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The Color Line: Black History Blues

Born in slavery and nurtured through years of violence and discrimination, the history of blacks in America is a harrowing tale."The story of the Negro in America is the story of America," wrote James Baldwin."It is not a very pretty story." So as every institution from the local Chamber of Commerce to the NBA" celebrates" Black History Month, one is left to wonder -- what is the month's purpose? When education and celebration are in conflict, which should prevail?

Black History Month's origins stretch back almost 75 years to Carter G. Woodson, a son of former slaves. Woodson became a high school teacher, and upon discovering that the history of blacks was ignored in American education, founded the American Negro Academy. On February 19, 1926, Woodson established"Negro History Week," whose morphed spirit lives on today.

Black History Month normally produces sanitized portrayals of black American heroes. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legend is revamped into that of a conciliatory leader. Rosa Parks -- who was planted in the audience at the State of the Union address -- seems to be the patron saint of the"bottom-up" perspective on history. She, like King, is rarely described as one who wrought upheaval or resisted authority. This marketing of images speaks to an unfolding battle in the war over how to use our nation's past in the future. Like the controversy over the Confederate flag, it illuminates ways in which the terrains of memory and history are contested in the present.

The history of blacks in America houses both unfathomable pain and rare inspiration. Simplistic messages about a complicated history are consistently presented for public consumption. But as the familiar stories become exhausted, perhaps a more honest look at the past will be forced to the fore. There is evidence to suggest that the frequently concealed pain and complexity of this past are beginning to be exposed. The Tulsa Race Riot Commission recently recommended reparations to families of victims of the city's 1921 race riot. In the riot, sanctioned by the city's most powerful public figures, the black community was burned to the ground. In another instance, Manhattan's Ruth Horowitz Gallery featured a photographic exhibit of lynching. The gruesome pictures convey the reality of this horrifying truth that claimed the lives of some 5,000 blacks between 1882 and 1968.

There is much to celebrate, as well, in the history of black America. It is just that the ecstasy never exists without the agony. Peter Jennings did a special on King's last years, and the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike. It constituted a rare look at this local struggle by the media. The wildcat strike began on February 12, and after the movement had drawn King to the city for support, witnessed his most prophetic speech and eventually his death, the workers prevailed. From day one, the fight had been about human dignity. Many of the workers marched with signs declaring,"I Am a Man." They asked not for rights under the law, but attacked problems that still lurk in America -- power, privilege, and the bond between race and class.

Through unearthing segments of history, Black History Month can foster dialogues on matters like race, power, and the contemporary role of our collective past. More Februarys can shed light on more stories, both uplifting and horrific. One day, perhaps we can look at leaders for the complex people they were, and how they reflected their constituencies. King will not be seen as a conciliator, but as a militant pacifist who advocated the redistribution of wealth and power, who constantly challenged America to make its promises reality. The public embrace of Black History Month marks an unprecedented opportunity. It begs the question: will we attempt to educate in order to cultivate a better America, or will we continue to celebrate behind the facade of contrived images and false pretenses?

Langston Hughes captured something defining about the black condition when he wrote:"There are words like Liberty/ That almost make me cry./ If you had known what I know/ You would know why." Up against an unnerving past, uniquely American dreams of freedom powerfully persist in those who have historically been denied it. While aspects of black history worthy of celebration forever exist beside the melancholy of that experience, so is the black American past bound to that of the country as a whole. The story of America, and the story of its black population are eternally linked; as together we explore yesterday's wounds, the hope lives on that tomorrow they can be overcome.

This piece originally appeared on TomPaine.com two years ago.