Black History Month in 2023

“Black history is American history.”

There is more than one way to read (or use) that phrase. On its face, it affirms that no honest or thorough narrative about the United States can possibly exclude the Black story. But from there, one might say, as Morgan Freeman suggested in a 2005 interview with Mike Wallace, that to distinguish or compartmentalize Black history as a subject can also perpetuate racial divisions and tensions. Thus, the statement is paradoxical, pitting the moral or intellectual obligation to engage with the uniqueness of the Black experience against the idealism of a color-blind society.

Of course, we are not a color-blind society in the ways we should be (i.e., the playing field is not level), but even if that ambition were achieved, it is a fallacy to think that color blindness as a matter of justice is synonymous with colorlessness in cultural or intellectual pursuits. As I have said many times, I defend copyright rights because, in principle, they empower the individual to express herself as she chooses and then empower the public to make of that expression what it will. And the result is a diversity of works.

Despite critics’ implications to the contrary, copyright rights fundamentally reject state authority to approve or deny the production of creative works—a critical distinction between American copyright law and its common law antecedents in England.[1] Sadly, however, neither copyright nor the First Amendment can entirely prevent state actors from engaging in censorship through other legal mechanisms, which brings us to a more cunning use of that phrase, as when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis proclaimed to the TV press that “Black history is American history” in defense of his opposition to part of the curriculum in the African American AP Course.

As the putative leader of a culture war determined to make enemies of neighbors, DeSantis and his ilk exploit the opportunity to tell as many Americans who will listen that to confront (or even hear) certain aspects of the Black story is inherently divisive and tantamount to insisting that White Americans should feel a sense of self-loathing. One cannot deny that there are individuals (Black and White) willing to add fuel to that fire or that there is both good and bad scholarship on every topic, including Black history. But these nuanced distinctions are not what DeSantis’s “anti-woke” political tactic is about, and neither could it be.

It is not possible or appropriate for elected officials to concern themselves with every citizen’s social conduct or every teacher/student engagement or to attempt ad hoc review of every scrap of cultural and academic material. Nobody in DeSantis’s Back to Sleep party has the time, let alone the intelligence, to judge the qualities of every book, essay, or curriculum it hopes to mute because the subject matter threatens the colorless myth of American exceptionalism.

In 1965, when James Baldwin famously debated William F. Buckley, Jr. at Cambridge University, the topic presented was “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” Baldwin received a standing ovation and won the debate 540 votes to 160. But did Buckley swoon like so many of today’s featherweight conservatives and declare the question itself off limits—too offensive to American idealism to confront? Or when he referred in that debate to Baldwin’s essay The Fire Next Time, can we safely assume that Buckley had read the book rather than make a cowardly proposal to ban it?

Nearly sixty years since that historic joust and almost thirty years after the so-called information revolution, and the progress (to which Buckley alluded in his rebuttal) is a mixed report nationally and a catastrophe in some regions. Columnist Stephanie Hayes, writing for The Tampa Bay Times, remarks on the maturity and deftness of high school students in Pinellas County who last week petitioned their school board to reverse its ban of The Bluest Eye, the first novel written by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. Kudos to the students, but seriously?

It is hard not to indulge in gallows humor when a novel published in 1970 is swept into a pathetic, rhetorical war against “wokeness” in 2023. Is there a Woke section in the library or bookstore? Not unless the curator of either is being ironic. Is “woke” the latest reason to shun Baldwin’s 1963 novel Giovanni’s Room? Or what about John Irving’s In One Person in which the protagonist’s coming of age as a homosexual is intertwined with literary discovery and, therefore, confronts Giovanni’s Room through that character’s experience? Is the dialog between Baldwin in 1963 and Irving in 2012 a prime example of “wokeness,” or is it just American literature?

Or, finally, returning to the phrase with which I started this post, is the uniqueness of Baldwin’s experience, in contrast to Irving’s, a reason to celebrate Black History Month? I think so. Not because it is popular to think so, but because although it is true that Black history is American history, it is a subtle but important distinction to say that it is also Black American history. And that story is so complex and distinctive in the world that it is little wonder there are so many extraordinary Black American authors of extraordinary works.

[1] Copyright critics like to point to the fact that proto-copyright regimes in England were intertwined with first the royal prerogative and then then the government’s authority to license the production of certain works, but the U.S. did not retain the power of censorship in even its earliest copyright laws.

James Baldwin photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-54231]

David Newhoff
David is an author, communications professional, and copyright advocate. After more than 20 years providing creative services and consulting in corporate communications, he shifted his attention to law and policy, beginning with advocacy of copyright and the value of creative professionals to America’s economy, core principles, and culture.

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