I did not always appreciate Black History Month. In fact, that it attempted to compress all of black history into a single month, seemed the ultimate segregation. I felt this way about Mother’s Day and Indigenous People’s Day, too, among others. However, now I see Black History Month as an opportunity to, in a sense, double down on our efforts to learn who we as Americans actually are, shorn of the myths too many have spun about us.In this regard, here is a story I have never told (I think): When I was a sophomore at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, I was blessed to have two of the greatest teachers of history perhaps in the world: Staughton Lynd and Howard Zinn. Yes, that Howard Zinn: author of A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES. One assignment, I don’t recall from which teacher, was to read W.E.B. DuBois’ BLACK RECONSTRUCTION. The failure of Southern reconstruction after the Civil War had been laid on newly liberated black people, who had been formerly enslaved. All the newspapers and politicians (white of course) colluded in this deception. Countering this, DuBois wrote about what had happened from a principled and highly documented black perspective.
His book about what really happened to the South after the Civil War was not to be found in all of Atlanta. I was finally permitted to see the one copy that remained, battered and torn, and under glass, in the rare books room at my school.
Somehow my teachers managed to make copies of this great book and give them to our class. Reading it changed the way I saw the North, the South, electoral politics, rich and poor people, and the power of the media to shape people’s thinking and their lives.
The Civil War, in which so many died hideously, and because of which so much was lost, could have affected America quite differently. For instance, think of what it would have meant if the enslaved Africans and African-Americans (lots of white and mixed race progeny ended up enslaved of course) had received the forty acres and a mule promised each of them for their 300 years plus of unpaid servitude?
With land of their own, people of color would not have remained serfs and fifth class citizens for another hundred years. White people would not have suffered the humiliation (many of them) of being, racially, in the same camp as bullies, racists, thieves and murderers.
There are books today as important to the understanding of the Americas as BLACK RECONSTRUCTION (DuBois’ writing is graceful and a delight of read, no matter the sorrow or outrageousness of the tale). For instance, as an American you can hardly claim to know where you live if you haven’t read THE SLAVE SHIP by Marcus Rediker or THE HALF HAS NEVER BEEN TOLD, a chilling study of the capitalist foundation of America—enslaved people forced to produce as if they are machines—by Edward E. Baptist.
THE COLOR PURPLE asks many questions of its readers, but a very important one is: Who do you believe? In that regard, it has astonished me that “Pa” the rapist stepfather who bedevils Celie’s life, is routinely believed by everyone. Even readers of the novel! He lies about everything, including Celie’s age, her character, and her looks. But he is believed, even by people who do not like him. Why is this? And shouldn’t we examine this tendency to be gullible, or to be afraid to say what we know is true, in our own lives?