Black History Month: Learn Anything?

Monday marks the end of Black History Month, and I’ve heard some people carp about black people getting the shortest month of the year. I hope they’re saying this in jest, but you never know. When I first offered my thoughts on Black History Month, I indicated that I was of two minds on the subject.

On the one hand, a commemoration of our history as separate from that of American history denies us our rightful place alongside our American brothers and sisters as equal investors in this great experiment.

On the other hand, it is vital for black Americans to understand and appreciate that we are an accomplished and victorious people, and our contributions to the establishment and growth of this nation are so much greater than the victimhood of slavery, oppression and discrimination.

In the end, I decided it was worth delving into Black History Month with the objective of demonstrating one point: Our heritage is greater than what we have become.

I read about the great men and women who achieved success in American society despite the chains of slavery into which they were born, and the pervasive, permissible racist attitudes of the time.

Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave with no formal education but a thirst for knowledge, became one of America’s greatest orators and writers, and a champion for liberty and justice for blacks and women.

Harriet Tubman also found her way to freedom out of bondage, but she went back time and again, helping other slaves to escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad. She went from cook and nurse to spy and scout for the Union during the Civil War, and she was the first woman to lead an armed assault in that conflict, freeing over seven hundred slaves in the process.

Bridget “Biddie” Mason was a slave until her 38th year, when her master’s travels took her to the free state of California, where she was able to petition for and secure her emancipation. She worked as a nurse and saved enough money to buy land in the heart of what is now downtown Los Angeles.

Her subsequent real estate investments and business dealings made her a very wealthy woman. She gave much of her money to care for others, and donated land for schools and churches. This illiterate former slave became a real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist, and she created wealth that sustained her family for generations after she died.

So what did I learn from these icons of American history? Plenty.

Lesson One: Today’s self-anointed black leaders are to these great men and women of yesterday what the Lilliputians were to Gulliver.

Black author and commentator Debra Dickerson went through an exercise similar to what I’ve been doing as of late, examining the lives of some of the great black leaders of the past, and reading their own words. She came away with a much different perspective on black history than what she had been taught:

Their thinking was so much more elevated than what our leaders are putting out there today. I felt so robbed, so lied to, so bamboozled—and not by the people I thought had been bamboozling me. I'd been lied to about my moral and intellectual traditions…

Those books are really about communal critique…these guys faced lynchings just for being who they were at the time, but here they were talking not about white people, but about what the standards of our community should be!

It just—oh, man—rocked me on my heels. And it made me really angry. But it was also inspiring…

When she took measure of what these men and women endured to become great, and compared them to today’s black leadership, she found the modern variety wanting. She criticized contemporary black leaders for creating a racial persecution meme around trivial issues, dishonoring those who encountered and overcame greater injustices in the past:

In a perverse way, it speaks to the amount of progress we've made, because no black person before the civil-rights movement would have concerned himself with such superficial things. It was matters of life and death back then. I don't think the situation today is a matter of amnesia so much as a reflection of the very poor quality of black leadership today.

When asked why she believed the moral and intellectual tradition of blacks in America had been lost, she attributed it to “a general dumbing down” of America, and our lack of desire to work hard at acquiring knowledge:

Mediocrity sells. It's a lot easier to listen to these Chicken McNugget Black History Month speeches than it is to sit down with Frederick Douglass's very ornate and flowery phraseology...Another factor is that those serious writers are saying things that we don't want to hear. We'd rather hear about the evil of white people.

One doesn’t have to look far back into 2010 to see how superficial and irrelevant our self-anointed black leaders have become.

Whether it’s alleged racial slurs uttered by an audio greeting card – hearing “black whore” when the astronomically-themed card was saying “black hole” - and demanding it be removed from shelves where it sat unnoticed for three years, or chasing racist bogeymen in the Tea Party movement, organizations like the NAACP squandered their political and moral capital to the point of bankruptcy.

These aren’t the issues that concern black Americans in their everyday lives. Substandard public schools, high unemployment, crime, single parenthood and its crushing consequences – these are the kinds of issues that should drive the black agenda, but they don’t. That leads me to the second lesson I learned.

Lesson Two: Then as now, black elites sold out the black community for favor with the Left.

Lower income black families decry the horrific state of the schools to which they have to send their children, and one would think our self-anointed black leaders would be champions of school choice to give parents hope, and their children opportunity.

Yet they are the ones standing in the doorway to prevent inner city black children from pursuing education options other than failing and violent public schools, condemning one generation after another to dismal, helpless lives. Why?

