My 3-year-old recognizes President Obama — or “O-ba-na,” as she calls him. She can’t tell you what he does, but, perhaps because of her mom’s TV news viewing, she associates him with the U.S. flag and military rituals.
She also recognizes the first lady and their two lovely daughters. (She further associates the president with a certain 1960s hit by R&B singer Al Green, likely a byproduct of her mom’s YouTube preferences.)
She surely isn’t the only black preschooler — indeed, the only preschooler of any race — who has an easy familiarity with the name “Obama.” The election of the first black president, a man who has become a multi-platform media star, has captivated children (and adults) of all ages and races.
My daughter will grow up in a very different country than the one in which I spent my childhood. Hers is a country in which a black president is not just the stuff of fiction, where racial intermarriage is no novelty, where black men and women excel not just on playing fields and in musical halls, but also in board rooms, science labs and surgical suites.
And that clear, unequivocal racial progress leads me to ask the following questions: Is Black History Month still necessary? Is it even a good idea?
Granted, the Republican presidential candidates appear to need a good remedial class in the country’s long and bloody struggle for racial justice. They are running decidedly retro campaigns straight out of the 1960s, when the country was swept by the civil rights crusade and President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” was belatedly addressing centuries of black poverty born of stark oppression.
To listen to the dog whistles and cow bells about welfare, food stamps and births outside marriage, you’d think they were taking up where Barry Goldwater left off. While Republicans are wont to admit that racism still exists, the current crop of president candidates also seem reluctant to acknowledge that the majority of food stamp recipients are white. (Or, for that matter, that Sarah Palin’s oldest daughter bore a child outside wedlock.)
The right wing of the Republican Party — the constituency most catered to during this presidential primary season — is strangely unmoored on issues related to race. Ultraconservatives long for a fantasy version of the 1950s; they attack liberals, especially Obama, for pointing out the sins of the nation’s past.
Yet, this campaign shows them curiously unwilling to admit that black America is not a huge underachieving, crime-committing, excuse-making drain on the nation’s treasury. They refuse to explicitly acknowledge black millionaires or corporate executives, black astronauts and physicians, black Ivy Leaguers and Rhodes Scholars — though they are benevolent reminders of how far we’ve come.
They are forced to acknowledge Obama, certainly, and readily agree that he’s black. But the bigots among them refuse to acknowledge that he’s a red-blooded American, just as they are.
And decades of Black History Month observations haven’t cured that sort of racism. Nor will decades more. Those with a determined interest in believing their own bigotry will continue to do so.
Meanwhile, America’s younger generations deserve a fuller and more complex history of their country — one that doesn’t relegate the contributions of black Americans to one short month. That segregates us once again — as if black history is separate and apart from American history.
It isn’t. Black Americans are part and parcel of American history, from the very beginning. A black man, Crispus Attucks, was felled during the Boston Massacre, one of the skirmishes that fueled the sentiment for independence among the colonists. Black men fought for the Union Army in the Civil War, and black pioneers helped to settle the Old West.
Before President Truman integrated the armed forces, black soldiers insisted on the right to fight and die for the country that gave them less respect than its avowed enemies. I have a photo of my grandfather, with a sidearm strapped to his hip, at some European outpost during World War I.
Those stories need to be woven into a full accounting of American history, not set aside for one month (the shortest month) of the year. Here’s hoping my daughter and her classmates are getting that full accounting by the time she’s in high school.
Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.