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Black History Month - Declaration of Independence - Equality for All

February 28, 2013

Carter G. WoodsonCarter G. Woodson recognized a narrative missing from our nation's history books - the centuries old journey of black people.  In 1926 he declared a one week celebration of Negro History Week which immediately grew in popularity and which now has become Black History Month.

Today, the 28 or 29 days of February provide a long enough stretch of time to schedule a variety of events focused on the wide-ranging contributions of black people to the formation of who we are as a nation.  Schools, community groups, politicians, churches and other groups reflect on the past, celebrate it and recognize the journey that black people have traveled from the 1600's to where we are today.

The designation "Black History Month" gives permission to celebrate and to ask others to join in.  For black people, events, activities, speeches and celebrations are a source of pride.  They help maintain and strengthen a culture that stems from many locations in the world with refreshingly creative and artistic expressions.  Black History is American history.  Without the contributions of black people in its earliest years, America would not be the nation it is today.

Still, those who understand the significance of celebrating and honoring black history and, even more, Black History Month, fall primarily along racial lines.  Black people support it and white people are mostly oblivious.

Question:  What Do You Think?

While visiting Boston Medical center on February 27, 2013, this writer queried people comfortably seated in an eating area and behind receptionist desks: three white people and three black people, selected at random, whoever was in the mood "to talk."

Each person was asked:  "Do you have an opinion about Black History Month?  Do you think we should celebrate Black History Month?"  The black people were quick to respond, interested in expressing their opinions and experiences in honoring and participating in such activities.  Each provided a thoughtful answer, all of them nuanced differently. 

Two of the three white people declined to participate: "No."  One person, seated comfortably, said he would like to answer the question.  He seemed to be struggling to find words.  In the end, he shared his inability to relate to Black History Month while thinking he really should care.  "I didn't know this was going to be so difficult to answer.  I thought I would have something to say."

Later in the day, I spoke with another white person whose answer helps clarify how and why Black History Month remains primarily a celebration unique to one racial group.

Highlights of the Conversations
  • Celebrate every day, not just one day or one month
  • Parents teaching their children is key to an understanding of black history
  • History is interesting stories, told by people about people
  • Black history is more than just the history of slaves
  • Our black forefathers died for us and we must not forget
  • Black history offers a sense of pride for black children
  • Focus on Black history helps maintain a culture that is unique in the United States

Natalie (black)

"Yes, we should be celebrating Black History Month but we should be celebrating it all year long.  Black history is part of American history."  Did she think that black history has been ignored?  "No, but parents have an important role in teaching their kids about black history.  Parents teaching their kids about their culture is all a part of growing up.  You need to tell your kids where they come from and what the culture was like.  I'm from the West Indies, from Barbados.  So learning about my culture was a strong part of my upbringing and this made a difference in my life."

Mark (black)

"Yes, it's very important.  People in America - we all have our stories to tell, stories about history and culture."  But he added:  "Black history stories in the United States tend to be only one sided.  There's more to our stories than just the story of slavery."  He spoke of the shallowness of referring only to one facet of the contributions of black Americans to the fabric of our society.  "What about black people's contributions to the arts, to leadership roles in government and to all the contributors in the many fields where black people have made a huge difference in our nation's history.  Mostly we hear about slavery.  This is one-sided and gives the wrong impression."

Earl (black)

"Yes, we should be celebrating black history month because of the forefathers of black people who died for the causes of black people.  These causes include equality, respect and  understanding.  Focusing on black history gives black children of today a sense of pride.  It also gives them a perspective on who they are and what they can achieve in today's society.  You can think of black history as continuing to 'knockdown' the walls for the future of all people."

John (white)

"John, can I ask you a question?  Should we be celebrating Black History Month?" His one-word answer was most illuminating "Huh?" as if he didn't know what I was talking about.  So I asked him a slightly different question. "How about Japanese History Month.  Should we be celebrating Japanese History Month?"  His answer:  "Same question.  Same answer.  Huh?"

Black History Month - Taking a Step Towards Full Equality

All Men are Created Equal The black people, who were open and willing to engage in conversation about black history, seemed to be able to do that because they were "telling stories" about themselves.  Based on their personal experiences, each person readily identified steps black people, as a group, should take to self-recognize their importance to the formation of this country - steps that also help to grow black pride.

That Black History is not being given its full due may be important in some settings (school) but should not dim the spotlight for black people in their own and growing celebrations of Black History.  It's always tough to get anybody to pay attention to anyone other than themselves. 

While continuing to explore, learn, document, celebrate and tell "stories" about their own, their roots, and their truly unique contributions to this country, the modern day black groups like the NAACP must continue to move forward to close the inequality gap.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

The opening sentence of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence is one of the best-known sentences in the English language and has come to be considered a major statement on human rights.  While not a "truthful" assessment of who we are today, it remains a visioning statement of who we want to become (equal).  

Abraham Lincoln considered the Declaration of Independence a foundation of his political philosophy and one through which the United States Constitution should be interpreted.  For marginalized people everywhere, the United States Declaration has inspired work for their rights, for all human rights.

Time will tell.  The United States is becoming a minority majority populace with Boston already in that category.  History's knowledge of itself will stand righted when our country, the United States of America, becomes what we stand for:  equality, unalienable rights, liberty and justice for all.

"One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."  (excerpted from the Pledge of Allegiance)

Posted: February 28, 2013     Nancy J Conrad

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