Because black leaders today are beholden not to the black community, but to the liberal establishment that has seduced them into believing that the current system is inherently and irredeemably racist, and that we cannot succeed unless we throw it out and replace it with something else.

That “something else” for generations has been the siren song of socialism and Marxism. They stand in the doorway, denying our children educational alternatives because their liberal enablers ask them to do so. They have become nothing more than an advocacy group for the political Left.

This isn’t a new development, and most people are aware of the shift in the black electorate toward the Democrats that began under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

What they may not know is that some of the best and brightest minds in the black community were deeply suspicious of this fascination with socialism, and made their objections known in clear and unmistakable terms.

Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, the nation’s first preeminent black leaders, knew that their newly freed brothers and sisters needed more than freedom and justice - they needed to make a living and build a life for themselves and their families.

They also knew that there was no sympathy for their plight in the larger American society, either out of hostility or indifference, and they rejected the well-meaning but meddlesome coddling of white benefactors who wrung their hands over the question of what to do with this population of illiterate people with few possessions beyond the clothes on their backs.

Douglass had a simple answer: "Do nothing with us!" To the black community, he said, "...we may explain success mainly by one word and that word is WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!!" If you want to take measure of yourself as a person, read the excerpts from one of his most famous lectures, "Self-Made Men."

Booker T. Washington emphasized work and education with the intent of achieving self-reliance and making oneself useful to society. He proclaimed, "The individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his way regardless of his race."

Were these men apologists for the status quo? Hardly - read their own words rather than allow others to define them for you. They did not believe, however that circumstances gave us an excuse not to constantly strive for excellence. When one examines their lives, they clearly had the moral authority to make such statements.

Those blacks who had achieved some level of classical education, however, and felt they should immediately be welcomed into the same economic and social strata as their white contemporaries, demanded a shortcut, and were easily seduced by the rhetoric of socialism and Marxism, which promised to give them their fair share of the collective "sweat equity" of American society.

Black historian Carter G. Woodson, among others, sounded an alarm at this fascination the black elites had with these Utopian and ultimately foreign ideologies. In his famous book, The Mis-Education of the Negro, he writes:

In suggesting herein the rise of the New Negro in politics the author does not have in mind the so-called radical Negroes who have read and misunderstood Karl Marx and his disciples and would solve the political as well as the economic problems of the race by an immediate application of these principles. History shows that although large numbers of people have actually tried to realize such pleasant dreams, they have in the final analysis come back to a social program based on competition.

If no one is to enjoy the fruits of his exceptional labor any more than the individual who is not prepared to render such extraordinary service, not one of a thousand will be sufficiently humanitarian to bestir himself to achieve much of importance, and force applied in this case to stimulate such action has always broken down.

If the excited whites who are bringing to the Negroes such strange doctrines are insane enough to believe them, the Negroes themselves should learn to think before it is too late.

Black author Zora Neale Hurston, a strong and proud black woman by any measure, mocked those who decried our history in America and, in her words, declared, "Look upon us with pity and give!"

A friend told me how her daughter came home from school after a discussion on Black History Month and said, "I feel sorry for African Americans. People were so mean to them."

That is precisely what frustrates me about Black History Month. Woodson envisioned it as a time to celebrate black achievement and accomplishment, and to elicit pride in our indispensable contributions to the making of America. Instead, it's been turned into a white guilt-trip and a black pity party.

Hurston would have had none of that:

If I say a whole system must be upset for me to win, I am saying that I cannot sit in the game, and that safer rules must be made to give me a chance. I repudiate that. If others are in there, deal me a hand and let me see what I can make of it, even though I know some in there are dealing from the bottom and cheating like hell in other ways.

Likewise, Woodson said the idea that blacks couldn't succeed in a capitalist society "is to deny actual facts, refute history, and discredit the Negro as a capable competitor in the economic battle of life."

Does it surprise you as much as it did me to learn that these great men and women of black American history were so disdainful of the socialist ideology and the victim mindset that have shackled the black community today?

When I read their words, I feel pride and strength - and a connection to the values that all Americans should share.

Frankly, like Debra Dickerson, I feel like the black leaders of today have robbed us of this great legacy by cloaking us in victimhood, resentment and perpetual grievance.

Is the pleasure of having one's hindquarters massaged and kissed by fawning, guilt-ridden white liberals so great that it justifies the betrayal of an entire race and their separation from American society?

Unfortunately, there is one other lesson I learned from the past that carries over into the present day, and I can't phrase it any better than Booker T. Washington:

There is a class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs. There is a certain class of race-problem solvers who don't want the patient to get well.

Our heritage is greater than what we have become. Herewith endeth the lesson.