The Dream Is Not Fulfilled

By Kelley, Raina | Newsweek, February 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Dream Is Not Fulfilled


Kelley, Raina, Newsweek


Byline: Raina Kelley

We still need Black History Month.

When did everybody start hating on Black History Month? I have yet to find a person, black or white or anything else, who looks forward to the February festivities. As Morgan Freeman once told Mike Wallace, "You're going to relegate my history to a month? -- Which month is White History Month? -- I don't want a Black History Month. Black history is American history." Because today the divisions between black and white are not as cavernous or as ugly as they once were. The contributions of famous black Americans, from Frederick Douglass to Oprah Winfrey, are widely known. Martin Luther King Jr. has his own federal holiday. The president of the United States is black. If tens of millions of white people voted for Barack Hussein Obama, then the lesson has been learned, right? As if. Despite Obama's election, African-Americans still live in a culture that is overreliant on stereotype and slow to explore the complexity of such racialized issues as the ghetto or Haiti. So you can complain about Black History Month all you want. But there's still work to be done.

When Carter G. Woodson began Negro History Week in 1926, he chose the second week of February to encompass the birth dates of both Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Its purpose, then, was to teach some and remind others that the history of black people in America was not simply the story of subjugation. Woodson recognized that black Americans, shellshocked from slavery and demoralized by Jim Crow, had to build a vision that would give them the confidence to partake in the fruits of freedom. "We have a wonderful history behind us," Woodson said. "If you are unable to demonstrate to the world that you have this record, the world will say to you, 'You are not worthy to enjoy the blessings of democracy or anything else.'a" But Woodson--himself a historian and only the second African-American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard (W.E.B. Du Bois being the first)--recognized the radicalism inherent in a call to educate and inspire African-Americans. For if Negro History Week asked blacks to slough off the scars of oppression, it also demanded that whites acknowledge their role as oppressors. Woodson's aim was also to rebut the inaccurate and insulting stereotyping that then passed for knowledge about African-Americans--such as the canards that black people aren't as intelligent as other races and are more prone to criminality and dancing. …

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