police brutality, unequal access to education, housing and a range of professions and occupations – are not related to racism and race-based behavior in the public and private sectors.
Perhaps it is time for Black History Month to be about more than celebrating the accomplishment of Black Americans, past and present. Perhaps it is time for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to be recounted and taught – not only to Black Americans but to all Americans – so that there is a true understanding as to why we are where we are when it comes to matters of race and so that a reality-based path to a better day for all can finally be seen and understood.
That might be the best way to celebrate Black History Month this year and in the years to come.