BW Black History

Does ‘Black History Month’ Adequately Honor Our African American Ancestry and Heritage?

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On a recent episode of The Conversation with Al McFarlane, a regular expert guest lamented that over his lifetime he has been identified in various legal documents as Colored, Negro, Black, and African American. As we approach ‘Black History Month’ 2023 is it time to reconsider how we as a people define ourselves?

In the case of our former celebration of racial pride, prior to Black History Month, we honored our ethnicity during Negro History Week, instituted by Harvard-educated historian, Carter G. Woodson in 1926, when his move was a very bold political statement.

For half a century, until 1976, ‘Negro’ History Week as an observance of pride became passé. Starting in the late 1960’s, bolstered by the James Brown song, ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” Black History Month replaced the former one-week designation, observed the second week of February which coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

As we approach another 50 years, 2026, of celebrating our ancestral heritage as Black History, is it time to update the definition again of who we are as a people?

I first broached this idea as a college freshman in the late 1970’s, soon after Black History Month began.

As the producer and host of Backstage with Regi Taylor, a weekly public affairs talk show on WMTB-FM, Mt. St. Mary’s University radio, I broadcast an announcement to the school’s 2000 Caucasian and 15 African American students about my upcoming show where I would discuss discontinuing Black History Month.

The campus’ racial groups were beside themselves. The mostly German, Irish, and Italian kids were ecstatic. What a sensible discussion to have was the feedback I was getting from them. The African American kids were dumbfounded, or maybe they just thought I was dumb, but they damn sure didn’t like it.

However, when I broadcast the live call-in show, I got the reverse reaction from both groups. I never wanted to suspend a celebration of our ancestry, I only wanted to redefine the observance by calling it African American History Month.

I have always felt conflicted about ‘Black’ History Month. Why have we allowed our great heritage to be artificially distilled and defined as a color? Should European history be ‘white’? Asians, ‘yellow’? Hispanics and Near Easterners, ‘brown’? Native Americans, ‘red’?

Not only are we relegating our rich history as a people to a benign description subject to any cultural interpretation by anyone, allowing detractors to discard our ancestral lineage for a definition that simply defines us in the vane of Jim Crow, a people whose history only began on American shores as the lowest among this country’s caste system; and this is our upgraded, post-slavery status.

We have been known as, and answered to, Slave, Nigger, Colored, Negro, Black, and African American. Which is it going to be? Who are we, really? Which moniker best defines our ancestry? Black is damn sure Beautiful, but it is our image, our appearance, how we look, not who we are in our genealogic and geographic essence.

Moreover, ‘Black,’ and ‘white’ may be at the core of what exacerbates continued racial strife in America. These two artificial colors describing diverse ethnic Americans couldn’t possibly position us to be further apart.

Black and white are polar opposites, a dichotomy of extremes, as far apart as two colors – or peoples – could ever be, making it more difficult on a visceral level to recognize how we are more the same than different when viewed exclusively through a diametric prism.

If we must go with colors, perhaps we should identify Americans of European and African ancestries as Vanilla and Chocolate, respectively. These two flavors actually go well together, and on a gradient spectrum you can connect the dots from one color to the other fairly simply. Not as easy to do with the stark divide between black and white.

While we’re at it, we definitely need to get rid the inherently racist, ‘minority.’ What the hell is a minority? What makes one a minority? Think about it. A minority is foremost any ‘non-white’ person. But there really are no ‘white’ people. The term is a euphemism for ‘us’ and ‘them;’ ‘legitimate’ Americans versus the others.

I was amazed as a college freshman, the first time in my life I had ever attended school with, or otherwise been in a predominant environment among, Caucasians. I realized immediately that in their interactions with one another they did not identify as white. There was abundant ethno-cultural preening at The Mount.

The students’ bumper stickers were revealing: German kids: “Geil!”, Awesome; Irish kids: Erin go Bragh, Ireland forever; and the Italians: “La Dolce Vita,” The Sweet Life. Never saw ‘White Power!’

Is it only when Caucasians are compared to ‘minorities’ that they readily identify as white? Many ‘whites’ who relish their ‘majority’ status, and those who have denigrated ‘minorities,’ have conveniently forgotten the treatment of their own non-Anglo-Saxon ethnic ancestors.

Color notwithstanding, the largest ancestral group in America are those of German extraction, more than 1 in 6. Despite nearly six million Germans immigrating to the U.S. between 1820 and 1930, ethnic Germans were openly discriminated against during the period covering the 1st and 2nd World Wars.

Americans of Irish ancestry are currently nearly 1 in 10 of the U.S. population, 9.7%. During the height of their migration to the U.S., between 1850 and 1920, more than 3.5 million settled here. They faced similar discrimination as the Germans. Even the first Irish American president of the United States in 1960, John F. Kennedy, faced open ethnic hostility and anti-Catholic sentiment.

Italian Americans, 1 in 20 of the U.S. population, faced virulent prejudice during the crest of their immigration. According to La Gazzetta Italiana, ethnic Italians were referred to by ‘real’ white Americans as “savages and drunkards, reducing them to social outcasts,” and committed physical violence against them.

As one-third of the current American Caucasian population, whose recent ancestors were considered ‘minorities’ and who were the victims of bigotry, harassment, discrimination, and violence, one might imagine that there would be greater sensitivity and empathy among today’s ‘whites’ towards so-called ‘minorities’ and immigrants.

In three to five generations these formerly marginalized immigrants have fully assimilated and assumed the mantle of majority ‘white’ status with all the inherent rights, privileges, and prejudices that attach. How do they view contemporary African Americans (who have inhabited this land for sixteen
generations) and other marginalized minorities?

Well, again, what the hell is a minority? It’s been debunked that the artificial skin-color metric is a legitimate measure of who is a minority. If we consider ethnicity as a measure, then people of Hispanic heritage are nearly 1 in 5; Germans, 1 in 6; and African Americans, 1 in 8.

Despite 4-years of Trump’s menacing and malfeasance, racism and raunchiness, lying and larceny, insolence and insurrection, nearly 3 of 5 Caucasian Americans still gave the Odd-Toddler their vote. These people have clearly defined who they are.
Who are we?

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