February 1 begins Black History Month, a national annual observance since 1926, honoring and celebrating the achievements of African Americans. To commemorate its start President Trump hosted a “listening session” at the White House that left listeners scratching their heads wondering if he knew Frederick Douglass, a former slave, and abolitionist, died in 1895, and 2018 will be the bicentennial of his birth.
“Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who has done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice,” Trump said. Expecting White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to clarify what Trump meant regarding his comment on Douglass, Spicer made it clear he, too, doesn’t quite know if Douglass is dead.
“I think he wants to highlight the contributions he has made. And I think through a lot of the actions and statements he’s going to make, I think that the contributions of Frederick Douglass will become more and more.”
The remarks from both Trump and Spicer could have been an episode of Drunk History, a TV comedy series where an inebriated narrator fumbles recounting historical events, which would illustrate why we need Black History Month. And, if Dr. Carter Woodson, the Father of Black History, were alive today, he would’ve been troubled by their remarks.
However, it’s not just African Americans troubled by Trump’s lack of knowledge; it’s across various racial and ethnic groups. “He’s embarrassing,” Scott Kearnan, who’s White, and the Boston Herald’s food editor, stated. “It’s generally revealing of his lack of interest in the history of this country and civil right struggles in particular.”
Sue O’Connell, publisher and editor of South End News and Bay Windows, and host of New England Cable News’ The Take with Sue O’Connell, who is White, brought to my attention that Trump is not alone in not knowing basic Black history. She reminded me of when Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson was being shepherded to a room at a convention center named after Harriet Tubman, and he asked the aide “Who’s Harriet Tubman?”
“These two men, Trump and Johnson, regardless of their opposing political views, had no idea who Harriett Tubman was,” said O’Connell.” Trump enthusiastically is learning about Frederick Douglass for the first time.”
Since its inception, Black History, however, has been the subject of criticism from African American as well as from other races and ethnicities. Many African American, in particular, are insulted that the shortest month in the calendar year is solely focused on the histories and achievements of a people who have been dragged to these shores since 1619.
When Obama was first elected, Millennials — in particular African Americans, people of color, as well as Whites — whose ballots help elect the country’s first African American president, revealed celebrating Black History Month seem outdated to them. Many of them viewed the celebration as a relic tethered to an old defunct paradigm of the Civil Rights Era and a hindrance to all people moving forward.
Obama’s candidacy was thought to have marshaled in America’s dream of a “post-racial” era, where race had finally become a “non-issue.” And Obama’s election encapsulated for them both the physical and symbolic representation of Martin Luther Kings, Jr.’s vision uttered in his historic “I Have a Dream” during the 1963 March on Washington.
For years, the celebration of Black History Month, especially among White conservatives, has always brought up the ire around “identity politics” and “special rights.” This push back against Black History Month by Whites has been going on for decades, and shown how some court decisions bolstered the resistance.
However, the creation of Black History Month was never intended by Woodson to be divisive but rather to educate all Americans of African Americans contributions to the U. S. In so doing, it aims to engage and invite informed “listening sessions” on the histories all minorities as integral to American History.
Rev. Irene Monroe is a Huffington Post blogger and freelance journalist.