Dr. Carter G. Woodson established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. Woodson, a black scholar, wanted to bring the black man into the history of the United States.
Eleven years later, in 1926, he launched Negro History Week to raise awareness of the contributions of blacks. Carter picked February for Negro History Week because of the birthdays of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.
Scholars and philosophers have long examined the question of history, what it is and why we study it.
Probably the most widely quoted observation is that of philosopher George Santayana: “Those that do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
What are the lessons of the past that we might be thinking about today?
Black history has particular importance because of the unique black experience in America. That is, a history in which we began as slaves.
A slave has no history because he has no control over his life. Every day is the same. A slave’s past, present and future are determined by someone else.
So black entry into American history might be understood as a chapter in the end of black oppression. It is a history of human beings, gaining responsibility for their own lives, and how they chose and choose to exercise that responsibility.
Black History Month is generally not a time for thought and introspection. It’s used more as a time to celebrate black achievement.
But I think it’s also worthwhile to sober up and take a serious look at things. Celebration is great, and there has been a lot of progress and achievement. But prodigious problems remain, and we ought to try to understand so we can overcome.
If we understand oppression as interference in an individual’s ability to exercise control of and responsibility for his or her own life, then I see oppression defining three distinct chapters in black American history.
The first was slavery. The second Jim Crow. And the third, the growth and flourishing of the welfare state.
In the first two chapters, the oppression was initiated from the outside. In chapter three, the welfare state, blacks voluntarily relinquished control and turned responsibility of their own lives over to others.
We’re still in chapter three today, and blacks should be aware of it.
The path to freedom has two steps. First, removal of external barriers. Second, assumption of personal responsibility for one’s life.
Racial consciousness remains, of course, ubiquitous in America. Race sells, so the media relentlessly keeps it alive. And race means power, so politicians keep it alive.
But race is not a barrier for black achievement today.
The threat to the black present and the black future is the collapse of real values. The welfare state constituted and constitutes the mindset of materialism and the mindset that life is a social engineering problem. It’s this mindset that stands today between blacks and their own freedom.
I see articles celebrating the new black middle class. And, in fact, it is true that three quarters of black America are doing fine economically.
But, regardless of today’s incomes and the number of blacks owning their own homes and driving nice cars, what is the future of a community where family life is in such bad shape?
Only 29 percent of black households are headed by married couples. Seventy percent of black woman live with no spouse. Seventy percent of black children are born with no father present. Almost 300,000 black women each year destroy their own unborn children.
Many black women are doing well as professionals. I know many. And they live alone and have no children.
The collapse of black family life converges with the beginning of chapter three of black oppression: the widespread adoption of the idea that government plays a role in one’s personal life.
It concerns me that blacks still aren’t getting the message. The Democratic Party is celebrating its new power and interpreting their victory as a victory for old school liberal ideas about government power. And 90 percent of blacks vote for these folks.
Black history month is now just one celebration among many. Our calendars and our public spaces are increasingly filled with recognition of one group or another. Blacks, Hispanics, women, gays.
But time and space are limited. As we fill our time and places with these celebrations, pushed off the calendar and our public spaces are Christmas, in its true sense, and the Ten Commandments.
Maybe this Black History Month we should be giving more thought to what really drives evil, what really makes us human and what really makes us free.
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