- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Black History Month 2009, with its official theme “The Quest for Black Citizenship in the Americas,” may be officially winding down, but the intractable racial discourse and disputes in this bifurcated nation struggling to be “a more perfect union” are never-ending.

How healthy is this heated debate? It´s healing only if it serves to move us forward to mutual respect and acceptance in our differences as well as our commonality. Otherwise, the crosstalk just exposes fear-driven hatemongering.

So, do we jump into the double-dutch match being played out among black educators and commentators passionately arguing for and against the very existence of a month set aside to commemorate the accomplishments and innovations of blacks who fostered the growth and development of America?

I think not. We cannot confuse the necessity to research and commemorate our past with the desire to celebrate our progress. Without knowing how difficult it was to win passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for example, we cannot fully comprehend the awesome victory of a Barack Obama candidacy and election.

As always, enough symbolic examples of racial hatred and degradation abound to remind us of the work for tolerance and understanding left to be done.

Take, for example, the hurt and anger that sparked the protest over an offensive New York Post cartoon, for which the paper has since apologized. It depicts a chimpanzee shot by white policemen, who said, “They´ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” Some, like NAACP President Ben Jealous, have interpreted the depiction to be a racist, backhanded slap at President Obama.

Foul play, for sure. Yet, once the ire has been raised and the apology issued, we must remain mindful that there are bigger fish to fry. People of every hue are losing their livelihoods.

Still, the New York Post cartoon is an example of the value of diversity and history (or at the very least, institutional memory) that should come into play, particularly in the workplace, where imagery is currency. An editor or an aide with certain knowledge, experience and sensibility would have raised a red flag at the New York Post, or at the Justice Department and the Republican National Committee headquarters, too.

What about Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.´s statement that this is “a nation of cowards,” or RNC Chairman Michael S. Steele´s statement that the party needs a “hip-hop” makeover?

I can understand how whites could be offended by the singular phrase about Americans being afraid to engage in honest discussions about race in the U.S. Attorney General´s Black History Month speech at the Justice Department, especially if they did not read the entire four pages of the otherwise colorless text.

The major point that got lost in the sound bites, it seems, is that Mr. Holder took blacks as well as whites to task for self-segregating, and he challenged all to do better.

With his “hip-hop” appeal to garner young black voters, Mr. Steele apparently found himself an equal-opportunity offender, too.

Either way, the commonality for these American leaders rests not in their curious or poor choice of words, but in how quickly Mr. Holder and Mr. Steele can be misunderstood as black men by the majority when, as in Freedom´s Journal, we take to “pleading our own cause.”

Stereotypes are stubborn. Some diehard sectors of this nation will never welcome each other despite the wishful thinking that we are living in “post-racial” America with the crowning of a black man as president.

Then again, how do any of us gain more tolerance and understanding if we are ignorant of each other´s experience and historical journey, if we have not walked in another person´s shoes?

First, we have to be open to the knowledge. What better way to learn about “them” than through the many months designated to celebrating the cultural and historical contributions of various ethnic groups to America´s rich and diverse heritage?

This may be why Mr. Holder charges blacks and whites (and others) to “use February of every year to not only commemorate black history, but also to foster a period of dialogue among the races.”

Also as important, noted historian Carroll Gibbs, who spends each February imparting his vast knowledge of African and African-American history, argues that “Black History Month is important because as I go out to talk to our young people, so many of them don´t know about the contributions of their ancestors.”

They are not alone. Many adults, black and white, have no clue about eminent historian Carter G. Woodson. Based primarily at Howard University, he founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. In 1926, he established Negro History Week, which was extended in 1976 to Black History Month, during February to commemorate the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The organization still spearheads the monthlong activities.

This year, it has not been lost on many, including those attending the Black History Month program at the Department of Housing and Urban Development last week. Panelists remarked at the coincidence of the NAACP — founded by a biracial coalition called the Niagara Movement led by W.E.B. Dubois — celebrating its 100th anniversary on Feb. 12, just days before Mr. Obama was to give his first address to Congress as the 44th president.

In his proclamation of Black History Month 2009, Mr. Obama said this “is a chance to examine the evolution of our country and how African Americans helped draw us ever closer to becoming a more perfect union.”

The United States of America has come a long way from its dark days of slavery. We can certainly point to civil rights advances. But we still have miles to go before every American enjoys full-fledged citizenship and respect.

You have to look no further than the nation´s capital, the so-called “Last Colony,” where more than a half million people, a vast majority of them black, cannot claim full citizenship because they have no vote in Congress. Will this injustice be rectified by the end of this historic month?

For the panelists invited to participate in HUD’s program, the organizers posed a list of questions that included “How will the [2008] election of President Obama impact/influence citizens in the Americas?”

This historic feat, the result of a multicultural, multigenerational coalition, raises the bar for Americans of all races and genders to perform at a higher personal and public level to break even bigger barriers and to cross the great racial discourse and divide to that red-letter day when we can all “just get along.”

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