“Black History Month,” observed comedian Chris Rock in a 2015 video for Essence magazine, “is in the shortest month of the year, and the coldest, just in case we want to have a parade.”
Comedians often find humor in uncomfortable truths, and this is one: We would know more about the rich and essential history of African American contributions to our country if the subject was given the attention it deserves year-round — not just during the year’s shortest month.
Harriet Tubman often gets CliffsNotes-like treatment during Black History Month. She was, of course, a brilliant and courageous woman who was known as “Moses” because she repeatedly risked her life to guide enslaved people in the South to freedom in the North.
But Tubman was also a military scout and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, and a champion of women’s suffrage. It takes far more than 28 days — or even 29 in this leap year — to do her story justice. (At long last, she’s the subject of a major film. Cynthia Erivo has been nominated for a best actress Oscar for her portrayal of Tubman in the film, “Harriet.”)
Similarly, the story of Rosa Parks isn’t always told in full.
The myth holds that Parks was an ordinary black seamstress who was too tired to surrender her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white man. In truth, she was the branch secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, and a lifelong activist who was unwilling to ignore the injustices and indignities African Americans were forced to endure.
On Dec. 1, 2015 — the 60th anniversary of Parks’ act of civil disobedience — The Washington Post reported on the Rosa Parks Collection of papers at the Library of Congress.
In one of her notes, according to that newspaper, Parks wrote of how her grandmother became angry when Rosa was young and recounted picking up a brick to challenge a white bully. “I would rather be lynched,” she told her grandmother, “than live to be mistreated and not be allowed to say ‘I don’t like it.’ ”
As Time magazine noted in 2015, “Parks had already been kicked off the bus by the very same driver in the past, and she also knew that being arrested, as an African American woman in the South, was extremely dangerous.”
She nevertheless took the chance, in a transformative act of protest that meant she and her family would face death threats and financial hardship for years. So much for the demure seamstress trope — Parks was an intrepid freedom fighter whose courageous act led to the Montgomery bus boycott and the eventual desegregation of that city’s public buses.
We owe it to her to honor the person she truly was, and not just in February.
More broadly, our understanding and appreciation of African American history and culture would be deepened and made more complete by reading the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” rather than the usual quotes cited (and sometimes misused) by politicians. And by reading the works of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Zora Neale Hurston, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison and Colson Whitehead.
African American History is, it’s often said, American history. But it’s been too little, and too superficially, told. We should use this month — brief as it is — to help change that.
Iowa owes Pennsylvania better
The Iowa Democratic Party doesn’t just owe it to the people who participate in its highly-touted, first-in-the-country caucus every four years to figure out how to correct its problems.
It owes it to the rest of us, too.
On Tuesday, the Hawkeye State’s caucuses — a kind of Thanksgiving-table survey held in local precincts, a cross between a mall focus group and a jury deliberation — ended with no official winner but a hefty portion of the still-large field of candidates claiming some kind of victory.
There is no doubt that things went badly in Iowa. The party’s statement blamed a “coding issue in the reporting system,” but that doesn’t explain faux pas like the CNN interview. A precinct secretary was ready to deliver, on air, his precinct’s results to a party official — but the party official hung up on him, under Wolf Blitzer’s watchful gaze.
Technology was a factor, but overall it seems like no one was really prepared for what happened, despite years of preparation and weeks being at the center of the candidacy maelstrom.
Iowa needs to get itself together because it has a responsibility to the rest of the country.
Pennsylvania is, by almost all accounts, going to be critical to the November vote. But Pennsylvanians don’t get to vote in a primary until April 28. That’s early for us, since we are accustomed to a May primary, but we bump it up in presidential election years to have more say. A state Senate bill might move it to March in 2024.
Yet 35 other states and six territories get a chance at a primary or caucus before the Keystone State. The field of candidates had already narrowed by Iowa, which has a population just a bit larger than the Greater Pittsburgh region.
By the time Pennsylvanians get to vote in their primary, the choice may be no choice at all.
So Pennsylvania has to rely on Iowa the way it will on New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina and the others to do everything right along the way.
It would be bad enough if this were a one-off, but it’s not. The Democratic Party screwed up the 2016 caucuses, too.
Iowans need to demand better if they want to deserve their seat at the head of the table in presidential election years.