It might only be one month out of 12, and the shortest month at that, but it seems that we need Black History Month now more than ever.
We are constantly reminded that black people’s humanity is not accepted as a universal given in this society. The image of the black man as both an object of mirth and a criminally minded wreaker of havoc and menace to society is, it seems, alive more than ever in some quarters.
This means that we need to redouble our efforts to make it more widely known that African Americans and black people throughout the world have contributed vast amounts to arts, sciences, the humanities, engineering, architecture and the advancement of humanity’s cause.
We need to cling to the idea that the greater the numbers of people who know or realize that black people have distinguished histories that ought to be more widely known and appreciated, the better the country will be. Greater appreciation and knowledge of black people’s histories might lead more people to accept that African Americans have just as much right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as other Americans.
If the second half of the 20th century saw America taking significant strides toward becoming a more just and equitable society, with increasing opportunities for previously disenfranchised and economically/socially marginalized people, then the 21st century has, at times, the appearance of being an era intent of undoing gains and progress that the country has made regarding its black citizens.
Black History Month creates a challenge for all of us to seek out information and knowledge on the widest dimensions of black people’s histories. By watching Black History Month films, reading books, attending lectures, viewing exhibits and so on, more Americans will surely move further away from the dominant culture’s latent belief that ordinary black people are somehow undeserving of full respect as human beings.
Unless we can increase the ways in which we come together as one nation, bunkered mentalities will prevail. It’s time for us to increase our efforts to get the balance right and ensure that all Americans view Black History Month as a time to increase familiarity of those with whom they are the least familiar. We should all celebrate Black History Month not only for what we can learn during the month, but for the ways in which it can contribute to a better America and help us foster a deeper appreciation of the precious diversity we have in this country.
Black History Month is for everybody, including, or not just, African Americans. Now, as much as at any time in the life of this nation, Martin Luther King Jr.’s somebodyness is a blessed state of being that all Americans should possess in equal measure.
At this challenging moment in our nation’s history, we perhaps have to cling to the belief that anything that increases individual and societal respect for African Americans must, by definition, be a good thing. Would someone who participated in blackface years ago act in a less racially insensitive and disrespectful manner had he known the pernicious origins of the caricaturing of African Americans?
The days of so many white Americans regarding their history as being somehow different from, and by implication, better than, African Americans’ histories must at some point in time come to an end. Black History Month can help, particularly when it acts as a prelude to wider, year-round appreciation for cultural and racial diversity.
Eddie Chambers is a professor of art and art history at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News, Lubbock Avalanche Journal and the Amarillo Globe News.