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America’s History

Janet Langhart Cohen –Author of “Anne and Emmett,” a one-act play; Co-founder of Race and Reconciliation In America –Posted: January 31, 2011 03:55 PM

Black History Month has arrived and not a moment too soon. It is breathtaking to behold, but some politicians seem to be suffering either from a monumental ignorance of American history or a profound case of accommodating amnesia. The most recent attempt by a public official to whitewash black history from conscious reality comes courtesy of Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann.

According to Representative Bachmann’s televised tutorial before a group of conservatives, our Founding Fathers eliminated the scourge of slavery with the signing of the Constitution. As MSNBC’s Chris Mathews was quick to point out, Rep. Bachmann appears to be unaware that several of the most prominent of the Founders were slave holders, and that the Constitution specifically declared that African-Americans were to be counted as only three-fifths of a person. In other words, to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and others, blacks were considered personal property, not real people. At the very heart of our country’s history has been this twisted notion that those of African descent were not fully human, and not entitled to the same rights and privileges as white people.

Most people came to America voluntarily to seek a better life. Africans were brought here in chains to make a better life for others. They were used to build the wealth of white America and the history of how they were inhumanly exploited is precisely what some Americans would like us to forget. It took a Civil War, three Constitutional Amendments, and several Supreme Court decisions to declare that black people were entitled to the same rights as every other American.

Several Southern states continue to celebrate Confederate History Month, and often relegate slavery to a footnote. To those who look back with nostalgia to the good old days when life for them was just a bowl of mint juleps, I hope they’ll remember the murders of Medgar Evers and Emmett Till. Till’s murder was so brutal that it energized the modern Civil Rights Movement, prompting Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, and so many countless others, black and white, to refuse to tolerate the deep seated racism that afflicted our society. More than a hundred years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, civil rights advocates had to face the jaws of dogs, the clubs of police and the ropes of mobs to secure the full rights granted to others.

While some note wryly, that February is the shortest month of the year, I am grateful that we dedicate February to the remembrance of things past, of the horrors that black people have had to endure, of the contributions we have made to our nation’s progress and prosperity, and of the strides that the American people have made in seeking to abandon what President George W. Bush called “the baggage of bigotry.”

What makes America great, what makes Americans unique, is the willingness of fair-minded people to expose and openly confront our faults and seek to overcome them. Our greatness lies not in expunging words such as slavery from our textbooks or banning ethnic studies from our classrooms, or claiming that slavery ended with the signing of the Constitution.

The truth has been responsible for setting us free, and we have a moral obligation to remember that truth, to prevent it from being twisted, disfigured or simply dropped as an unpleasant and insignificant part of our history. It is in our remembrance that freedom will continue to flourish.

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