February is Black History Month. The idea is controversial. Opponents may ask, why isn’t there a white history month? Proponents will usually respond by saying “every month is white history month.” Generally I frown upon the idea of grouping anything on the basis of race (the concept of a student union based on race is wrong), but I fully support Black History Month and college subjects like black history and black literature. Between the Civil War and the mid-20th century, there was racial segregation of various degrees across much of the country and, of course, before the Civil War, many black persons were enslaved and were literally the property of their white owners. There were many other problems involving white racism that blacks faced during this era such as lynching and being denied the right to vote.
The point is that the story of white Americans was very different than the story of black Americans. Since blacks and whites were mostly segregated in one way or another up until the mid-20th century, so too is their history and culture. The accomplishments, triumphs, and tragedies of black people in America have to be viewed within a unique context because of the prevalent racist attitudes that existed among most white people for most of America’s history. We may wish we could go back and change history so that this wasn’t the case, but we cannot deny that.
With that said, black history in America is still a part of the overall general history of America. Several of the greatest people in black history are also among the greatest people in American history.
Frederick Douglass, who gave his last speech at our fine university, is my all-time favorite person in American history. Frederick Douglass’ life achievements would be amazing if he was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white person in the 21st century. But his life was more than just amazing when it is factored in that he was a black man born into slavery in early 19th century America. Beyond rising from a slave to world-renowned author, orator, and political activist, Fredrick Douglass was promoting ideas about race relations that were radical and unique in his time. Douglass believed in racial equality and racial harmony. That is, he believed that blacks and whites in America can and must live together as equal citizens.
As a younger man he opposed the Constitution, seeing it as an enabler of slavery. This view was consistent with that of the Garrisonian abolitionist movement, a group that he was close to. Later in his life, however, he began to embrace the Constitution and came to the realization that the Constitution wasn’t being followed nor were the nation’s founding ideals, which was the real problem. Even though he spoke harshly about America, he actually loved what America was supposed to be and saw great promise for this country if it were to embrace racial equality and racial justice. He also became disillusioned with the Garrisonian movement at some point because he saw them as patronizing toward blacks. Despite their good intentions, he didn’t think they had the right mindset for bringing about the reforms America needed. Expressing his frustration with well-intentioned white people that didn’t realize that their patronizing attitude was doing more harm than good, he said this: “In regard to the colored people, there is always more that is benevolent, I perceive, than just, manifested towards us. What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice.”
If he were alive today, he probably would oppose any racial preferences for hiring or admission to colleges and graduate schools. In his famous speech “What the Black Man Wants,” Douglass proclaimed the following: “The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us… I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! … And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! … your interference is doing him positive injury.” Douglass’ philosophy of racial equality would put him at odds with modern day, affirmative-racial quota based action supporting liberals, just like it did with the liberals of his times (the Garrisonians, for example). It is unfortunate that, even after all of these years, some people just don’t get it. Racial equality will never be achieved so long as we care about skin color the way our society does. A perfect example of how collectively clueless people are about what racial equality means can be found in non-discrimination clauses of many organizations and universities. Take West Chester University’s clause for example. It is called the “Affirmative Action—Equal Opportunity Policy,” as if the two principles weren’t diametrically opposed to one another. This peculiar hybrid policy lists among its goals to “Recruit, hire, utilize, train and promote for all job classifications without regard to race, religion, sex, national origin, ancestry, age, sexual orientation, disability, veteran status, or other protected class status” and the same for admitting students. Sounds good, right? Well, how about the fact that the same policy says “management and supervisory personnel must take affirmative action to improve our utilization of those persons underrepresented.” This could mean that the people doing the hiring should give preference to racial minorities, which would seem to contradict the “without regard for race, religion, sex, etc.” policy. It is a good thing that West Chester University (which was called West Chester Normal School at the time) didn’t have this policy in place back when Frederick Douglass was alive, otherwise he may have refused to give his last speech here!
As we celebrate Black History Month and look back on the triumphs and tragedies of blacks in America as well as the unique contributions of black Americans, let us also look forward to the future. The book of black history is no longer being written. The book of American history, however, is still being written. What would have otherwise been segregated as black history is now a full and equal part of American history, without a need for distinction. This is a good thing. The conditions of blacks in America once warranted a segregated history and it is wrong that the United States did not have racial equality from day one. We can’t change the past but we can determine the future direction of race in America. Do we want to be a society of inherently equal individuals who are judged by the content of our characters and not the color of our skin? Do we want to be a society where individual merit determines how far we get? If so, we need only to look to Fredrick Douglass to guide us there. He has already laid the intellectual framework for this type of society. It is up to us to make sure we follow it.
Bill Hanrahan is a fourth-year student majoring in political science and philosophy. He can be reached at WH750431@wcupa.edu.