Black History Month Is More Complicated Than It Seems

Published February 16, 2024

Wall Street Journal

How does a person who isn’t black think about Black History Month? With respect? With reverence? With guilt? Curiosity? Indifference?

It depends partly on that person’s own history—on when and how his family arrived in America. Those whose predecessors were present during the wickedness of slavery, and all that followed, will have a livelier sense of the black-and-white binaries of the story than immigrants lately arrived from, say, Kazakhstan. A white New Englander whose ancestors made a fortune in the slave trade, or a Southerner whose forbears exploited black African labor on cotton or rice plantations, will understand the burden of that history. Those whose people came through Ellis Island—potato-famine Irish, Eastern European Jews, Hungarians, Italians—won’t have the same haunted sense of the American past.

I am inclined toward reverence—for black history, for the literature and spiritual rhetoric (the Southern preacherly strain, with its tremendous cadences), and for black music, which is the most powerful and characteristically American music. The black American story is rich, painful, dramatic, triumphant—and shaming to the American conscience.

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Lance Morrow is the Henry Grunwald Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His work focuses on the moral and ethical dimensions of public events, including developments in regard to freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and political correctness on American campuses, with a view to the future consequences of such suppressions.

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