Blacked-Out History Month?

Shackles for slave children as seen on display at the New-York Historical Society this month | Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
Shackles for slave children as seen on display at the New-York Historical Society this month | Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

It's February, which means the weather's like August, Christmas has officially disappeared from view, and I'm suspended for roughly 30 days between a sense of great pride and an equally great sense of chagrin and unfinished business. I've never really resolved how I feel about Black History Month, and I'm sure I speak for a lot of black people (and probably lots of nonblack people, too) when I say that.

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Though history is by definition open-ended - we make a bit more of it every day - it's a word most Americans associate with the past, with moments and events fixed in a particular time and sealed off from what's going on now. This is the chief reason why the whole notion of black history makes me uneasy: while I love the fact that it educates, it also encourages the omnipresent tendency of Americans of all political persuasions to close the door on racial struggle for good.

Many people interpret the very call to remember black history (or any history) as proof that the terrible strife that defined it has been largely resolved, and that all we need to do now is sit back and reflect on that time, pay it homage. Jews regularly admonish people to "never forget" the holocaust precisely because the hellish event of the holocaust itself is over; by keeping the memory alive, they are working to ensure such a thing never happens again.

This is the framework in which many Americans put black history, though, of course, black history is not a moment or event, but a narrative hundreds of years in the making that many blacks call a holocaust in its own right. Even if you reduced the hellish event down to slavery, that ran roughly 250 years, and when it was over, the nation wasn't exactly soul-searching or calling for days of remembrance and atonement. To the contrary, America mostly worked to keep the social order of slavery in place. Even if individual Americans didn't agree with Jim Crow laws, lynching and other forms of racial oppression and exclusion, they understood that oppression was embedded not only in the legal system, but in the American way of life.

Racism was an integral part of the system. These days we tend to celebrate the '60s and the civil rights movement as a great triumph of American democracy and a moment of national awakening. But all the movement was trying to do was hold the country to upholding constitutional amendments it had written into law 100 years earlier. Blacks weren't after anything new or radical, just access to what was already there.

So here we are some 50 years after that rather peculiar moment. How much has our deeply racialized system really reformed? These days it kind of depends on who you're talking to, and that's another big problem unintentionally illuminated by Black History Month. Jesse Jackson or Cornel West will accurately describe the ongoing plight of black America, Newt Gingrich or Bill O'Reilly will dismiss it as so much hyperbole. Not everybody is equally right, of course, but there ends up being no consensus in the media on what's really happening with black Americans and why. Meanwhile, the parameters and meaning of Black History are up for interpretation. As a country, we haven't gotten that interpretation right yet. I don't think we intend to.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

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