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The End of History?

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U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address after being sworn in as 44th US president at the Capitol in Washington on January 20, 2009. | Photo: Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address after being sworn in as 44th US president at the Capitol in Washington on January 20, 2009. | Photo: Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

We're into the second week of February, which means it's time take the Christmas cards down off the mantle and launch my annual rant about Black History Month.

It's not exactly a rant. I don't hate BHM, I just want it to be bigger and more resonant than it is. Making black history an event observed in a specific time frame both draws attention to it (which is good) and trivializes it for the same reason. It has become a fixed occasion, like Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to bow our heads for a few hours, have a moment of silence, and then go on about our business.

Black History Month does feature little-known historical facts about black inventors, artists, and the like that are important and that are certainly what Carter G. Woodson had in mind when he created Negro History Week back in 1926; ennobling details that counter the frankly distressing history of blacks in America as either slaves or people actively oppressed by racism and segregation for hundreds of years. Pretty much their entire history, actually, with the exception of the last 50 years or so.

Not that those fifty years have rectified everything, far from it. Black people are still arguing about how to characterize the period after the civil rights movement, up to and including now. Obama may be in office, but blacks as a group are still living on the margins and on the edge. It's a long-standing paradox that we don't like to examine because Americans just don't like complexity in their storylines. And the black story is not only complex, it has the ring of historical condemnation: if blacks are still struggling, America has failed. Rather than examine that possibility (because America can never fail, right?) we have simply painted it over with a slogan: you can do anything you put your mind to. We can overcome! But that individualist credo still evokes the collective problem: why on earth are we still in the process of overcoming? Why, in 2013, are blacks still so in need of the affirmation afforded by Black History Month? What does that say?

That question is the great opportunity for relevance that we miss -- deliberately -- every year. Black history is unfinished. It is still an open question. We have neither assimilated nor integrated, nor have we lived as a separate nation. We have lived, and are still living out, a very unique history that is surely black but also very American in its reflection of core American values that we don' t like to talk about, starting with the belief that there must be winners and losers. The fact that blacks tend to be on the losing side of American history is just coincidence, yes? Of course.

Obama's second inauguration said it all -- or didn't say it. Noted for its historic embrace of the rights of gays and immigrants, I couldn't help but notice how the president didn't mention blacks at all. This despite the fact that he is black, that the inauguration fell on the King holiday, that 2013 is the 150th anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation, and -- last but surely not least -- that blacks are still in need of justice and equality just like the groups he mentioned by name. But we were not. Alas, the words "blacks" or "African Americans" and "struggle" are no longer uttered in public together by elected officials, including the president. Especially the president. Sometimes history gets itself wrong.

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