Every February is Black History Month. It started as “Negro History Week.” Yet finally, the shortest month was chosen to recall the most enduring and continuing of America’s Sisyphean efforts to achieve equality.
Black History Month was born of the valiant effort of Carter G. Woodson to educate African Americans about their heritage, and was planned to coincide with the birthday of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln.
But I think November should be Black History month – for in November, Black Americans painfully recall the obligation of America to renew its unfulfilled promise of equality and justice. It is on Election Day in America that we must remember that no matter how selfless the contribution, or enduring the heroism, of African Americans, that the American Project of democracy is still suffused by a bad case of negligent amnesia.
Whether it be war or domestic conflict, or the test of moral principles, African Americans have stood up with other disfavored and disdained castes within our American social quilt and answered the call of service.
From Barack Obama to Eugene Goodman to Crispus Attucks and Benjamin O. Davis, it has been the unstoppable and undaunted willingness of Black Americans to respond in crisis – to do what Black clerics describe as “standing in the gap.”
This was the experience of the now celebrated Tuskegee fighter pilots who were kept out of early combat – indeed, nearly kept out of the Air Corps altogether – as Southern segregationists argued Blacks could never learn to fly an airplane.
Black Americans have stepped up not only in war, but in peace to serve.
But the enduring and unanswered question is how and when will America begin to mobilize its enormous economic and political power to rebuild the economic and social infrastructure that affects the least powerful and the most despised more than 400 hundred years after 1619. When will America fully remember?
Somehow despite Black America’s integral efforts in contributing in both war and in peace, America’s willful political amnesia continues. It comes wrapped in different packages but it still continues.
This season’s wrapping is an effort to suppress and eradicate “critical race theory.”
Its battle cry is the recently rediscovered “claim” that (white) parents must control their school curricula – and that this somehow entails a return to revanchist views about race in American history drawn from provably outdated and ahistorical sources.
In simplest terms, it is the call for creation of a public space for reviving outworn American myths about race and history in the service of both cynicism and political amnesia.
Indeed, this antagonism towards our past is nothing new. It raised its head during the 19th century to put an abrupt end to Reconstruction. It is a tool for all times and eras.
This American exercise in purposeful forgetfulness means that white Americans will still feel justified in using both de jure and de facto strategies of racial exclusion and disenfranchisement. Especially in voting.
Yes, the most pernicious and poisonous form of attacking Black political power is aimed at the roots which grow our democratic republic. Black voter suppression goes to the heart of the promise of equality and justice in our nation.
But, historically, if that fails, we see an even darker prospect on the horizon. It is a tradition many believed was “overcome.” It is this darkest tradition: threats of white supremacist violence to silence the voices of Black progress we can see looming on our horizon.
The events of Jan. 6, 2020 should teach us that this tradition in America has not died its final death. Indeed, it may be rising again in this nation.
It is this very hovering threat of violence masquerading as a cry for America’s return to “greatness” that must be addressed by deepening our unanimous commitment to democracy and equality.
For if Black political participation is seen as a loss of political power to white Americans, then we are ultimately doomed to a fate of both “base hypocrisy” and tyranny, even as young Abraham Lincoln prophesied over 150 years ago.
When in 1838 Lincoln spoke decrying the mob that killed an abolitionist newspaperman, he also warned that if autocratic danger ever comes to America, it wouldn’t arise from across the sea, but within our shores; it would arise because we lacked a full and complete commitment to perpetuating our democratic institutions.
No doubt, the future president was right.
But I think our real danger is simply in forgetting.
Albert Turner Goins, Sr. is a resident of White Bear Lake, Minnesota.