“Black History Month,” observed comedian Chris Rock in a 2015 video for Essence magazine, “is in the shortest month of the year, and the coldest, just in case we want to have a parade.”
Comedians often find humor in uncomfortable truths, and this is one: We would know more about the rich and essential history of African American contributions to our country if the subject was given the attention it deserves year-round — not just during the year’s shortest month.
Harriet Tubman often gets CliffsNotes-like treatment during Black History Month. She was, of course, a brilliant and courageous woman who was known as “Moses” because she repeatedly risked her life to guide enslaved people in the South to freedom in the North.
But Tubman was also a military scout and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, and a champion of women’s suffrage. It takes far more than 28 days — or even 29 in this leap year — to do her story justice. (At long last, she’s the subject of a major film. Cynthia Erivo has been nominated for a best actress Oscar for her portrayal of Tubman in the film, “Harriet.”)
Similarly, the story of Rosa Parks isn’t always told in full.
The myth holds that Parks was an ordinary black seamstress who was too tired to surrender her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white man. In truth, she was the branch secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, and a lifelong activist who was unwilling to ignore the injustices and indignities African Americans were forced to endure.
On Dec. 1, 2015 — the 60th anniversary of Parks’ act of civil disobedience — The Washington Post reported on the Rosa Parks Collection of papers at the Library of Congress.
In one of her notes, according to that newspaper, Parks wrote of how her grandmother became angry when Rosa was young and recounted picking up a brick to challenge a white bully. “I would rather be lynched,” she told her grandmother, “than live to be mistreated and not be allowed to say ‘I don’t like it.’ ”
As Time magazine noted in 2015, “Parks had already been kicked off the bus by the very same driver in the past, and she also knew that being arrested, as an African American woman in the South, was extremely dangerous.”
She nevertheless took the chance, in a transformative act of protest that meant she and her family would face death threats and financial hardship for years. So much for the demure seamstress trope — Parks was an intrepid freedom fighter whose courageous act led to the Montgomery bus boycott and the eventual desegregation of that city’s public buses.
We owe it to her to honor the person she truly was, and not just in February.
African American History is, it’s often said, American history. But it’s been too little, and too superficially, told. We should use this month — brief as it is — to help change that.
An editorial from lancasteronline.com.