I’d like to clarify and expand on a couple of things I said in my previous post on Black History Month, in light of some comments I’ve received.
On Obama’s Narrative of African American History
[I have appended the full text of Obama’s proclamation below for easy reference; a link to the source is given in my previous post.]
As I said earlier, President Obama’s Proclamation on “National African American History Month” makes for interesting close reading – particularly in relation to the narrative of black history it presents.
The opening sentence constructs a very clear story of black history, a narrative, with a beginning, middle and end: beginning in “slavery and oppression”; continuing through “the hope of progress” (emphasis added); and ending in triumph – specifically, “the triumph of the American Dream.”
The story of black history presented here is one of a triumphal march to a victorious conclusion. But in fact, that march was characterized as much by bitter violence and conflict as by the “hope of progress,” and it is by no means over, despite Obama’s election. If you doubt, consider the stats I traced in my previous post and other similar figures you might easily locate, showing the suffering, violence, disenfranchisement and inequality that still characterize life for so many African Americans.
Note, too, that while the proclamation has African American history beginning in “slavery and oppression,” the end is “the American Dream” – not freedom or justice. Some might argue that the American Dream includes or embraces freedom or justice, but I think it is most often seen in terms of social and economic success, of “making it.” Absent is any sense of reparation or redress for past injustices.
And I want to put that phrase in the proclamation – “the triumph of the American Dream” – under more pressure. It has a certain grammatical ambiguity that allows us to ask just whose triumph is being cited – that of African Americans? or that of the American Dream itself? Which would be ironic, given the extent to which America’s power and success was built on precisely that “slavery and oppression” with which the story of African American history began. But it also makes a certain amount of sense: for the American Dream not to be a nightmare, somehow that history of slavery and oppression must be forgotten, overcome, repressed.
And saying that with the election of another wealthy, East Coast university-educated politician as president – while all those other stats remain true – that the narrative of African American history has come to end, that we can now forget about black history – as the AP/MSNBC story suggested – represents precisely an attempt at repression and willed forgetfulness.
Full Text of Obama’s Proclamation
THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
February 1, 2010
NATIONAL AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY MONTH, 2010
– – – – – – –
BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
In the centuries since African Americans first arrived on our shores, they have known the bitterness of slavery and oppression, the hope of progress, and the triumph of the American Dream. African American history is an essential thread of the American narrative that traces our Nation’s enduring struggle to perfect itself. Each February, we recognize African American History Month as a moment to reflect upon how far we have come as a Nation, and what challenges remain. This year’s theme, “The History of Black Economic Empowerment,” calls upon us to honor the African Americans who overcame injustice and inequality to achieve financial independence and the security of self empowerment that comes with it.
Nearly 100 years after the Civil War, African Americans still faced daunting challenges and indignities. Widespread racial prejudice inhibited their opportunities, and institutional discrimination such as black codes and Jim Crow laws denied them full citizenship rights. Despite these seemingly impossible barriers, pioneering African Americans blazed trails for themselves and their children. They became skilled workers and professionals. They purchased land, and a new generation of black entrepreneurs founded banks, educational institutions, newspapers, hospitals, and businesses of all kinds.
This month, we recognize the courage and tenacity of so many hard-working Americans whose legacies are woven into the fabric of our Nation. We are heirs to their extraordinary progress. Racial prejudice is no longer the steepest barrier to opportunity for most African Americans, yet substantial obstacles remain in the remnants of past discrimination. Structural inequalities — from disparities in education and health care to the vicious cycle of poverty — still pose enormous hurdles for black communities across America.
Overcoming today’s challenges will require the same dedication and sense of urgency that enabled past generations of African Americans to rise above the injustices of their time. That is why my Administration is laying a new foundation for long-term economic growth that helps more than just a privileged few. We are working hard to give small businesses much-needed more credit, to slash tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas, and to give those same breaks to companies that create jobs here at home. We are also reinvesting in our schools and making college more affordable, because a world class education is our country’s best roadmap to prosperity.
These initiatives will expand opportunities for African Americans, and for all Americans, but parents and community leaders must also be partners in this effort. We must push our children to reach for the full measure of their potential, just as the innovators who succeeded in previous generations pushed their children to achieve something greater. In the volumes of black history, much remains unwritten. Let us add our own chapter, full of progress and ambition, so that our children’s children will know that we, too, did our part to erase an unjust past and build a brighter future.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim February 2010 as National African American History Month. I call upon public officials, educators, librarians, and all the people of the United States to observe this month with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this first day of February, in the year of our Lord two thousand ten, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-fourth.