It seems that at some point every February, someone will question the meaning, purpose, and existence of Black History Month.1 The argument usually starts with a discussion of the existence of race as a social construct and ends with the prescription that racism would end if Black people would stop talking about it so much.2 Despite my admitted bias, I think that Black History Month continues to have value—not only for Black people in this country, but for all of us.
There are three rationales that I believe justify the existence of Black History Month. The first is pragmatic, the second historical, and the third empathetic. First, to not take time out to focus on the oppression and triumph of Black people in this country is, in my estimation, an attempt to divorce these events from the society we created. It is absolutely true that race is a social construct, created to establish one group of people as socially superior to another. Unfortunately, we created that society of division. (Furthermore, it is important to note that those divisions are never created by those who have been divided out—Black people did not make themselves Black to separate themselves from White people.) Inasmuch as those divisions are a/the cause of this history of oppression and triumph, we owe it to the oppressed to recognize that it is their difference that led to these unfortunate events.3 The label that some seek to erase or ignore is a part of the cause of the evil, not some untraceable idea of evil itself. To erase that is to lose the ability to pragmatically describe the truth of the events before us and, therefore, to adequately address the problems which led to the need to celebrate the history in the first place. We are responsible for the division that led to this tragedy—let us not now seek to run from our own creation in the name of breaking down the hierarchy that we created. It is true that no particular individual may be responsible for any of the things that I just described. However, I believe the very fact that some would seek to erase this emphasis is plugging into the very hierarchy we all say we want to dismantle.
Second, to remove this cultural touchstone is to effectively erase the history in which they reside. To do this is to ignore the real, lived differences of experience that oppressed groups face in our society. As much as it is true that race is a social construct, it is also true that Black people in America live a different life because of that social construct. It is true that Black people are incarcerated at an inordinately high rate when compared to other populations. It is true that Black people are often sentenced longer for the same crimes. It is true that Black people are less likely to get a particular job than a White person even if the Black person is similarly qualified. The truth is that if we are talking about Black History Month as a celebration of oppression overcome, then it is a celebration of a continuing story. No one can argue against the idea that things are better than they used to be. However, the words of Malcolm X are apropos here: “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there's no progress."4
Third and finally, there is an empathetic element to Black History Month. Simply put, it is important for others to see the history and empathize with the current plight of the African-American. Black History Month allows us to see how far we have come as a nation and how far we have to go. But there is an element of empathy even for Black people. Black History Month is a reminder, even to Black people, that others have suffered and do suffer in similar ways to this community and that Black people should be as interested in their freedom as they are in their own. For everyone then, Black History Month becomes a sign of empathy, an acknowledgment that you saw someone’s particular plight and that you grieve with them and celebrate for them.
Notes & References:
1. I am reminded of an Andrews University student who raised this question inartfully in 2015. Moreover, in the spirit of full disclosure, what follows will be the lion’s share of my presentation to a local school on this question next week.
2. One of these things is true and the other one is a logically faulty and unprovable conclusion.
3. Of course, I support this not only for Black people but for any systematically oppressed group with a history of state-sponsored prejudice and discrimination.
4. Here is the full quote: “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there's no progress. If you pull it all the way out that's not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven't even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound."
Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at Adventist University of Health Sciences. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.
Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/authors/jason-hines.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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