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  • March 29, 2023

Time to Stop Whitewashing Black History Month

Unveiling the Impact of Black History Month by Inclusion Paradox

That Tyre Nichols’ funeral was on the first day of Black History Month, 2023 disturbingly was one of the most honest ways to mark the start of Black History Month.

This was not a day to look up to the mountaintops of hope to which MLK directed our gaze in the rousing close to his “I Have Dream” speech. Rather it was a day to gaze into the valley of despair that King had us peer into in that same speech where “we can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

Here we are 160 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, more than half a century post-Civil Rights Act, fourteen years after the election of the first Black president. And still … in the past eight years we have video-witnessed violently attacked unarmed Black sons, brothers, and fathers, daughters, sisters, and mothers – Tyre, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Philando Castile, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner, Breonna Taylor, Pamela Turner, George Floyd, and thousands more. Names still on the lips of those who loved them and names in the social media feeds of the rest of us.

Each time I see another brutalized Black body makes me fear for my friends whose first and last names and their histories, aspirations, challenges, and accomplishments I know not from headlines but from relationship.  

Each time I see another brutalized Black body makes me fear for my friends whose first and last names and their histories, aspirations, challenges, and accomplishments I know not from headlines but from relationship. 

Mainstream America can’t keep celebrating Black History Month nor MLK Day with platitudes of equality and false claims that King’s dream “that one day children will not be judged by the color of skin but by the content of their character” has nearly been realized while America’s racial inequity calamity stains our social fabric with rivers of blood. We can’t keep waving the flag of volunteering in MLK’s honor without being outraged about the continued injustices. We can’t be taking selfies at his Stone of Hope monument on the Washington Mall without taking action for justice.

This whitewashing is no different than what certain states are seeking to do with removing that slavery is part of American history, or removing any mention of Black Lives Matter as an actual current movement, or removing from AP curriculum for African American studies that renowned writers with urgent and truthful messages about racial inequities such as bell hooks and Ta-Nahesi Coates exist.

Black History Month should, of course, still be a time to celebrate Black achievement and elevate the ideals of racial equality. But to celebrate the aspiration without acknowledging we are far from it being a reality is to do violence to those in peril.

To present all is ok, when it’s not, is to perpetuate the injustices and invisibilize the pain. To give our country a pat on the back for its commendable ideals without talking about how we have fallen short of them is to turn our back on what is in front of us. To confine the focus on Black history to only one month is to treat it as entertainment. To celebrate without acknowledging the pain, to not listen to Black voices about their experiences, and to not take action for justice is empty and hypocritical.

All this whitewashes not just Black History Month but all of Black history. It’s to deny that Black history is American history and that the injustice against our Black brothers and sisters – our fellow humans — is a stain on America’s soul.

To celebrate without acknowledging the pain, to not listen to Black voices about their experiences, and to not take action for justice is empty and hypocritical.

Celebrating harmony among peoples and not admitting there are vast racial disparities between Blacks and Whites in income, education, health, housing, education, incarceration, and more is to skip and whistle past the devastation of inequity that leaves a desolation of Black human geography. If someone had deliberately set out a plan to annihilate a people it would be to make sure they would be sicker, poorer, less educated, have fewer opportunities, and more likely to be thrown into prison or killed.

Preposterous! many respond. Yet, somehow, this is precisely the outcome we have.

Until there are no more innocent Black bodies ripped by violence, we cannot let up the fight against this decimation. The only way to fight injustice is to admit — and own — that it exists in the most heinous of ways in the very society we are all a part of.

James Baldwin admonished his readers in No Name on the Street that “if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected – those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most! – and listens to their testimony.” 

Speaking up and working against injustice does not have an expiration date. Indifference is even worse than opposition since it allows the indifferent to pretend that they are not in opposition and, in that, absolve themselves from addressing the suffering.

In his dying words, Tyre asked for one of the most basic human longings: “I just want to go home.” He could not even be granted this.

Before anyone of us goes to one more Black History Month event, let’s pick just one area of racial injustice and commit to doing what we can to significantly narrow the gap.

Insurmountable? Impossible? Hopeless?

Listen to Baldwin’s retort in Notes of a Native Son: “Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.”

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