Black History Month
In 1908, playwright Israel Zangwell wrote about a Jewish man who fled persecution in his native Russia, came to the United States, married a Russian Christian woman, and dreamed of an America without ethnic or cultural differences. The play, The Melting Pot, would give a name to the theory that held as various immigrant groups arrived in the United States, and whose cultures blended into a common, homogenized “American” one.
Like most Americans my age, I bought into this vision of our society until I came across in my reading a historian (whose name, regrettably, escapes me) who spoke of the U.S. as a “Cultural Stew.” In this vision, the various groups who have come to the United States (or who had already been here) brought with them their traditions, cultural and religious expressions, and languages. Those modes of living have been brought together, “flavoring” the other traditions, etc., present in American society and being “flavored” by them in return. Like onions and potatoes coming together in a stew, those traditions retain their essential integrity while being nonetheless transformed by contact with others.
Growing up, I was able to experience, learn from—and be influenced by—the different cultures that surrounded me in the Cleveland area of the 1970s: Polish, German, Ukrainian, Slovenian—even Vietnamese. But living in Cuyahoga County during a much more segregated time, one group I had little opportunity to learn from and about (until I was older) were African-Americans…
February is Black History Month. Recognized nationally in 1976 by President Gerald Ford, the observation had its origin fifty years earlier when historian Carter G. Woodson sponsored what was then called “National Negro History Week.” Originally celebrated during the second week in February as a way to commemorate the births of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the week was meant to highlight the often-overlooked contributions of African-Americans to American society.
Appropriately, Woodson is among those whose contributions we remember. Eschewing the then-popular “Great Man” model of history - which held that historical movements are generated through the actions and ideas of a few important people, in remembering the contributions of his fellow Black people - Woodson promoted a visionary “history from the bottom up” or “social history” which focused more on the contributions of ordinary people to developments in politics and culture. Decades later, this would be the preferred model for doing history.
Black History Month (BHM), like Women’s History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month, is an important educational and cultural endeavor. Celebrating various Black cultures and histories in themselves, it also highlights the contributions of African Americans to the larger society. (For example, Carter Woodson is remembered not so much for being a “Black historian” but for being an influential historian who was Black; this month, we remember George Washington Carver not because he invented peanut butter (as many people mistakenly believe he did), but for being a first-rate agricultural scientist whose work benefitted all people.) So, the study of Black history, to extend the image noted above, further provides “spice” to the American cultural stew.
Extremes on both the political right and left have politicized words like “diversity” and “inclusion”—ideas at the heart of BHM—ironically turning them into weapons of division. But as Catholics, we recognize diversity and inclusion as goods: indeed, those ideas are at the heart of our identity. “Catholic” means “universal” or “according to the whole.” Theologically, the adjective refers to the Church as embracing and proclaiming all of what God has revealed and containing the fullness of the means of salvation. But on a sociological level, it means what author James Joyce said when he proclaimed that “catholic” means “here comes everybody.”
And everybody is important, as Catholic Social Teaching reminds us.
Challenged as disciples of Jesus to be “salt” and “light” for the world (Mt 5: 13-14), we are called, in part, to witness the contributions of even those cultures different from our own. We do well to note that the first major controversy in the infant Church was whether Gentiles needed to become Jewish before becoming Christian (cf. Acts 15). Guided by the Holy Spirit, the early Church said “no,” respecting (albeit imperfectly at times) the diversity of cultures it encountered as it spread throughout the world and noting that it is faith in Christ that binds us together, while the Faith’s cultural expressions can and will vary.
We are called to carry this spirit with us today: to recognize our common humanity and celebrate our uniquenesses. St. Therese of Lisieux, the 19th Century Carmelite sister, understood this. Before images of pots and stew came to the fore in describing humanity’s connectedness, Therese envisioned a garden—with its Eden-like allusions to the way things were created to be. In her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, the young mystic observed almost poetically:
Jesus has been gracious enough to teach me a lesson about the mystery of the differences in souls, simply by holding up to my eyes, the book of nature. I understood how all the flowers God created are beautiful—how the splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not take away from the perfume of the violet or the simplicity of the daisy. I understood that if all flowers wanted to be roses, nature would lose her springtime beauty, and the fields would no longer be decked out with little wildflowers.
And so it is in the world of souls… Jesus’ garden.
As St. Therese spoke of differences in souls, we might speak of differences in cultures, ethnicities, and—admittedly, recognizing this term refers to an artificial construct—races. The beauty of humanity—like that of a garden—is magnified in its heterogeneity. This is what Americans celebrate during Black History Month.
This is what we should celebrate all the time as Catholics.
A.M.D.G. / B.V.M.H.