As we step into the reflective corridors of Black History Month, a time dedicated to celebrating the profound achievements and recognizing the central role of African-Americans in shaping U.S. history, a dissonant chord strikes from Alabama. The juxtaposition is stark: on one hand, there is a nationwide acknowledgment of African-American contributions and struggles; on the other, Alabama’s political ploys suggest a retreat from this recognition, revealing a troubling paradox in our collective attempt to honor and understand our past.
Black History Month, emerging from the vision of Carter G. Woodson and evolving from “Negro History Week,” serves not just as a reminder of African-Americans’ enduring spirit and contributions but also as a call to action to continue their legacy of courage and resilience. It’s disheartening, then, to witness the Alabama Republican Party’s legislative priorities for the 2024 session, released on the first day of Black History Month, which seemingly stand in contrast to the month’s ethos. The pledge to combat the so-called “woke socialist agenda” is a concerning development, especially when the term “woke,” historically rooted in Black activism against injustice, is co-opted and twisted in today’s political and cultural wars.
The historical significance of the phrase “stay woke” underscores the importance of vigilance and awareness in the face of systemic injustice. Its origins in the struggle of the Scottsboro Boys, as memorialized in by Black blues artist Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly and its revival by the Black Lives Matter movement, speak to a legacy of activism that is now being misconstrued and maligned. This distortion of history and language serves not to enlighten but to obscure, not to unite but to divide.
The legislative efforts led by figures like Rep. Susan Dubose and Rep. Ed Oliver to restrict access to certain Black history books and to limit the teaching of the Black experience in classrooms are particularly alarming. These actions are not just attempts to sanitize history; they are attempts to erase it. The claim by Oliver that Critical Race Theory “sexualizes children” is a baseless and dangerous conflation that only serves to further politicize and detract from the real issues at hand.
It’s ironic that in a state so pivotal to the Civil Rights Movement, where the sacrifices and triumphs of African-Americans have left indelible marks on the fabric of our society, there are efforts to dilute and diminish their history. Alabama, the backdrop to seminal moments in the struggle for civil rights, from Rosa Parks’ defiant stand to the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, should be at the forefront of preserving and promoting this rich heritage, not undermining it.
The theme for Black History Month 2024, “African-Americans and the Arts,” invites us to explore and celebrate the immense contributions of African-Americans across various forms of cultural expression. Alabama has been home to legendary Black artists and writers who have enriched our cultural landscape immeasurably. The legacies of musicians like Nat “King” Cole and writers like Zora Neale Hurston are just a few examples of the state’s rich African-American heritage. These contributions are not mere footnotes in our history; they are foundational to our understanding of American culture and identity.
In light of these contrasts, it becomes clear that the path forward is not through the erasure or revision of history but through an honest and inclusive engagement with it. The attempts by some in Alabama’s Legislature to limit the scope of Black history education are not just a disservice to African-American heritage but to all Americans. True progress lies in our ability to confront our past, celebrate our achievements, and learn from our mistakes.
As we observe Black History Month, let us not be swayed by attempts to rewrite or restrict our history. Instead, let us embrace the full complexity of our shared story, recognizing that the struggles and achievements of African-Americans are integral to the narrative of our nation. Let the true meaning of Black history, and indeed all history, be a beacon that guides us toward understanding, acceptance, and unity. The contributions of African-Americans to the state of Alabama and to the entire nation are not just chapters of the past; they are enduring lessons that continue to inspire and shape our future.