Incorporating the present into Black History Month

As Black History Month concludes, it is necessary to take a look at exactly how we celebrate some of the most important men and women in American history and whether or not we are failing to uphold their legacy. As anyone who has gone through the United States public school system will tell you, black history is taught with a highly specific narrative. Every hundred or so years, a few uniquely courageous figures emerge to successfully fight back against their era’s chief injustice.

That’s essentially where it ends. Ongoing racial issues are shoved to the side. There is no mention of the war on drugs’ deleterious effect on black Americans or the persistence of poverty in black communities. Even the name of the month itself implies that racism is in the past: Black History Month. As in it’s history now.

Writing in The Atlantic, Theodore R. Johnson summed it up perfectly: “The great black women and men who populate Black History Month celebrations feel like characters in a novel – a world away from the black guy a few steps behind you in a barren parking garage.”

While venerating black heroes across all eras is pertinent, there needs to be more of a concerted effort to educate Americans about ongoing issues facing African-Americans that they might be unaware of. Hopefully, this education will lead to action – particularly from those who insist that we live in a “post-racial” society.

Though it may not be codified as it once was, racism still informs and shapes our society in a substantial way. It isn’t just in lingering social and economic inequalities either, though those are a major problem that must be grappled with. Rather, it is a less tangible form of racism that traces its lineage to the eras of slavery and Jim Crow.

The onslaught of cases involving white assailants killing black victims – and by and large getting away with it – speaks volumes about to whom trust is given. One can argue about the laws and whether or not the correct verdicts were rendered, but what is inarguable is that neither Trayvon Martin nor Jordan Davis gave their respective killers any reason for suspicion let alone reason to pull the trigger.

Racism is not reasonable. It is not borne of logic but of socialization. In today’s supposedly “post-racial” world, Martin and Davis were seen as inherently threatening because of their race. In order to effectively address race relations in the U.S., breaking down these stereotypes should be among the targets of Black History Month. By dismantling the vestiges of a time when racism was codified, we will begin to be freed from its damaging legacies.