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Black History is American History
In light of Black History Month and the recent inauguration of America's first African American president, religion professor Raymond Carr considers the role of black history in the American story.
For scholars and citizens who take the long view of history, the election of Barack Obama represents an auspicious moment. His election represents a turning point in relation to the last eight years which have been plagued by political polarization, financial mismanagement, American imperialism, and wars-issues far too complex to blame on any single individual or administration. But the election also possibly represents a turning point from what many authorities call this nation's original sin of slavery and its surrogate sins of segregation, racism and exclusion. Nevertheless, any view of America's history should be steeped in a healthy dose of realism, and this first Black History Month since the election of America's first black president subtly provides a caveat I am convinced we all need as we look hopefully toward the future.
Black history is American history. This acknowledgment should not motivate us to call for an elimination of black history month, although Carter G. Woodson did not intend for Negro History Week to be a perpetual celebration; it should rather encourage us to remember that Black History Month emerged because blacks (and many others) were historically discriminated against. Underscoring that discrimination was their exclusion from full participation in the American dream, a dream for which many blacks died valiantly in America's wars. It is also a dream which many blacks struggled to perfect, especially the nation's traditions of liberty and justice, the right to an education and fair representation.
At this auspicious moment in history, black history when understood as American history, points in two directions. It reminds us that the drama of history contains contradictions-the good and the bad. It reminds us of a tragic past and calls us to be suspicious of what the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, in The Irony of American History (1952), has called "our dreams of managing history;" our dreams of managing the future. It reminds us that our insight into history and the future is always partial, limited, and ambiguous and sometimes includes dreams that can exclude the dreams of others.
In 1890 this type of provincial view of civilization led a young scholar named W.E.B. Du Bois to challenge the nation in his commencement address at Harvard University. Alluding to another important time in the history of the young republic, Du Bois, in a speech called "Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization," used the figure of Jefferson Davis to personify the type of civilization Davis's life represented. In Du Bois's eyes Davis embodied ideals the nation itself cherished. He described Davis as a Teutonic hero, a strong man, a soldier, an example of "individualism coupled with the rule of might." However, these ideals, though not wholly evil or devoid of truth, were incomplete and made Davis, according to Du Bois, "the peculiar champion of a people fighting to be free in order that another people should not be free." In Du Bois's words, "the Teutonic met civilization and crushed it-the Negro met civilization and was crushed by it."
Not surprisingly, the doctrine of the strong man as the whole man needs to be checked by complementary ideals. Rather than a nation that prides itself on power and its military prowess maybe we will see a new nation emerge that honors service, dialogue, humility, and hope. Black history can be a reminder that points in this direction. It reminds us all of a more hopeful future, although it remains cautioned by the experience of the past. Perhaps we can consider President Barack Obama as a representative of this civilization since his personal story includes many of the complementary ideals Du Bois considered to be absent from the civilization represented by Jefferson Davis. Perhaps such ideals where all people no matter what race, religion, class, or nation are viewed as brothers, sisters, and neighbors can inspire us all to look hopefully-but more humbly-toward the future, not in an effort to manage the future, but to face its challenges no matter what they may be.
By Raymond Carr