Black History Month: My least favorite time of the year | COMMENTARY
By E.R. Shipp
For The Baltimore Sun|
Jan 22, 2020 at 12:27 PM
The Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday can reliably be counted on for two phenomena: an outpouring of commitment to the ideal of nonviolent social change and a “revelation” that Dr. King was a Republican.
That last point also reliably draws groans and exaggerated eye-rolling from those of us who say, “And your point is…?” King himself was publicly nonpartisan but very laudatory of the Democratic President John F. Kennedy and a partner in legislative struggle with the Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson until their rift over the Vietnam War. He once said: “I don’t think the Republican party is a party full of the almighty God nor is the Democratic party. They both have weaknesses. And I’m not inextricably bound to either party. I’m not concerned about telling you what party to vote for.”
Even if he had voted Republican in some elections, he’d have been in good company. For years the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln had the loyalty of black people. Exactly 100 years ago, on the cusp of a presidential election, blacks who had tried the Democratic Party in 1912 when Woodrow Wilson seemed a promising candidate were inching back to the Republican Party after President Wilson turned out to be a racist nightmare. Black people’s political loyalties were fairly fluid until the Republican Party became the welcoming place for Southern bigots opposed to the civil rights agenda of the 1960s.
So MLK Day brings out the “I know a little bit of history” trolls even as it serves as a prelude to my least favorite time of the year: February as Black History Month. That’s when some troglodytes emerge from their caves, glance at the calendar and ask: “Why don’t we have White History Month?”
Don’t get me wrong. I am so grateful to Carter G. Woodson, the son of formerly enslaved parents who went on to become the second black man to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard. Working through his Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now African American Life and History), he set the nation firmly on a path of recognizing that black people were much more than “a negligible factor.” He is the father of what began as a week in 1926 and is now a month of (re)discovery. I am grateful as well to everyone from Coretta Scott King to Rep. John Conyers to Stevie Wonder to the nation’s schoolchildren around the country for convincing Congress to create the King holiday.
But clearly exposing masses of people to at least some of the story of black people has not been enough to slay the beast of racism. For too many people that I regularly hear from, asserting the humanity of black people is itself an act of racial provocation.
U.S. history, when given the more holistic treatment that Jill Lepore offers in one of my favorite books, “These Truths,” can truly free all of us to see each other for who we are and what we offer while providing an unadorned context for how we came to be. Knowing history — not the fairy-ale versions, not the bumper sticker bravado, not the #hashtags — can help guide us through our present-day mission, whether that is preserving democracy, radically reforming it or something else.
On the immediate horizon are three challenges fraught with the weight of history. Impeachment of President Donald Trump gets underway in earnest in the U.S. Senate this week. The 2020 Census is underway, a decennial effort to count ever human being in the country and allocate political power and social services on that basis. Primary election campaigns also are underway, not just for the presidency, but in Maryland for local and state offices as well as the congressional seat left vacant by the death of Rep. Elijah Cummings. History in each of these that can motivate or mire in despair. I choose the former, especially when it comes to voting.
The power of the vote was long legally denied to black people and to all women. It is still being denied through extralegal means of voter suppression, most obviously in the South. From newly-freed black men who registered to vote in the South in the late 1860s to the martyrs in the voting rights struggle in the 1960s, we have ample inspiration to vote. From all we see around us, no matter how we look, there is ample reason to vote.
Knowledge of history is not a destination. What we do with that knowledge matters. And as Dr. King himself said, we’ve got to keep moving forward.
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.