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Black History Is American History

Black folks don't need platitudes about do-gooders; such superficial treatment of black history only sparks resentment.

Here's a phrase you hear a lot this time of year: ''Why Black History Month?'' But that's the wrong question, because black history is American history.

In fact, democracy in America cannot be understood apart from so-called black history, as the neocon icon Alexis de Tocqueville observed 200 years ago in his classic treatise Democracy in America: ''If ever America undergoes great revolutions, they will be brought about by the presence of the black race on the soil of the United States,'' de Tocqueville wrote.

Every expansion of democratic freedoms in this country are directly linked to the black freedom struggle. Each phase of the black freedom struggle contains an important political lesson for all of us: privileged power is never given up willingly or because political leaders pioneer a change in the political system. Meaningful change happens when masses of people first organize outside the system and then bring pressure to bear on it.

Take the legend of Rosa Parks. During Black History Month, you hear about the courage of one woman who refused to give up her seat. But Black History Month, or standard history curriculum, doesn't dig deep enough to get to the truth of the matter, which is that Parks and others were looking for opportunities to challenge the morality of segregation. Parks' refusal wasn't a spontaneous act of individuality. It was the fruit of an organized movement that began outside of the political system.

Black folks don't need back-patting platitudes about black do-gooders. Such superficial treatment of black history only sparks resentment among white students who ask: How come there's no White History Month, as if standard history texts don't focus on the achievements of whites throughout the entire school year?

The more fruitful question is: How come black history is not integrated into standard history? If it were, there would be no need for a Black History Month. And we wouldn't have to waste time with the questions on the lips of the historically-ignorant. Why do blacks still talk about slavery? My immigrant grandparents were discriminated against, too, and they made it, etc.

''It is important to make an accurate distinction between slavery itself and its consequences,'' de Tocqueville reminds us. ''The immediate evils…were very nearly the same in antiquity as they are amongst the moderns; but the consequences of these evils were different.''

In ancient times, slaves ''belonged to the same race as his master, and he was often the superior of the two in education and instruction. Freedom was the only distinction between them; and when freedom was conferred they were easily confounded together… . The real obstacles begin where the ancients left off. This arises from the circumstance that, amongst the moderns, the abstract and transient fact of slavery is fatally united to the physical and permanent fact of color.''

Slavery ended long ago, so why do blacks still complain about racism? ''Thus it is, in the United States, that the prejudice which repels the negroes seems to increase in proportion as they are emancipated, and inequality is sanctioned by the manners whilst it is effaced from the laws of the country,'' de Tocqueville answers.

But I feel isolated by the imposed guilt of political correctness during Black History Month. ''A despot…might perhaps succeed in commingling their races; but as long as American democracy remains at the head of affairs, no one will undertake so difficult a task; and it may be foreseen that the freer the white population of the United States becomes, the more isolated will it remain. As soon as it is admitted that the whites and the emancipated blacks are placed upon the same territory in the situation of two alien communities, it will readily be understood that there are but two alternatives for the future; the negroes and the whites must either wholly part or wholly mingle.''

Let's ''wholly mingle'' black history with American history and be done with superficial Black History Month ''debates.''

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.