Black History Month: A Call to Remember

Today, February 1 is the first day of Black History Month. Black History Month is an annual celebration of the achievements by African Americans. It is a time to remember. It is a time for recognizing the central role of African Americans in U.S. history and honors their contributions to the United States. It is a time to celebrate the rich history and culture of our brothers and sisters of the African Diaspora.

The national theme for Black History Month 2023 is “Black Resistance.” The theme this year focuses on calling out the legacy of Black resistance through politics, the arts, society, and education (source).

This theme will no doubt draw our attention to the history and ways in which African Americans have responded to all forms of oppression from 1619 to the present. “Calling out” suggests a loud cry, a shout. It is a pointed and intentional effort to highlight that which one deems important and necessary. “Calling out” is a move not only to learning and awareness but to self-examination. Calling out the legacy of Black resistance is about drawing attention to some salient aspects of American life. While our human tendency is to often forget, avoid, minimize, devalue, or ignore, “Black Resistance requires that we not fall victims to those human tendencies. We must not participate in what Henry Giroux in his book “America at War With Itself” (2016) describes as “organized forgetting.” In his discussion of the violence of organized forgetting, Giroux argued,

“America has become amnesiac – a country in which forms of historical, political, and moral forgetting are not only willfully practiced but celebrated.”

Black History month is a time to be resistant to our amnesic tendencies. It is a time to be reminded that Black history is part of the history of the United States. Indeed, the legacy of slavery has not only shaped the lives of black people but many aspects of American life. Black History Month 2023 is a call to remember. James Baldwin (1956) noted that,

“Perhaps everybody has a Garden of Eden, I don't know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both. People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Heroes are rare.”

(Giovanni's Room. New York: Dial Press)

We are in a time when there is national debate about what constitutes our history, what of that history is real and factual and what of that history should be taught in our schools. There was a recent decision by the Florida Governor administration to reject the Advanced Placement (AP) course on African American studies for high school students. One of the central issues in this debate on Black History is not simply what constitutes our history, but an underlying fear of what happens to us when we acknowledge and learn our history. The problem here is the danger of living in fear. Fear is the greatest cause of wasted potential. Fear keeps us in bondage rather than liberates us. Fear keeps us tethered to the traumas of our past. On the other hand, when we learn our history and embrace the truth, it has the power to liberate us for we can never conquer what we do not confront, we can never confront what we do not acknowledge, and we can never acknowledge what we do not see. Reggae legend Bob Marley reminded us of the importance of both knowing our history and the danger of not knowing:

“Don't forget your history. Know your destiny. In the abundance of water, the fool is thirsty.” (Bob Marley, “Rat Race”)

There is so much to learn about Black history. There are many brilliant historians and a wealth of resources for reading and study. Let us take advantage of the rich resources available to us so that we do not become impoverished.

Our Eastern Community

Here at Eastern University, we continue to be blessed by our African American brothers and sisters from across the African Diaspora. The presence of Black faculty, staff, students, and Board of Trustees in our community is part of the Black Resistance in education and the arts. They enrich our community, and their lives, study and work remind us of the value of diversity, challenges us to a deeper understanding of equity and to constantly work at creating a community where all can feel a sense of belonging.

Encouragement and Exhortation

We encourage you to take some time this month to take steps to learn more about Black history, the contributions of Black people, deepen your understanding of the legacy of resistance, and celebrate the history and culture of the Black experience in the United States. As we work to understand Black Resistance this Black History Month 2023, let all that we do be characterized by love. The history of Black Resistance is a history of both Black resilience on the one hand and pain and suffering on the other. The Apostle Peter reminds us that,

“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8, ESV).

In our work and lives together in this Eastern Christian community, LOVE must be the motivator that moves us to seek a deeper understanding of each other and a commitment to walk together as members of the same Body. The late Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us that:

"We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

Dr. King believed and contended that black empowerment was in the white community’s interests as well. In the spirit of Martin Buber’s I-Thou relational paradigm, Dr. King noted: “I cannot reach fulfillment without thou.” He understood well the salience of this mutuality that we share, and the need to call out injustice and affirm the dignity, humanity, and diversity of all of us. In his letter from a Birmingham, Alabama jail, April 16, 1963, he wrote:

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

The commitment to walk together, to celebrate the diversity that exists among us, and to create a community characterized by the principles of equity and belonging requires active love. Given our human tendency towards self-gratification and the historical baggage of racism and oppression, the commitment to active love is no “walk in the park.” The Russian novelist, short story writer, essayist, and journalist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, in his last novel The Brothers Karamazov, engaged theologically and philosophically with love in action:

“I am sorry I can say nothing more to console you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on stage. But active love is labor and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

What a profound acknowledgement! And yet we are called to active love. The Apostle Paul challenges us as followers of Christ to:

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. Romans 12:9-10, NLT

As Eastern University, let us use this Black History Month to learn, celebrate, and cogitate about these things. Black history is our history.

Shalom! Shalom!

Randolph Walters, Psy.D, LPC, CCTP, CSAM
Special Assistant to the President for Diversity, Equity and Belonging

Ronald A. Matthews, D.M.A.