‘A Greater Chance For Glory’

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Listening to the radio on two or three occasions since the beginning of February, I’ve heard reporters  out on the street asking black passersby which men and women in African-American history they look up to.  The occasion, of course, is Black History Month.

For most of the passersby I heard, the question seemed to be a surprisingly difficult one.  Many of them could come up with only one name: Martin Luther King, Jr.  Some, after a bit of prodding, added Malcolm X.  A few mentioned Oprah.  One named Will Smith.  What was perhaps surprising – or perhaps not – is that only a couple thought of President Obama.

I’m of two minds about a “history month” devoted to any particular group, whether blacks, gays, women, Latinos, short people, bald guys, or whatever.  On the one hand, Americans don’t need to be given any more encouragement to think of themselves as members of groups – we’ve already gone too far down that road.  On the other hand, Americans desperately need to know more about their own history.  Not, of course, from the narrow and hostile perspective of Howard Zinn and company, but from a comprehensive perspective that, while certainly not overlooking the dark chapters of our country’s past, acknowledges that the American story is unique, extraordinary, and incomparably inspiring – and that its principal actors have come from every corner of the earth.

Another consideration is that black Americans, like members of pretty much every other group, have often been taught to idolize certain other members of their group who simply don’t deserve their respect.  Jesse “Hymietown” Jackson, anyone?  Al “Tawana Brawley” Sharpton?  Talk to young people who’ve taken courses in Black Studies and they’ll tell you that their heroes include unspeakable creeps like Huey Newton and Angela Davis.  It’s appalling.  Many revere Muhammed Ali, but while they know about the bigotry to which he was so cruelly subjected, they’re clueless about his own history of appalling prejudice.

Then there’s the nearly ubiquitous contemporary tendency to use the word “hero” almost as a synonym for “celebrity.”  So one ends up with young people whose black “heroes” are basketball players – or hip-hop artists who are at least as well known for their rap sheets as for their rap.

My own feeling, while listening to those radio interviews, was that if we’re going to have a Black History Month, let’s take advantage of the occasion to inform young Americans today – of whatever skin color – about great black Americans of the past whom they may not know about but who helped to turn America into a greater and more tolerant country.

People like Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in Gone With the Wind and won the first acting Oscar ever given to a black person.  Even as a top-flight movie star, McDaniel was subjected to humiliating prejudice (she wasn’t invited to attend the Atlanta premiere of GWTW), but she endured it with immense self-respect and self-discipline, working as a maid when she couldn’t get acting jobs playing maids.  She was not an activist in the narrowest sense, but, as the wonderful actress Fay Bainter said in presenting the award to McDaniel, her Oscar victory was itself a triumph for the cause of true diversity, “enabl[ing] us to embrace the whole of America – an America that we love, and an America that, almost alone in the world today, recognizes and pays tribute to those who have given their best, regardless of creed, race, or color.”

And what about Zora Neale Hurston, whose eloquent, achingly beautiful 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is infinitely better than anything Toni Morrison or Alice Walker ever wrote?  Unlike many other prominent black Americans of her day, Hurston was no fan of the New Deal, which she saw as a formula for dependency.  If she was about anything, it was individual independence, writing:

I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all but about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more of less. No, I do not weep at the world – I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.

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  • Grantmann

    Good post, Bruce, but if you're thinking you can change a Howard Zinn mindset let me introduce you to my good friend, Sisyphus.

  • mrbean

    No people anywhere has done more to lift up blacks than white Americans. Untold trillions have been spent since the ’60s on welfare, food stamps, rent supplements, Section 8 housing, Pell grants, student loans, legal services, Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credits and poverty programs designed to bring the African-American community into the mainstream. Governments, businesses and colleges have engaged in discrimination against white folks — with affirmative action, contract set-asides and quotas — to advance black applicants over white applicants. Churches, foundations, civic groups, schools and individuals all over America have donated time and money to support soup kitchens, adult education, day care, retirement and nursing homes for blacks.

    We heard the black's grievances. Where is the black 's gratitude?

    • Dennis X

      Four hundred years of slavery, followed by ax. 100 years of jim crow and you can't handle a couple of extra points on some entrance exam. All the programs you mention are not for Black People, they are for everyone. Affirmative action was just giving someone a chance that should have afforded to them anyway but wasn't under white privilege. mcbutt you couldn't handle being Black for one day. now come on with your ebonic response.

      • intrcptr2

        "you can't handle a couple of extra points on some entrance exam"

        And I suppose Dr King wanted this?

        • Dennis X

          The points are an insult.

  • Martel64

    "A Greater Chance For Glory"……..at Whitey's expense – no matter how poor and underprivileged YOU are,White Man….

    • intrcptr2

      And that is the problem, init it?

      SInce when is this a zero-sum game? Did McCoy's inventions lessen opportunities for railroaders of any color?

  • intrcptr2

    Bruce, let us not forget also the long-running debate between DuBois and Washington; one a German PhD the other the founder of the Tuskegee Institute.

    Oh, to have such thinkers today, rather than Obama or Cornel West.

    • Linda

      WE DO! Thomas Sowell. Senior Fellow at Stanford.

      • Jim_C

        All one of him!

  • kblink45

    Black History Month is implicitly racist. What are the other eleven months? White History Celebration Time? The hard truth is that Western Civilization isn't singular because of the race of its majority. It is singular because some white people who were smarter and harder working than other white people propogated a culture of personal responsibility and liberty. This culture, borne of the Protestant Ethic and nurtured by the rule of law, was economic rocket fuel. Incidentally, it also expanded moral agency and fueled the abolitionist movement in England and America. Most of those who wish to destroy this culture in America are white. ____There is only one race, the human race.

    • Dennis X

      washington's birthday, lincoln's birthday, xmas, thanksgiving, memorial day, independence day, veteran's day, labor day, president's day, new years day( rose bowl), columbus day……………………….

  • tanstaafl

    Crispus Attucks, Frederick Douglas, Arthur Ashe, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Dorothy Danbridge, Willie Mays, William Jefferson Russell…………… That's just off the top of my head and the list goes on and on.

  • Linda

    In th end, Obama will have set back black society's progress by a 100 years.

    • Dennis X

      President Obama is the Jackie Robinson on the presidency and has had to act accordingly. In the future you can look back and count yourself along with all the other racist who did everything they could to obstruct all he has attempted to accomplish. Just like the white ball players who spit, punched and did other things to Mr. Robertson. Attacking the President for a paper clip or for having the nerve to actually invite Black people to his birthday party. Time will tell. I love your group thought , did bush set white back a hundred years?

      • Jim_C

        Linda's post is so bone-rattlingly dumb I'm surprised you bothered to respond.

        None of these bozos' inane "predictions" about Obama have come true…but they'll keep making fools of themselves, like ol' Linda, here. Cheer them on!

  • Whatsinaname

    A name left out of the article but who is surely one of the great minds of the past century is Thomas Sowell, who, thankfully is still alive.

    "Black History Month" does little more than foster condescension, resentment and overall annoyance among other groups. It keeps alive a separation that is very unproductive. The heavy emphasis on race which is constantly fed to Americans — particularly black Americans does so much harm.