Saturday, February 14, 2004

“If Black History Month is to play any meaningful part in black advancement, we should emphasize the positive communal experiences rather than the spirit-crushing setbacks,” writes John McWhorter, linguistics professor and author of “Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America.”

Mr. McWhorter offers his assessment of Black History Month (BHM, my acronym) in “A New Black History.” We won’t find black Americans’ inspiring history in speeches about slavery as our defining moment or in the disingenuous rants of self-styled leaders preaching a gospel of blame-whites-for-your-troubles. We’ll find it in stories of ordinary Americans — and extraordinary ones — who accomplished great things long before the civil rights movement.

The seeds of BHM were planted by a black educator and historian named Carter G. Woodson. Born in 1875 during Reconstruction, Woodson lived under the most oppressive conditions. Blacks today couldn’t imagine it, no matter how hard they tried. Yet, Woodson rose to the top like cream, despite the hardships he faced. One of nine children raised in a desperately poor family, he couldn’t attend formal schooling because he had to work to help support the family.

After years of working and going to school when he could, Woodson received a B.A. in literature and became a teacher. He later traveled throughout Europe and Asia and studied at the Sorbonne University in Paris. Woodson received his M.A. from the University of Chicago in 1908 and a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University in 1912. All accomplished without race preferences.

In 1926, Woodson came up with the idea of “Negro History Week” after he noticed the absence of a history of black Americans in textbooks. He believed the omission was intentional and set out to highlight the achievements of blacks in America. Although Negro History Week gained mass appeal in the 1960s, it wasn’t until 1976 that it was expanded into BHM.

Woodson’s achievements are remarkable for anyone of any color at any time. But he accomplished all this as a black man living under the grueling conditions of Jim Crow. Did he gripe and complain? Most likely. Did he let it stop him from achieving excellence? No.

In contrast to Woodson, James Weldon Johnson, also born during Reconstruction, grew up in a middle-class household, and his interest in music was encouraged. Johnson was a poet, novelist, journalist, a prominent voice in the Harlem Renaissance, and lawyer with a successful practice in Florida. All accomplished without race preferences.

In 1899, Johnson and his brother wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, a song that became known as the Negro National Anthem. Originally composed for schoolchildren to sing at a celebration of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on Feb. 12, 1900, the song became popular in the black community and remains so, at least during BHM.

Proponents of a victim-based BHM “celebration” have a vested interest in downplaying the achievements of people living under actual racism, as opposed to perceived racism.

What men like Woodson and Johnson could have never conceived of was the destruction of the black family due to welfare dependency and the collapse of morality, not racism. I’m confident to say they would be appalled at grievance-shopping profiteers in designer suits and limousines who indulge themselves and line their pockets with the blood, sweat and tears of proud men and women who fought for the right to be treated with dignity and respect.

For better or for worse, BHM is here to stay, so let’s make the best of it. The history of blacks in America is a storied tale, filled with the triumph of an oppressed people in the face of human bondage and subjugation. But at no time in history have people of African descent lived in such an opportunity-rich land as this. BHM should commemorate a legacy of faith, hope and life.

When Johnson wrote the Negro National Anthem, he did so with the slain President Lincoln in mind, the man who signed the Emancipation Proclamation: “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on till victory is won.”

That’s freedom. Let us observe BHM by eliminating excuses and striving toward excellence regardless of hardships, perceived or otherwise. That’s what black history is.


Ms. Barber is a D.C. area blogger and writer. Visit Barber’s blog at www.lashawnbarber. com.

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