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Black History Matters

February 19, 2017

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Yes, I know. All history matters.

However, it is necessary to make this proclamation because of the very nature of history itself. It is, after all, not just the telling of what happened in the past. It is the telling of what happened in the past from the perspective of those who are writing the history. In the words of Dan Brown, “History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books — books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?’ ”

The Arawak, Taino, and Caribe peoples of the Caribbean islands did not get to tell the story of Columbus and his “discovery” and subsequent conquest. Theirs would have been quite a different version than the one we have read for years in our grade school history books. So too did the Cherokee, Chippewa, Sioux, Blackfoot, Apache, and Navajo not get to describe the “taming of the West” as they knew it.

Nor did the slaves during that shameful two hundred forty-six year period in our history or their descendants who bore the oppressive burden of segregation have the opportunity to give voice to their experience for the greater populace to understand and appreciate.

This is the reason black history matters. And women’s history. And that of Native American Indians, Hispanics, and all others that have been traditionally disregarded. To ignore both the struggles and contributions of these groups is to taint the history of this country as incomplete and misleading.

Mention this year of Black History Month has been all too scarce (other than the hollow Trump statement with its ridiculous reference to Frederick Douglas). I would have hoped this is because we have reached a time of greater enlightenment. However, the present climate in which both emboldened intolerance and the phenomenon of “alternative facts” have gotten a foothold would indicate otherwise.

It is unacceptable for the American people as a whole to not have proper knowledge of a significant part of our population, especially since it has had an integral role in shaping the very nation we have become. It is important to recognize the impact — both on the perpetrators and the victims — of the  slave trade: the abject misery of the Middle Passage, the brutality of the treatment the captured Africans endured, and their ensuing life in America as mere property. For a country which purports to live by the ideals of liberty and justice for all, it is necessary to recognize that we imposed such arbitrary and restrictive practices on that portion of the population living in servitude and then after the Civil War, though supposedly free, the incredible injustice and indignity of the Jim Crow Laws. We as a nation should also be inspired by the words and deeds of those who stood up to the injustice and by the amount that was accomplished by them in the face of great odds, lessons unfortunately still applicable to this day.

It is clear that there is work in this area remaining to be done if we are indeed going to continue to make strides and actually see the day when, as succinctly put in the lyrics of the Wailers’ song, “there are no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation….(and) the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes.” We will need all members of our society to gain a more complete and balanced understanding of the past and its continued effect on the present. It is not enough to merely pay lip service to the paramount American ideal of equality. We have enough insincere politicians doing that. An America that truly lives up to its principles must recognize and affirm its past, shortcomings as well as successes. Black History Month was and still is one necessary step in that process.

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