Pitts: A Black History Month that shows why we need Black History Month
I keep hearing that I have an obligation to “bring us together.”
That’s something white people tell me all the time whenever I write something that cuts too close to some difficult racial truth. “Try to bring us together,” lectures one. “Use your skills to try to bring us together,” pleads another. “Why don’t you journalists work to bring us together?” asks yet another.
I’d be willing to bet nobody ever says that to George Will, Kathleen Parker or any of my Caucasian colleagues. I’m just as certain most of my African-American colleagues have heard it more times than they can count.
So it struck a tender spot when Robin Vos, the speaker of the Wisconsin state assembly, invoked that tired trope to justify stripping Colin Kaepernick from a Black History Month resolution honoring African-American Wisconsinites. “I think it’s important,” said Vos, “to recognize the contributions of literally thousands and thousands of African-Americans to our state’s history but also trying to find people who … bring us together. Not look at people who draw some sort of vitriol from either side.”
This contretemps over Kaepernick comes smack in the middle of what has already been one of the more bizarre Black History Months in recent memory — indeed, a Black History Month that explains why we need Black History Month. We’ve careened from blackface confessions in Virginia to Liam Neeson recounting the day he went looking for some random “black bastard” to kill, to coffee baron and would-be president Howard Schultz explaining how he doesn’t see color (speaking of tired tropes), to a white teacher in North Carolina telling black students they were bound for jail because they wore athletic gear and that, by the way, Martin Luther King committed suicide.
Now there’s this: Last week, on a party line vote, white Republicans in Wisconsin forced the state’s Black Caucus to remove from its Black History Month resolution the name of the quarterback who ignited a national furor in 2016 when he began kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against police mistreatment of African-American people. He was, they said, too controversial.
It should go without saying (but probably doesn’t) that that criticism could be and has been made of every African-American who ever agitated for justice. From Frederick Douglass to Harriet Tubman to Marcus Garvey to W.E.B. DuBois to Rosa Parks to Malcolm X to Diane Nash to Fannie Lou Hamer to Jesse Jackson to Al Sharpton to King himself, there has never been a black leader that white people — too many of them, at least — did not find “controversial.”
It is only years afterward, once you are safely dead, that they build monuments, rename streets and say what a great person you were. But while you are alive and challenging the status quo, they hate you.
So the high-handed paternalism of these white Wisconsin lawmakers is galling and offensive, yet, nothing we haven’t seen before — a superfluous example of white people presuming to dictate the terms of black protest so as to make it more comfortable for them. And never mind that maybe their discomfort is the entire point, that maybe their discomfort will help them finally see.
Colin Kaepernick has no special responsibility to “bring us together.” To fight for human rights is by definition to draw lines and create separation. You do not ask right to “come together” with wrong.
To “come together,” after all, requires that two sides take a step. But Kaepernick is on the side of those fighting for freedom and justice for all.
So he’s not the one who needs to move.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
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