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Jewish World Review March 1, 2002 / 17 Adar, 5762

Mark Goldblatt

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Black History Month distorts accomplishments -- WITH Black History Month closing, so, too, does The Great Patronizing, as many academics now think of it.

Time to abandon the pretense that ancient Egyptians were recognizably black, or their cultural feats were attributable to sub-Saharan kingdoms -- theories that, for 11 months a year, carry the intellectual weight among historians and classicists that Creationism carries among paleontologists.

Time, too, to regain our perspective on Harriet Tubman -- to leave behind the spirit of 1994's notoriously politicized National History Standards, which, critics charged, featured Tubman more prominently than George Washington and Thomas Edison combined. Time again to admit that Lincoln, not Tubman, was the pre-eminent figure of the Civil War period. And time to ask whether our deeper knowledge of the profound contributions to the human experience of Lynn Swann and Angela Davis -- both highlighted on Time magazine's ''Celebrating Black History'' Web site -- was worth the effort.

Black History Month is a pointless exercise, rooted in two fallacies. The first is that self-esteem is a prerequisite for learning. Evidence is always fuzzy on such reasoning, but, according to former assistant U.S. Education secretary Chester E. Finn, African-American children, when compared to their white counterparts, report ''slightly higher levels of agreement with statements about taking a positive attitude toward oneself, judging oneself to be a person 'of worth,' and being generally satisfied with oneself.'' In other words, black students already show signs of marginally higher self-esteem than white students, yet still average lower scores on standardized tests.


The second fallacy is more basic and more insidious: that children's ambitions are circumscribed by the accomplishments of the people they most closely resemble. The implication is that a Gothic cathedral designed by a white man cannot inspire a black child to study architecture. It's a ridiculous, racist thought.

But Black History Month's distortions are more about adults' hearts than children's minds. They're about the fear that if we define history as a record of military conflict, scientific advance, social movements, speculative thought and artistic endeavor (and what is the sensible alternative?), there's comparatively little black history to report -- at least not until the last 500 years, when black history becomes a record of blacks being grotesquely exploited by Europeans, Americans and Arabs.

It's not that interesting things weren't happening in sub-Saharan Africa the previous millennia. It only means that history is a record, and sub-Saharan Africans left relatively meager records.


If understood as a function of record keeping, black history's relative sparsity would be straightforward enough to acknowledge -- except for a deeper fear that the lack of black history suggests some kind of racial inferiority.

It's an idiotic fear, certainly. As anthropologists and geneticists are quick to point out, the notion of ''race'' is itself so problematic -- variations among populations are subtle and continuous from one region to another -- as to render the proposition that one race is in any way inferior to another meaningless. Still, the belief that dark-skinned people were categorically inferior to lighter-skinned people was so widely held for so long that even now many of us, black and white, don't quite trust the experts who assure us of its falsehood.

So we seize upon instances of black achievement, the pained eloquence of Langston Hughes, the quiet dignity of Rosa Parks, and we clutch them to our hearts, inflating their accomplishments out of proportion and in so doing ultimately diminishing them. As noble a spirit as Tubman was, she probably didn't contribute as much to the emancipation of American slaves as Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin. To compare her contribution to Lincoln's is absurd.

In the final analysis, the very concept of ''black history'' is just a slightly more benign cousin of ''Jewish science.'' Both are ultimately futile attempts to cordon off a zone of the human experience according to the dubious category of race. Whatever the motives, such classifications are acts of will, not intellect.

JWR contributor Mark Goldblatt's novel, Africa Speaks , will be published this month. Comment by clicking here.

© 2002, Mark Goldblatt