The Herald Bulletin

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February 5, 2013

Primus Mootry: Putting Black History Month in perspective a challenging task

This is Black History Month. In past years, I have tried to write a weekly series of articles that, taken together, capture some particular aspect of black history. I have done so in the hope of providing information that is coherent, meaningful, and thought-provoking. I’ve never been satisfied that I accomplished that goal.

So here I am, at it again. As I thought about it, there are several inter-related reasons why I have been unable to do what I set out to do in previous attempts.

First, the history of African Americans is so complex that it is next to impossible to meaningfully discuss it in the space of a handful of short articles on the subject.

Second, I am captive to the cliché, but nonetheless viable notion that black history and American history, though separate in many ways, are one. You can’t discuss one without discussing the other.

Third, this “separateness” is reinforced, codified, and ultimately trivialized in the chorus of well-meaning celebrations of black “firsts,” school assemblies, special radio and television programs, and other Black History Month activities.

Still, I do not mean to diminish the importance of this month. I believe its founder, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, hoped it would become a period of broad public discourse about racial matters in this country. He might have been a bit disappointed, though.

Having said that, I have concluded that the difficulties I have in and of themselves deserve further discussion, with supportive perspectives supplied in remaining articles the rest of the month. To me, it’s worth a try.

Before beginning, however, I believe it is worth saying that I have zero interest in “God-Ain’t-It-Awful” blame games. Further, I have no interest in wallowing in the past. The past cannot be changed.

My only interest is to share some perspectives that may be useful in the here and now, and in using history to help determine where we may be headed if our current course remains unchanged.

I do so especially in view of radically changing demographics in this country and the indisputable fact that race continues to be a source of socio-economic and political division and stress. And so, to the first issue — the complexity of African American history ...

In order to understand African-American history, it is first necessary to know and understand something about African history. As the direct descendants of African people, the most cursory review of ancient African history reveals a people whose accomplishments were mind-boggling.

Ancient Africans were highly sophisticated in areas such as math, geography, astronomy, science, medicine, engineering, architecture, global commerce, agriculture, military strategies, the arts, and so forth.

These accomplishments have been known to the Western world since the heydays of ancient Greece and Rome.

The complexity here comes in two ways. First, the African American deliberately was cut off from his African ancestry. Second, when America became engaged in the slave trade (following Portugal, Spain, Great Britain and France) beyond being cut off, America’s black slaves — African Americans now — were branded, as it were, as inherently inferior to all other men.

For my purposes here, it is important to note that the claim of racial inferiority, in view of the fact that the high achievements of ancient Africans were well known, required a very big lie. And that lie had to be sold to both blacks and whites alike.

By consequence, black and white Americans have been joined in a terrible lie from the time the first black slave set foot on this land in 1619. We have been struggling to work ourselves out of it ever since. This is what the civil rights movement was about.

It was necessary to create elaborate structures affecting everything — educational systems, our economic system, politics and government, churches, law enforcement and justice, housing, inter-personal relationships, everything — to institutionalize the lie.   

The damage of maintaining this lie is incalculable. It is, for example, one of the causes of the Civil War. It is why, this very day, it is next to impossible to have a civil discourse on matters of race in our racially changing, racially charged society.

As I close, I find I have barely scratched the surface of all I meant to say this time. It would be so much easier to talk about black “firsts”and sing “Kum Bah Yah.” But I just don’t sing very well.

Have a nice day.

Primus Mootry is an Anderson resident. His columns appear each Wednesday.

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