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UT Austin Scholar: Black History Month Is More Important Than Ever For American Democracy

Michael Minasi
Protestors march from the Texas Capitol to the Austin Police Department headquarters in June in solidarity with nationwide protests decrying police brutality and in honor of George Floyd and Mike Ramos. Peniel Joseph says Black History Month can help put events like this in context.

This year Black History Month comes in the aftermath of many intense events in the United States. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The killing of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. The tumultuous 2020 presidential election that led to the defeat of Donald Trump. And an armed, deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Peniel Joseph says Black History Month provides a context for understanding all of those events. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and the founding director of the LBJ School of Public Affairs' Center for the Study of Race and Democracy.

Joseph says it is important, but not crucial, that people who take to the streets to support movements like Black Lives Matter fully understand the history underpinning those events.

"We need to know the history," Joseph says. "But certainly it's not a requirement before you participate in that history."

What is a requirement, Joseph believes, is understanding that America's history is a story of connected — not segmented — experiences.

"This is not a history about what happened to them over there in Tulsa or Juneteenth or the civil rights movement," Joseph says. "This is our history."

Peniel says he doesn't think having a specific month designated for Black History works against that understanding.

"I think it's important to have Black History Month and Women's History Month and Native American History Month," Joseph says, "because in the framework of our contemporary society, unless we highlight and connect them to the larger tableau, those stories and narratives become invisible."

Listen to the interview with Peniel Joseph above or read the transcript below to hear more about Black History Month 2021.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

KUT: In a recent column for CNN, you wrote “Black History Month is more important to the future of American democracy than ever.” Why is Back History Month in 2021 more important than ever?

Peniel Joseph: I think it's really because of the recent events that we've seen since the pandemic and the George Floyd protests and the most racially divisive presidential election in history. But the penultimate is really the January 6th assault on the nation's Capitol by white supremacists and racial terrorists. And Black History Month provides us a context to view all of that.

Do you think people understand the deep historical connections that exist, all the threads that run up through all of those events?

No, unfortunately, they don't. I think that we are living through America's Third Reconstruction, and there are connections and echoes between our time and the Second Reconstruction, as the postwar American civil rights movement, Black Power movements, women's movements, and the first Reconstruction right after racial slavery. And I think if we provide Americans with that kind of public history, they get a much better context to what's happening and how deep the roots are of our current racial and political divisions.

But they get to see how deep the roots are of hope and working together towards racial progress and reimagining democracy because that occurs during the first Reconstruction and the Second Reconstruction and now as well. So you get to see both the grandeurs and the travails of American democracy especially at these high points of social and political and economic change and upheaval.

Do you feel like the energy and the enthusiasm and the participation that we saw, for example, in last summer's Black Lives Matter protests, has been sustained and that people have stayed engaged and aware in more recent weeks and months?

I think the way in which social movements work is a way that a lot of times people don't like. This is what I mean: Social movements have high points and crescendos, and they have their own rhythm. I hate to use the analogy of a sporting event, but in some ways life is like a sporting event with highs and lows. You have your own version of the championship game or championship season, and you have down seasons where you feel, "Hey, that wasn't that great of a year in my life." Social movements are the same way.

Let's think about the civil rights movement. The March on Washington, August 28, 1963. That's a genuine high point. 250,000 people come out. Dr. King makes the "I Have a Dream" speech. John F. Kennedy is still alive and greets Dr. King at the White House, along with other civil rights leaders. And the first words that John Kennedy says to Dr. King is “I have a dream,” because he loved the speech. He really enjoyed the speech.

There's not a day like that ever again in American history. There's not a day before like that or a day after. What happens to us is that we get spoiled. We say we want that day back. We have to think of last summer as this high point, this rousing crescendo where 15 to 26 million people, especially large numbers of whites, came out in the streets, mostly peaceful demonstrations, and they got the whole world's attention.

People have remained engaged, but I don't know if we're ever going to see that again. I don't know if we’re ever going to see 26 million people out in the streets — where people's jaws around the world and in our country had dropped. People said, "What is going on?" It doesn't mean that the movement is over. It just means that 2020 will probably be considered this real, real high point.

Seeing mass demonstrations is not the only way to gauge the impact or level of engagement. We've seen the extraordinary interest in Black and African-American history and people of color history and indigenous history since 2020. And that has continued into 2021. We've seen the political engagement, the Biden-Harris administration with executive orders promoting racial justice. So you can see that as a topic. What was there last year has continued into 2021.

How important is it for people who participate in social movements, demonstrations and actions to understand deeply the history behind them?

I think you have to educate yourself so you understand the deeper history of your involvement in social justice movements. You have to, but knowing that deeper history is not a requirement or a prerequisite to joining the movement. So we have to be very, very patient with people. We have to be very compassionate and empathetic, saying, "Yes, come let us build this beloved community."

But we need to know who Martin Luther King Jr. was. And even before that, we need to know who Ida B. Wells was. We need to know about Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898. We need to know about efforts at reconstruction right here in Texas in the great state of Texas. So we need to know the history, but certainly it's not a requirement before you participate in that history.

This is our history. I think that's what's so important about Black History Month. We have to remember this is American history. This is our history. This is not a history about what happened to them over there in Tulsa or Juneteenth or the civil rights movement. This is our history.

How do you feel about, then, having Black History Month as a month focusing on Black history? Does that get all of this history together under one big tent, or does that kind of continue to separate some of the history?

No, I don't think so. I think that right now we talk about ending systemic racism, ending white supremacy in the United States. We know that we're a long way towards that. So, when we think about Dr. King saying he wanted his four little children to be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, he wasn't talking about colorblindness, because colorblindness actually leads us to a different kind of racism where we lie and say we don't notice difference but we still keep seeing racial inequality in terms of outcomes.

So, what King was saying is, what if we noticed the difference but we celebrated each other, and we didn't marginalize people because of accents and ethnicities and how they looked?

It's fine to celebrate our identities even as we understand that we're all Americans, because this is a nation of immigrants and that's our origin story. But until we get to a much, much different landscape where we don't see these inequities baked in, I think it's important to have Black History Month and Women's History Month and Native American History Month because in the framework of our contemporary society, unless we highlight and connect them to the larger tableau, those stories and narratives become invisible.

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.

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Jennifer Stayton is the local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.
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