Commentary: We Can't Sweep Black History Under the Rug

Keith Boykin

Commentary: We Can't Sweep Black History Under the Rug

Keith Boykin reminds America it needs to come to terms with its past.

Published February 6, 2015

For the past few weeks, I've been spending nearly all my time tracing my family history for a new book I'm writing. I've interviewed family members, scoured the Internet and found old birth certificates, death certificates and photographs I'd never seen before.

During my research, I've learned about a family member from 19th century Florida who rose to prominence and another family member from 20th century Missouri who was sent to prison as a child. 

But I've also discovered how difficult it can be to trace Black history, and some family members I can't find at all. Mainstream newspapers that printed daily obituaries frequently neglected to print the life stories of African-Americans who passed away. Cemeteries that service Blacks often don't digitize their records online. And U.S. Census reports from the past seem to overlook some in Black communities.

My personal family history seeps through the pages of the larger story of American history, a history of slavery and segregation that has often produced broken families and disconnected relationships among Black Americans.

So imagine my disappointment when I learned today that white Christian conservatives are upset with President Obama for discussing the evils of slavery during his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday.

In the midst of a larger discussion on terrorist groups that have hijacked religion for their own ends, the president asked the audience at the prayer breakfast to remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, "people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ." Even in America, the president said, "slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ."

That's hardly a debatable point. "The slave auctioneer's bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other," Frederick Douglass wrote in his autobiography. Black people have watched for centuries as American terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan have shrouded their bigotry in the language of the Bible. Even in President Obama's lifetime, we've seen Black people beaten, burned, bombed, hanged, dragged behind pickup trucks and lynched by supposedly God-fearing whites.

But the truth about American history is unwelcome for some white Christian conservatives, who quickly declared their outrage at the president. Virginia's former Republican governor Jim Gilmore condemned Obama's comments as "the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime," adding that "Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share."

Gilmore's remarks, coming from a politician whose state once served as the capital of the Confederate south, suggest a man more concerned about the president's acknowledgment of slavery than the troubling existence of slavery in the first place.

Despite the best efforts of historical revisionists, America can't sweep its sordid racial history under a new rug by pretending the past didn't happen or denying its painful and persistent effects. African-Americans know better. We made the rug. We cut the fabric. We sewed the pieces together. We helped to place it on the floor and we know what lies beneath.

Just this morning, the Associated Press reported on a controversy in Greenwood, South Carolina, where the local mayor wants to replace a plaque on a World War memorial that still separates the dead into categories of "white" and "colored." And earlier this week, the Library of Congress released papers about Rosa Parks that provide long overdue insight into her life fighting segregation in 1950s Montgomery, Alabama.

But our history doesn't stop with the civil rights movement. Even today in Montgomery, two of the largest high schools in this mostly Black southern city are named after white Confederate Civil War heroes Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, both of whom fought to defend the south's right to continue slavery. Those names serve as a reminder of the past to every Black boy and Black girl who graduates from those schools.

As we celebrate Black History Month in 2015, too many white Americans remain invested in perpetuating a selective reading of American history. They want the freedom to exalt the glory days of southern heritage but will not allow Black Americans, including the president of the United States, the liberty to discuss the toils of those who helped to build this country against their will.

America is not a perfect country. It never has been. But we are not weakened by acknowledging our flaws. In fact, for many Black Americans, this country can never be whole until white Americans finally acknowledge the sins of the past and come to terms with their impact on the present.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for each week.

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Written by By: Keith Boykin


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