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Why We Still Need Black History Month

By Frank Bolden

February 3, 2008

[ Audio (mp3, 3.4Mb) ]

Note: On this Sunday the sermon was replaced by a talk-back session with the ministers, so we are posting instead comments made earlier in the service by Christ Church member Frank Bolden about African American History Month.
G o
od morning. Although we can’t tell it by the nice weather outside, here it is February already. We’ve just recovered from Christmas, Epiphany, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and here comes February with Lent, Valentine’s Day and Presidents Weekend. This year we also have the presidential primary and leap year – not to mention the Super Bowl, spring training and preparation for March Madness, and – oh yes – African American History Month.

It’s the time each year, since 1926, that we review the contributions of African Americans to the awesome dream that is America. This annual observation, initially designed to counter the exclusion and distortion of African Americans’ contributions to American history, is an important part of the process to help remove obstacles and barriers that have prevented African Americans from participating fully in the pursuit of happiness.

Here in 2008 one might question the relevance of African American History Month. At a time when one of the leading candidates for a run for the White House is an African American – as are the Secretary of State of both the nation and the State of New Jersey. The premier television talk show hostess is an African American, as are Academy Award winners, prominent attorneys, poets, physicians and CEOs. At a time when the state has apologized for slavery – why do we need to celebrate African American History Month?

That is a very good question for members of Christ Church and residents of the greater Summit community, but the answer to the question is well known to residents ofr Paterson, Newark, East Orange, Jersey City, Elizabeth, Plainfield, New Brunswick, Trenton, Camden, and other communities around the state and nation where the results of practices to prevent African Americans from enjoying the fruits of freedom are more readily visible. The answer to the question “Why celebrate African American History Month?” is this: There is still a lot of work to do, work in the area of the gaps – such as the gap between whites and blacks in the United States in housing, education, employment, health care, and criminal justice, to name a few.

There has been some real progress in addressing these gaps, but a recent article in the news indicated that the conditions, found by the Kerner Commission, that sparked the race riots in the late 1960’s still exist for many urban African Americans.

In the best seller Blink, Malcolm Gladwell details the negative perceptions associated with dark pigmentation in America. He documents the widely held belief that dark skinned people are inferior, violent, lazy, and untrainable. He further shows how this bias is so deeply rooted in the fabric of our society that most people, including blacks, cannot mask the effects of this phenomenon, even when they know they are being tested for it.

Last year NYC high school student recreated the famous doll test used Dr Kenneth Clark during the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education to show the harmful effects of racism and segregation. They showed young African American students a black doll and a white doll and asked the students to select the doll they liked best – the doll that looks the most like them. In 1954 and again in 2007, the students chose the white doll.

There is still work to be done before the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in which people are judged by the content of their character instead of the color their skin is realized.

The celebration of African American History is important for all Americans, not just blacks. Since the initiation of this annual celebration remarkable progress has been achieved – the elimination of lynching, legally sanctioned segregation and discrimination, denial of voting rights, and so on. These accomplishments were possible only through the combined efforts, sacrifice and prayers of all races working together.

I will never forget that Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two white men from New York, were found buried together with James Chaney, a black man from Mississippi, in that watery grave in Neshoba County, Mississippi, in 1964.

Because of the ultimate sacrifice of these heroes and others like them, and because of the hard work of church members just like you throughout the country, who care enough about their brothers and sisters to find ways to help open the doors of the American dream to others, today we know about the contributions of Barack Obama, Condoleezza Rice, Nina Mitchell Wells, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Denzel Washington, Ben Carson, Ted Wells, Tiger Woods, and Dick Parsons – outstanding achievers all. Their accomplishments are manifestations of African American History. Their contributions are a double edged sword. On the one hand they help eradicate the negative bias about the perceived inferiority of African Americans and provide sources of inspiration for others to emulate. On the other hand, the brilliance of their contributions can lead to the misconception that there is no longer any need for celebrating African American History. That is not true as a great number of African Americans are plagued by the aforementioned gaps which prevent them from participating fully in the pursuit of happiness.

In closing, let me briefly mention another reason for celebrating African American History Month. With global competition and the flattening of the world through technology, the United States needs all the talent and creativity it can muster to continue the growth and development which fuels our economy. We can ill afford the underutilization of the great potential represented by 12% of our population.

It is still true that more African American men between 18-25 years of age are ensnared in the criminal justice system – under indictment, in prison, or on parole – than are enrolled in college.

I recently saw someone wearing a tee shirt that on the front read “Work in Progress” and on the back read “God is still working on me”. To me that sums up African American History Month. It’s a work in progress with much work to be done. God is doing his part. Now we have to do ours.

Thank you.

 

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