How do we reconcile the contrasting realities of two holidays occurring in and defining the same month? February brings Valentine’s Day as well as Black History Month. One holiday is riddled with love and warm feelings, the other recognizes a struggle against hate.
The themes of romance brought about by a flowers-and-candy celebration of relationships don’t seem to be confined to one month on a calendar, unlike the observances of Black History Month often are restricted to.
Professor of History, Bernardo Michael, realizes the importance of not confining the recognition of the work African Americans have contributed over the years. “The danger of such month focused celebrations is that they might only last one month. What happens after Black History Month ends? Learning to desegregate and decolonize oneself by confronting one’s inherited histories, biases, and denials is a year-long and life-long process,” said Michael.
This life-long process that gained momentum in the 1950s and largely due to a man that we celebrated last month, Martin Luther King Jr., is facing a milestone year. It was 50 years ago that King was assassinated. This anniversary causes many to reflect on where America has come since the civil rights movement, as well as where we still have yet to go.
“There have certainly been some advances—growing awareness of the need to address race, a growing chorus of voices at many levels calling out for integration, racial equality, and justice. But there can be no lowering of our guard,” said Michael.
For Professor of American History, James LaGrand, the picture of race relations and racial justice over the course of history is incredibly complex. “While freedom and equality are principles that America takes pride in, the system is deeply flawed. I think the great sociologist Orlando Patterson characterized it well, calling the recent period both ‘the best of times and the worst of times’ for African Americans,” said LaGrand.
Sophomore Alexis Robinson believes that many injustices and inequities that are now illegal are still happening in ways that are not as overt. She acknowledges there is still a long way to go. “I am blessed, as a biracial woman, to be able to get a college-level education, and that is a testimony to how far we have come. The problem is that this is not the norm,” said Robinson.
Assistant Professor of Theology, Drew Hart has seen evidence of the flawed system in our surrounding community. He discussed how the funding for public schools gets unequally distributed. “In Pennsylvania, most of the funding [for schools] is from the state, only about 8% is funneled through a fair funding formula, and about 92% is arbitrarily distributed. There’s a lot of research shown that it’s very racist in how it’s being distributed. If PA actually used its fair funding formula, Harrisburg, which is a majority black city, would actually get around $30 million more per year,” said Hart.
In a country where over 50 years since the civil rights movement, black men are still 12 times more likely to receive prison sentences for drug-related offenses than white men, even though white and black people sell illegal drugs at almost the same rate, equality seems far away (ibtimes.com).
“I don’t believe that perfect justice or equality or perfect anything can be achieved this side of glory. It’s the nature of our world. Of course, we should still work for even gradual and partial change towards the good,” said LaGrand.
“I’m both realist and hopeful. Human beings are extremely selfish, but I believe that, in God, Jesus has broken into our world and that ultimate victory is inevitable. We are invited to wait for the kingdom to come, but it is also right here, right now and we can lean into that. We do see small victories and folks coming together and trying to build beloved community in their own neighborhoods,” said Hart.
To truly reconcile a month extolling love as well as highlighting struggle and healing, we must expand our view of love as more than a bouquet of roses or box of chocolates. Author and social critic, James Baldwin pinpointed the love that brings reconciliation. “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth,” said Baldwin (The Fire Next Time).
Black History Month brings forth a sense of pride and hope for many African Americans. “I think this deep persevering hope is something that is contagious. It’s not just a wishful thinking hope, it’s an embodied hope. We seek to be the very hope that we are looking forward to,” said Hart.