February is Black History Month--normally an occasion to highlight the understated contributions of African Americans to our nation's history. In 2009, the month-long celebration has special significance with the rapid ascendance of a black man to the highest office in the country.
Rapid may be the wrong word, because it's been a long, bloody, and arduous struggle.
The United States is a relatively young nation and a normatively dynamic one. Two hundred and fifty years ago it was an upstart outpost of colonial ambition, based on a system of mercantilist agrarianism that held slavery as one of its main economic pillars. The stately columns of our nation's capital and the steeples of the country's oldest churches were erected by the labor of enslaved people.
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Eventually, the inherent contradiction of a nation founded by men yearning to be free but economically fueled by the denial of that shared liberty to those who were shackled became too profound. The ensuing Civil War was the bloodiest in the nation's history, when brother fought brother on shared home ground. At its conclusion, the slaves were freed and the Re-United States lost its most respected leader to a spiteful assassin.
Unfortunately, so much spilled blood was not enough tonic to right the wrongs of history. It would take another hundred years for black people to fully enjoy the civil freedoms that were conferred upon them by their Creator and confirmed by President Lincoln. It was another civil war that almost fractured the nation again.
In November of the last year, Barack Obama was elected the President of the United States. Republicans have named a black man, Michael Steele -- the former Lt. governor of a southern state -- the head of their party.
A Forbes survey named a black woman, Oprah Winfrey, as one of the most powerful people in show business. Richard Parsons--another black man--was recently appointed the chairman of the world's largest financial services company, Citigroup. Politics, entertainment, finance: few barriers remain in place.
It's possible that Black History Month may soon become a redundancy. Established in 1926, Black History Month was intended to celebrate the underlooked contributions of black people to the establishment and growth of the United States. It's race-centric orientation isn't universally welcomed.
The controversy and significance may now be moot. Racial animosity will always persist. Our nation seems to have turned a page, however. Black History Month 2009 is not just "Black History Month," but another month in history, in which black people will play a full, participatory, and now-leading role.
It's a good reminder that history isn't something that we just study from books or note on a calendar's page, but something that we should learn from, and make every day in the present.