Slimantics: Why Black History Month matters

 

Slim Smith

 

 

Since 1976, February has been designated as "Black History Month" in the United States. But, even after four decades, there remains some debate about its importance, legitimacy and usefulness. 

 

Black History Month has its critics, even among some blacks, most notably actor and Mississippi resident Morgan Freeman. 

 

Confining the study of black history to a single month, Freeman said, was offensive because black history weaves throughout American history and deserves to acknowledged as a part of American history rather than be treated as some unrelated side topic.  

 

Freeman is right, but only to a certain extent. Until such time as black history is taught as a part of the whole, Black History Month may be the only assurance that it is studied at all or at any time. 

 

Here in Mississippi, another part of our history is a hot topic these days as the Legislature considers whether to change the state flag by removing the Confederate Battle Flag from its canton or send the matter to the voters, as it did in 2001 when Mississippians voted by a 2-1 margin, largely along racial lines, to keep the flag as it is. 

 

Those who oppose changing the flag base their strongest argument on -- you guessed it -- the importance of history. Replacing the flag, their argument goes, means turning our back on history and heritage.  

 

As Mississippi State University history professor Jason Morgan Ward has observed: History is what happened; heritage is what we choose to believe about what happened. 

 

Nowhere is the disparity between the two greater than it is in our state. 

 

Yet many of those who cling to "history and heritage" in defense of the current flag are quick to suggest black Mississippians should "just get over" the uglier aspects of our state's history, including slavery and the nightmarish decades of Jim Crow abuses that followed and its lingering residue.  

 

That one aspect of our history should be embraced and remembered and another should be marginalized and forgotten is an inconsistency that defies reason. 

 

For older generations of Mississippians, the black history we were taught in school goes something like this: Black Mississippians were slaves until the end of the Civil War, at which point blacks -- despite representing a majority of state's population until the 1930s -- disappeared, only to re-emerge in the 1950s and 1960s as a part of the Civil Rights story. They pretty much disappeared again after that. End of lesson. 

 

That we can probably count on two hands the number of "important" black people in the state's long history should be a strong argument for a serious examination of that neglected history during Black History Month and all the other months as well. 

 

In his soon-to-be-published book "Hanging Bridge: Racial Violence and America's Civil Rights Century," Ward tells the largely neglected story of Mississippi's long and enduring struggle with the question of race through the events of a single Mississippi county. 

 

His book begins in 1918, when a mob lynched four black teens -- two black brothers and two black sisters, both pregnant -- from a bridge over the Chickasawhay River in Clarke County.  

 

In 1942, two 14-year-old blacks were lynched at the same location. Ward's book details not only those crimes, but follows the story of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Era through the people and events of that small southeast Mississippi county. 

 

It is a compelling work of scholarship, the kind of work that should be required reading in our high schools. 

 

If we are ever going to come together as Mississippians, we must learn our history -- all of it -- and come to terms with it, painful though it may be. 

 

Does Black History Month matter? 

 

If we are still asking that question, the answer is obvious. 

 

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]

 

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