Friday, February 25, 2005

Lonnie Highlights the Struggles for Equality and the need for Black History Month

Lonnie: We've been Negroes, colored, black and a lot of other words. Now most of us use the term African-American. I want to highlight us as a people.

Many of the blacks, though not all, that were in this country originally were brought over via slavery. Free blacks before the civil war were no doubt victims of the perceptions of other people. But a person who was a slave wasn't even considered a full person by the law. What's known as "The Great Compromise" (Great Embarrassment is more accurate) decided that for representation, slaves would be counted as 3/5s of a person.

On January 1st of 1863, President Abrahm Lincoln issued The Emancipation Proclamation which declared:

"That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

"That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States."

Next of note are three Constitutional Amendments. Briefly, the thirteenth amendment made slavery illegal (and thereby freed the slaves); the fourteenth amendment said everyone born in the United States (including slaves) were natural citizens and had the same rights as any other citizen (in practice, this largely applied only to men); the fifteenth amendment guaranteed the voting rights of black men.

The 19th amendment was a battle fought and won so that all people, not just men, could vote.

Following the passage of all four amendments, things did not become equal. Not even in the eyes of the law. You had segregation in housing, dining, travel, etc. You had racial barriers to job advancement and education.

Thus was needed a civil rights movement.

We have had many leaders (and lost a huge number before their time) and we have had many struggles. And we have often seen our accomplishments overlooked or outright ignored.

So I take tremendous offense at someone (who is thankfully no longer a community member) when he suggests that Black History Month doesn't matter. His ignorance proves not only does it matter but that there are some people who still don't get the point.

I'll assume that the man suffers under the belief that we now have an equal playing field with equal opportunites for all. That is far from true but let's just move past for that a moment.

If we were now at an equal level, that would not erase the fact that our accomplishments or our history were now being taught in such a way that we had equal visibility. Talk of slavery makes some people uncomfortable (of all races including African-Americans).

It is our nation's shame. (Though not the only one.)

The former member seemed to feel that all was now great and that blacks were getting special treatment by having a month of history devoted to them. I am very proud of the people of my race who have overcome and led or inspired in all forms. And I have enjoyed hearing each choice of a highlight for Black History Month.

But even if things were now as equal as that man seems to think, the fact would remain that the enslavement of a people was not only factual, it was also historical. So Black History Month is needed to spotlight an ugly chapter in our nation and the accomplishments of individuals or of a people working together for change are necessary to teach everyone (male, female, gay, straight) regardless of race that a struggle for equality is a part of the American character.

Yes, blacks were enslaved. And there is still so much work needing to be done. But Black History Month should not be viewed by someone as special treatment for African-Americans because there's a larger story here: the pursuit of equality and opportunity.

For someone who claimed to be so interested in his country as that former member did not to appreciate a lesson in what we can overcome and strive towards suggest to me that he chooses to only identify with people who look exactly like him. The faces of this month are black, yes.
The theme, the goal is very much a part of America and who and what we can all be.

28 days (29 in a leap year) of history on a people fighting against bias and overcoming is a story that all Americans should be able to take an interest in. They may have to look beyond their own limited experiences to do that. But MLK, Sojourner Truth, Alice Walker, Malcolm X and others belong to all. They are studies in America.

And if the former member couldn't get behind the sharing because he seems to feel Black History Month is unnecessary, he is missing the fact that the struggles of one group towards equality does not mean that someone else loses out. When one group struggles for equality, all our boats can be lifted.

As a black man (I'm too old to use the term "African-American" but I take no offense by it), I may see the story from my own viewpoint. I certainly do celebrate the accomplishments of people of my own race. But I never forget that any narrative, even Oprah Winfrey's, fits into a larger story of our nation, of who we are all. I am sad that there are people who would choose to
see an opportunity to learn about our nation as "special rights."

Black History Month is important to many people of my race (though I'm sure there have to be some who feel as the former member does) because it gives us not just a perspective of where we came from but also an idea of where we could go. As a black man, I know that. As a human being regardless of race, I feel that it also offers lessons for all. When I learned of George Washington in school for the first time, I did not say, "Oh there's a white man with money and a white wig, so I have nothing in common in with him and my time is wasted if I study him."

To imply that Black History Month's focus on blacks prevents nonblacks from sharing and learning suggests that we are nothing but skin color. Such a belief suggests to me that Black History Month still has a remedial purpose for some people and it is the people who think the month has nothing to say to them.

The struggle of the colonies to break free from the empire is very much an American story. So is Black History Month. Without that month, blacks would largely be reduced in most history lessons to two periods, the civil war and the civil rights era of the last century. Any person wise enough to seek out information should grasp that emphasizing only those two periods does a disservice to history and to all Americans.