by Susan Belinda Christian
Published in the Bay Area Reporter February 3rd, 2011 Edition
In 1975, the United States was gearing up to celebrate its Bicentennial. Despite the fact that African Americans were integral to the country’s creation, growth and success, and although black history had been celebrated annually since 1926, the lives and achievements of African Americans remained essentially absent from mainstream celebrations of American culture. President Gerald Ford issued the first presidential message urging Americans to “recognize the important contribution made to our nation’s life and culture by black citizens.” In 1976, the year of the United States’ Bicentennial, what had been Black History Week was expanded to African American History Month.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed that, “the foremost purpose of Black History Month is to make all Americans aware of this struggle for freedom and equal opportunity” and designated it a time “to celebrate the many achievements of African Americans in every field from science and the arts to politics and religion.”
Each year since, presidents have proclaimed the month of February to be the time to celebrate the history and contributions of African Americans.
Bringing the true history of African Americans into the consciousness of the mainstream is important – doing so renders visible (for at least 28 or 29 of the shortest days of each year) the lives and achievements of African Americans. The celebrations enable everyone interested in this country’s origins and culture to better appreciate it by understanding the rich history, strength, and genius of black people in this country.
More than a decade into the 21st century and several years after electing the first African American president, this recognition and celebration continue to be necessary and important. The beauty of African American history nourishes us; contemplation of the brutality faced by black Africans and black Americans enables us to appreciate the extraordinary difficulty of our ancestors’ lives. Day in and day out, people like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Glenn Beck demonstrate how deeply ignorant many people are about American history. So, by all means, let the celebrations begin, and let’s all enjoy them. But is it enough to make people aware of the past “struggle for freedom and equal opportunity?” Is it all that we should do?
A singular focus on commemorating watershed civil rights victories and celebrating the centrality and richness of black Americans’ contributions to this country leaves unexamined the de facto, structural inequalities that have never abated and which continue to be endured by the overwhelming majority of African Americans. It has not been legal since 1954 to provide black children inferior educations through segregation on the basis of race. Yet, in California, approximately 40 percent of African American students fail to graduate high school. Federal and state laws have for decades prohibited racial discrimination in housing and employment, but the percentage of African American people who are chronically unemployed or underemployed remains wildly disproportionate.
The number of African Americans incarcerated each year in proportion to our numbers is staggering. And the disparities continue to grow. The need for each person to take responsibility for her own actions is, without question, paramount and constant – but it is dishonest to ignore the fact that success in our society has always correlated, and continues to correlate, to economic class, the quality of education gained by an individual (and their parents). And by race. As the concept of “race” becomes less valid, economic class and education continue to act as proxies for it. The actual opportunities for significant numbers of African Americans to become successful, productive members of mainstream American culture remain illusory. That structural inequality of opportunity, resources and access to wealth exists cannot be denied.
During the 2008 campaign, presidential candidate Barack Obama often said, to great cheers, “There is not a black America and a white America, a Latino America, an Asian America. There is a United States of America.”
This year, we should all take part in celebrating the contributions of African Americans to our country’s success – because it is our history. But we can also honor our ancestors by carrying their work forward. If the Proposition 8 battle of 2008 taught the LGBT community nothing else, it taught us that people who are not LGBT will not step forward to defend our equality if we, as a community, do not visibly work for theirs.