Historic Truths Can Bind Us Together

Article excerpt

Black History Month was the idea, in 1915, of Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Journal of Negro History, for a commemoration of the contributions of African-Americans to the traditions of this land. What a gift he gave us as he fought to have the study of African-American history and literature established in schools, colleges, churches, homes, fraternal groups and clubs.

But Woodson knew that to achieve his dream of a unified history with all of its diversity, it would be necessary for each generation to be immersed, as it were, in the stories of the past - many of which were almost too painful to tell. The telling of them was, as he knew, essential if the national psyche was to be healed.

For Woodson, black history was at first anecdotal, an oral tradition passed on and finally footnoted with bibliography. But in its evolution, the black legacy is profoundly philosophical, psychological, social, political and virtually redemptive. Black history month does us no enduring good if it is reduced to just a recitation of mere facts. Black history and literature are a way of knowing and interpreting the American experience, a way of dealing with the sheer rhetorical challenges in communicating across the barriers of race, religion, class and region - barriers that still function to prevent what would otherwise have been a natural recognition of the reality of a black and white fraternity. Two recent works crossed that barrier for me. The movie "Ghosts of Mississippi" is the story of Medgar Evers, the civil rights worker who was murdered in Jackson, Miss., 34 years ago, and the long-delayed conviction of his killer, Byron de la Beckwith. I was a young Presbyterian minister in Jackson during those terrible years. These memories are encrusted deep within me, embedded in the psyche. There are so many images; like some Bergman film they flicker, dream-like, in my mind's eye. There are voices, faces, Faulknerian places, sounds and smells, kaleidoscopic energy. I was there when lava from hell erupted, when the Klan ruled the night and the State Sovereignty Commission surveyed the day, when 40 black churches and two synagogues were bombed and scores of blacks and whites were assassinated and hundreds more were threatened, terrorized and beaten. In Mississippi, I learned to eat my fear and grief while trying to muster enough courage to preach against the atrocities that were taking place. After Mississippi, life was never the same for me or for countless others. Sometimes fiction is truer than fact. …