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Black History Month brings historic awareness

February is Black History Month. Having spent much of my life in the Deep South, I witnessed the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, the Birmingham (and other) marches, busing youngsters from one side of a town to the opposite side, ...

February is Black History Month. Having spent much of my life in the Deep South, I witnessed the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, the Birmingham (and other) marches, busing youngsters from one side of a town to the opposite side, and the mistreatment of humans based on the color of their skin. So, having a time set aside to recognize African-American accomplishments seemed to be a good thing.

It was surprising then, when actor Morgan Freeman, back in 2005, said on a CBS “60 Minutes” airing, that he thought having a Black History month was not something he appreciated. Freeman, after all is an Oscar winner who happens to be a black man.

He told the moderator, “I don’t want a Black History Month,” he said. “Black history is American history…” and he went on to express his feelings of racial isolation. He said he believed the labels "black" and "white" are an obstacle to beating racism.

"I am going to stop calling you a white man and I'm going to ask you to stop calling me a black man," Freeman said.

What he seemed to be saying was this;  to learn about and accept people of color as we accept Caucasians, we need to see their names and faces in history books alongside white people, and not seen as a “token” inclusions, such as the 19th /20th century American painter, Henry Tanner.

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About seven years ago, at North Dakota’s Fort Buford, I saw a cut-out of a black soldier who had been stationed there after the War Between the States. Last year, a large triptych was installed in the interpretive center about the roles African Americans (called Buffalo Soldiers by Native peoples) played in settling the upper northwestern-most section of this state. Outside, a larger-than-life sculpture of a  Buffalo Soldier on a horse was also installed. The Buffalo Soldiers had a Masonic Lodge there, as well as interacted with whites and indigenous peoples living in the area. Buffalo Soldiers were in the Dakotas and they helped protect the railroads during the gold rush and the move westward. Their role is commemorated at Fort Buford, along with white soldiers.  

What Freeman said makes sense, but at some point maybe the “token” inclusions can guide conversation to open minds and give permission to discuss contributions made by Blacks. Then, maybe racial strife can end. At least some contributions to history can be spoken about during the month of February.

Freeman noted there is no "white history month," and said the only way to get rid of racism is to "stop talking about it." The actor said he believes the labels "black" and "white" are an obstacle to beating racism. "I am going to stop calling you a white man and I'm going to ask you to stop calling me a black man," Freeman said.

Artwork made by a few  pre-Civil War artists of color (such as Tanner) is included in college art history textbooks. There are many modern-day artists whose work we study, but very few from the Civil War era and earlier. Maybe when we no longer need to mention a person’s race, we’ll begin to see the contributions made by all people, including artists of the 19th century and before.  

If anyone has an item for this column, please send to Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.

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