February is once again, as every year, the month when this country celebrates Black History Month. And once again my thoughts immediately fall short of being celebratory as they are overshadowed by the reality that it is the only time this nation acknowledges how critical the African-American has been and continues to be to this country’s development.
I reflect on what has become a recurring theme in my thoughts about African-American life and that is the fact that the genius and talent, the contributions and impact we have had and have on this nation, cannot be contained in even 12 months of Black history and definitely cannot be fully appreciated except within the context of the racism that is at the core of the American experience i.e., an “authentic” American history.
These thoughts are accompanied by feelings of frustration, disappointment, and resident anger at what is, in most cases, “proforma” recognition of a few African-American historical figures with the dominant theme being the “I Have A Dream” speech of Dr. King with a focus on him as a dreamer/visionary.
Without a study of Dr. King in the larger context of this country’s racism, the fact that his activism and critique of this nation’s social inequities were the cause of the bullet that killed him is minimized.
During this historical moment, when the continued power of racism to define the reality of African-Americans remains; when the discussion of race has been ignited by incidents such as the George Floyd killing by police which has Whites buying books about racism in numbers never seen before; when the Black Lives Matter Movement has nationwide momentum and is intergenerational and interracial: when Critical Race Theory is being used as a weapon to further dilute/ban educational curriculum that speaks authentically of the centrality of the African American contribution to America; when protecting hard-won voting rights cannot find majority support in the Congress of this nation; and when efforts are already in place to restrict voting access to marginalized communities, the reality that the power of racism as a systemic problem continues to define our society, is difficult and dangerous to ignore.
Frederick Douglas, a prominent African-American historical figure, wisely said, “Power concedes nothing without a struggle, it never did and it never will.” The study of this man’s life is instructive on many levels but in this historical moment, it supports and nurtures the commitment to activism so needed to meet the racist forces amplified both overtly and covertly during the Obama Presidency and unleashed with fury during and in the aftermath of the Trump Presidency.
Politics has played a pivotal role thus far in addressing some of the inequities fostered and nurtured by racism, but politics does not address racism at its root, the reality that racism is central to maintaining the power of those who continue to benefit from it, intentionally or not. Only by a reconstructed education can we proceed down a path that can weaken the hold that racism has on this nation.
What this requires is the courage and commitment to confronting the seeds of racism as revealed in an “authentic” American history, an authenticity that clearly reveals the structural nature of racism and thus provides the foundation for attacking and weakening it.
This requires no less than a complete overall of the history and literature curriculum in this country K-12. Black History Month and Cesar Chavez Day, holidays that too many Whites view as being primarily for Blacks and Browns, are not sufficient as a corrective. Rather, Black history, Brown history, and the history of Indigenous populations must be studied as central to American history with an authentic perspective that reveals how Whites benefitted and continue to benefit from their embrace of racism, whether overtly or covertly.
Who better to lead in the development of a rewritten curriculum that provides access to the “real” America and provides a foundation for deconstructing the worldview that racism nurtures, than intellectuals of all races and ethnicities, many of whom are currently teaching in or affiliated with Ethnic Studies departments and those who have made the reconstruction of American history their life’s work?
History thus reconstructed, with the enhancement literature can contribute, would provide the insights to address and dismantle, substantively, the house that racism has built. It is of course an awesome task but dismantling a system of racism that has existed since the beginnings of what we now know as America requires no less than a full commitment to fundamental change.
Dr. Barbara Rhodes is a professor emeritus at California State University, Northridge.