25 February 2012


During February in the U.S. and Canada, we celebrate Black History Month ~ a "remembrance of important people and events in the history of the African diaspora".  Interestingly, each year the debate is renewed between (a) the continuing usefulness of black history being relegated to only a single month (and the shortest month, at that), and (b) whether it might not be more useful to view black history as part of American history.  It isn't only whites who take this view.  Black individuals from Morgan Freeman to Gwen Ifill have pointed out that black history is American history.  

I can see both viewpoints.  On the one hand, for most of our nation's existence, the importance and accomplishments of minorities in science, in politics, in music and the arts, in literature, in sports, in civil rights, simply did not appear in school history books.  Overwhelmingly, white males were portrayed as the visionaries, the pioneers, the movers and shakers of our society.  [If you've never read Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen's seminal critique of American history as we learned it, please do so.  Dark corners of your understanding will be illuminated for the first time.]  

I think that during this transition in our collective awareness, it is a good and necessary thing to deliberately set aside a month to come to an understanding of the experience of African Americans in our society ~ just as it is good and necessary to set aside the month of March as Women's History Month.  If anything, we are overlooking other minorities ~ Native Americans, Irish, Poles, Latinos, Asians, et al.  That is not surprising ~ each new wave of immigrants to this country has had to be persistent and sometimes militant in overcoming the rejection, stereotyping, and relegation to second-class citizen status by the previous immigrants who'd managed to become "natives".

On the other hand, perhaps someday the teaching of American history will naturally include both genders, all races and all nationalities, just as a good recipe includes all ingredients.  What a wonder that will be ~ American history will be rife with the rich tapestries of scores of cultural traditions.  I don't know if that day will happen in my lifetime ~ witness the xenophobia aimed at Latinos in certain parts of the country, or the ongoing struggle to achieve real equality by blacks, women, or anyone who looks or sounds "different" from the plain vanilla national norm, white males.  

We are assuredly making progress.  Ever so slowly, there is truer representation of minorities in college enrollment, in the halls of Congress and public life, in corporate boardrooms.  Much depends on where you live.  Larger cities are more likely to be heterogenous than small towns or rural areas.  This is where the influence of media becomes important.  As an example, my home state of Montana is overwhelmingly white.  The most noticeable (or overlooked) minorities are Native Americans and Hutterites.  When I was growing up, I wasn't exposed to other races and traditions until I left first for college, and later for the military.  I didn't return to Montana to live for 40 years.  Anyone who remained, had only news coverage or TV shows like The Cosby Show as windows into other realities.  To a large extent life is still that way here.

So true, universal progress is slow.  And that is why, ultimately, I think that Black History Month, Women's History Month, and any others we may devise, are a vital bridge in learning to understand and accept our American diversity.  Here's one small example ~ one of my life's passions is aviation.  Most of us can reel off the names of male aviators ~ Charles Lindbergh, Wiley Post, the Wright Brothers, Chuck Yeager, Sully Sullenberger.  Some of us might even know of heroic black aviators like the legendary Tuskegee Airmen of WWII.  But how many of us can name a single woman pilot?  Perhaps a few recall the WASPs of WWII.  American aviation is loaded with women who must face apparent invisibility on a daily basis ~ though here too, progress is slowly being made.  Even in the military, women are now flying combat missions, something unheard of a generation ago.

Now imagine being an aviation pioneer who is both black and female.  I introduce you to Bessie Coleman, who learned to fly in the early 1920s, and became a skilled barnstormer.  She is an inspiration to young women of any race today.  Her photo appears in the top right corner of the collage above ~ click to enlarge.

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