As I’ve grown, I’ve come to better appreciate the significance of Black History Month. I can (and have) defended its presence, explained its necessity and advocated for its expansion, as have many others before me. Unfortunately, a hazy apathy holds the monthlong memorial back from being as meaningful and effective as it can be.
The primary issue facing Black History Month is that people, for the most part, don’t celebrate it. During February, it’s a passive part of our lives, a transitory practice of reverence that’s more obligatory than genuine. Schools, media outlets, television shows, retail stores are the celebrators. Commercial institutions promote their own celebration of black history as a means of showcasing self-professed diversity, progress and inclusiveness. Educators engage the topic in a similar manner, albeit less maliciously, in order to educate their student populace. Public institutions celebrate what the people should be celebrating.
This issue is problematic because it distances us from facts. Black history and American history are intertwined, living abstract that define and shapes the realities of our present, including, but not limited to public policy, socioeconomics and education. When we are ignorant of that, we ignore vital contextual truths that would otherwise have a significant effect on our daily lives, even if we don’t immediately recognize it.
That’s not to say that VCU should stop hosting guest lectures on facets of black history, morning radio disc jockeys shouldn’t relay short facts about black inventors during your commute or that we shouldn’t reenact historical scenes pertinent to black history.
We should be treating the history of blacks in America as a living and present continuum, rather than a reiteration of 200 years of slavery followed by nearly 100 years of state-sanctioned civil rights discrimination. That means seeing systemic patterns involving African Americans within the context of our state of being in America and addressing or treating the issue in an appropriate manner.
For example, a 2013 study by the Urban Institute’s Opportunity and Ownership Project found that white families averaged wealth six times that of black households and their income was twice as much. Instead of solely interpreting that finding as a realization that blacks are, on average, poorer than whites, we can seek a specific origin, whether it is decades of substandard education or job discrimination within a particular field in a particular region.
Being aware of the context behind legislation geared toward supplementing or protecting the civil rights of African Americans has become more important as of late. While many cite the election of President Barack Obama as a symbol of diminishing racial tensions, just last year, Supreme Court case Shelby v. Holder struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by allowing southern states more liberty in redrawing electoral districts without preclearance from the federal government. The majority decision of the case ignores the disproportionate minority electorate rate from the previously covered jurisdictions.
When a history is ingrained within you, the application of its facts renew understanding. Institutions can only do so much to uphold history; it’s individuals that have the ultimate responsibility to remember and enact actions that respect the history that we are all living.