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.
Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me. Slavery is sixty years in the past. The operation was successful and the patient is doing well, thank you. The terrible struggle that made me an American out of a potential slave said "On the line!" The Reconstruction said "Get set!" and the generation before said "Go!" I am off to a flying start and I must not halt in the stretch to look behind and weep. Slavery is the price I paid for civilization, and the choice was not with me. It is a bully adventure and worth all that I have paid through my ancestors for it. No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory.
Do young people today, black or white, know about Marian Anderson, the glorious contralto who, after being denied permission in 1939 to sing at Constitution Hall in Washington by the Daughters of the American Revolution, was invited by Eleanor Roosevelt to sing instead at the Lincoln Memorial before a radio audience of millions – and who went on to become the first black performer at the Metropolitan Opera and to perform at the March on Washington? Do they know about Jackie Robinson, who broke the baseball color line in the major leagues in 1947 and whose quietly bold endurance in the face of racist abuse by other players did a great deal to ease the way for other black players?
Do they know about Nat King Cole, who despite his heartbreakingly gentle singing voice was a man of steel, refusing, out of a profound sense of principled resistance, to move his family from their house in previously all-white Hancock Park, Los Angeles, even though bigots harassed them mercilessly and even burned a cross on their lawn? Do they know about Louis Armstrong, whom some unjustly branded an Uncle Tom but whose livid challenge to President Eisenhower to take a stand on school desegregation in Little Rock was widely credited with forcing Ike to act – and who was effective precisely because he was perceived not as a radical firebrand but as the very personification of decency, responsibility, and good citizenship? (If you want to be ennobled by the inspiring life of a great American, buy Terry Teachout's wonderful biography of Armstrong.)
One could list many, many other names – ranging from Joe Louis to General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., and the Tuskegee Airmen. And Bill Cosby, who in recent years has been a brave and eloquent spokesman for individual responsibility.
The men and women I've mentioned represent an extremely wide range of black Americans. But what they all have, or had, in common is the selflessness and self-discipline to rein in their thoroughly legitimate rage over ugly, monstrous, and indefensible bigotry and to become men and women whose excellence and dignity helped to shame millions of white Americans into giving them – and all black Americans – their due. For this, they deserve our undying respect – not only in the month of February, but throughout the year.
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