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
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. …