Saturday, February 24, 2007
From The Chicago Sun-Times…
Black history is a shared legacy of tragedy and triumph
BY JEREMY I. LEVITT
As Black History Month comes to a close, ask yourself if you celebrated it. Isn't Black History Month really “White History Month,” too?
While the aim of Black History Month is to acquire and share knowledge about the innumerable contributions of black civilizations and peoples from ancient history to the present, doing so is virtually impossible without also examining the role of other nations and peoples in the making of black history. From the great civilizations of Egypt, Kush and Nubia to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, slavery, emancipation, segregation and integration, Caucasians, Latinos, Indians, Arabs, Asians and so forth have played a critical role in the history of persons of African descent, as both oppressors and liberators.
In the United States, white Americans have shaped the course of black history and the lives of African Americans more than any other group. In fact, the creation of Black History Month was a reaction to the widely held belief among white Americans in the early 20th century that blacks made no significant or viable contribution to human civilization -- let alone America.
The formal celebration of black history in the United States began in 1926 as “Negro History Week.” Carter G. Woodson, the grandfather of modern black history, selected the second week in February for Negro History Week because it marked the birthdays of two of the most influential figures in American politics: Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
Other significant events that took place in February make it an ideal time to celebrate black history, including the birth of W.E.B. DuBois, the famed intellectual, civil rights and pan-Africanist leader and co-founder of the NAACP (Feb. 23, 1868); the passage in Congress of the 15th Amendment giving blacks the right to vote (Feb. 3, 1870); the taking of the oath of office of the first black U.S. senator, Hiram R. Revels, a Republican from Mississippi (Feb. 25, 1870); founding of the NAACP (Feb. 12, 1909); the historical civil rights lunch counter sit-in at the segregated Woolworth's store in Greensboro, N.C. (Feb. 1, 1960), and the murder of Malcolm X (Feb. 21, 1965). I might add that it is also the month that Tony Dungy, coach of the Indianapolis Colts, became the first African American to win a Super Bowl and Barack Obama the first mulatto to declare his candidacy for the American presidency.
Black History Month is not a monthlong affirmative holiday for African Americans, but rather a time for all Americans to learn about and celebrate the rich culture, heritage and achievements of blacks from Chicago to Cairo and Los Angeles to Lagos. It’s a time to remember the sacrifices of the unknown millions of enslaved blacks who were murdered in the Middle Passage and millions more whose blood and labor in bondage provided the economic impetus for America to become the most powerful country in the world. It’s a time to honor the legacy of those unnamed blacks who served as the backbone of the black power and civil rights movements. The black struggle for freedom in America has come at a very high cost to African-Americans -- yet all Americans have enormously benefitted from black liberation. What would America be without the innumerable sacrifices and contributions of African Americans?
All Americans should study black history. For better or for worse, white Americans and other nonblacks have been and are makers of black history. From the white supremacist Democrats and white Republican abolitionists of the 19th century to the white citizens’ councils and non-black civil rights activists of the 20th century, black history is incontestably white, Latino, Arab and Asian history, too. In fact, black history is world history!
No one group owns, controls or is entitled to celebrate Black History Month more than any other. It is the product of a shared legacy of tragedy and triumph that all Americansave a civic responsibility and duty to learn about, reflect upon, debate and share. We should never allow political correctness, guilt or perceived racial ownership interfere with our quest for knowledge and cross-cultural exchange, because to know black history is to know your history.
Jeremy Levitt is a professor of international law at Florida International University and distinguished research scholar at Northern Illinois University College of Law.