Black history: The report, the riddle, the rhyme

Monica L. Turner

Originally Published February 1, 2006

Dating as far back as 2.5 million years to the scientific discovery of the first tool-making hominid, Australopithecus africanus, black history emerges as an inclusive event that characterizes the importance of recognizing the value and significance of all cultures. Black history also exposes an underlying fiction perpetuating hierarchal social arrangements and a crisis of consciousness resulting from assumed relations. On U.S. shores, this crisis of consciousness is evident in the tremendous discourse devoted to appealing to an American sense of decency on behalf of minorities, women, children, gays, the disabled, insane, indigent, etc. Yet, the outcome of the civil rights movement is tantamount to a hyphenated Americanism that enables “white male property owners” to retain the rights and privileges of full citizenship. That is not to say there has been no progress. The question is the extent to which so-called progress is relevant to current conditions that include a reversal of hard-won gains. On the other hand, perhaps considerable progress has been made if the goal is to maintain the status quo.

In times past, the precedent for inciting black fear was a barbarous noose dangling from a tree. Contemporary society, according to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, has produced “high-tech” lynching with the media serving as a roving band of vigilantes. The mere mention of the OJ. Simpson double murder trial is enough to inflame American passion. More recently, New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton stood before a predominantly black congregation at the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., declaring that the Republicans are running the House “like a plantation.” Though Senator Clinton’s commentary drew harsh criticism for being hyperbole, it is no less revealing as the sentiment expressed by Barbara Bush, who stated during a visit to displaced Hurricane Katrina victims housed in the Houston Astrodome, that “so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”

Mrs. Bush’s musing sounds strangely similar to the good old-fashioned paternalism that supported slavery. In the Western hemisphere, the term “black” hails a paradigm for social control which at the very least signals inequitable power relations.

Throughout the 28 days in the month of February, black history will be observed nationwide. Yet, what exactly is being recognized? Moreover, how does this annual tradition translate outside North American borders? While Black History Month is replete with pomp and circumstance in its commemoration of days gone by, it is necessary to pay close attention to the details that make this occasion possible. Race has long been the definitive irredeemable feature of blacks. And, the issue is not so much that black people possess a history worth recording. Rather, the racialization of human experience fabricates the report. There are people who share melanin and a distinct culture replete with social awareness, marked intelligence and spiritual depth. However, in the absence of ideology, the “black” in American history is simply another story which cannot be discussed here for fear of alienation and death of the subject of white supremacy; the standard for moral universalism. In short, the demystification of dominant thought reveals the folklore in the norm.

The modern era presents a proliferation of “imaginaries” comprised of sociopolitical circumstances that cannot be collapsed into tidy packages labeled diversity. Humanitarianism in the new millennium dictates a commitment to global improvement. However, this effort is undermined when a nation fails to sufficiently alleviate the burdens of the poor at home.

Furthermore, the image of a so-called “kinder, gentler nation” is frustrated by the unchecked, rapid poverty, disease and despair ransacking trailer-parks, barrios and ghettos under the leadership of a president who pledges allegiance to the “haves and have-mores.” Although it can be said that the American underclass have it “better” than others around the world, this is no reason to now consider the case closed. What is most important to the many people who desire the “American way” is a change in material conditions that will make their lives worth living. In the final analysis, change requires distribution of resources, and considering the enormous generosity shown by Americans during the previous wave of natural disasters, there is clearly plenty to share. And, to that extent, to make black history useful is to change the course of humanity.

Monica L. Turner is a lecturer in the Pan African Studies department. She can be reached at