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Black history helps illuminate persistent issues

February was black history month. A lot of people don't like black history month because it tends to dredge up a lot of unhappy memories. Black history, indeed history in general, is tough on ideologues. The people who resent black history the most do so because it challenges an idea they have that their society is perfect or at least that it has been getting better and better. When they look into history they don't find patterns that support their idea.

Critics of black history tend to complain that the history of African Americans isn't told honestly. The correct version of history, they say, is that while America experienced slavery, it is the only country in the world which fought a war to end it. Not only was slavery abolished, rights such as citizenship and the right to vote and to own property were also given to blacks, as were rights against discriminations of all kinds. These facts tend to expose advocates of a darker version of Black history as hypocrites and opportunists at worst and whiners at best.

I would like to suggest there is a place in our consciousness for that darker version, and that place exists because racism, too, has a history. The Spanish conquest which followed the Columbus journeys was an orgy of violence and exploitation which stunned some of the Spanish clergy and moved a few of them to write endless descriptions of Spanish brutality. These writings helped to launch a version of the conquistadores known as the Black Legend. Finally, in 1550, Emperor Charles I called for a debate to determine whether the Spanish Conquest was just. It is known to history as the Valladolid Debate.

To begin with, conquerors don't usually stop in mid-conquest to ask whether what they were doing was the right thing, even though the emperor had ulterior motives because he didn't like the autonomy of his colonial subjects. Two lawyers were designated to do the debate: Gines de Sepulveda and Bartolome de las Casas. Sepulveda, who ended up arguing the biological inferiority of the Indians, would earn the title "Father of Modern Racism." Las Casas, who would claim the Indians fully human, would become the "patron saint" of Indians.

Sepulveda was a good lawyer. He produced a version of every excuse for ideas of racial superiority, including dredging up Aristotle and a creative version of "natural slavery." It's fascinating stuff and we should never tire of reexamining it. One important tack of his argument was that the conquest was a blessing for the Indians because it brought them the wheel, the burro, the Spanish language, the Spaniard's religion, and so forth. The idea that a conquest involving slavery, robbery, sexual exploitation, humiliation, torture and every other abuse can be dismissed as a cultural exchange in which the victim is the beneficiary is a popular one for perpetrators of injustice because it appropriates and reinterprets the history of the victims and transforms brutality and hatred into a benefit.

Had there been no history, no documentation of the murders, rapes, and torture that were applied to motivate slaves on the plantation, that argument might even be somewhat attractive. But with each telling of what happened to people, it becomes clear that the "experience" of slavery was more terrifying than any horror movie ever made. None of those people who assert that people who lived under slavery would ultimately benefit from the experience would be willing to spend even one day under those conditions. Not, at least, if they are sane and honest about it.

It can also be said that there were always those in the dominant society who were dismayed by and opposed to the crime of slavery, as were Las Casas and others in 16th century Spain. Black history is the story of struggle against the horrors and indignities imposed on black people in America and an honoring of the white people who were intelligent and human enough to be their allies in that struggle. It has been a long and difficult ordeal and none of the rights granted were given freely. The observation that America was the only country that fought a civil war to end slavery isn't convincing. The United States was the only industrialized country that had slaves, the only one which could or needed to have a war to end it. One side, we might remember, fought diligently to keep it going.

Black history is of greatest service to society when it can illuminate how the echoes of the past are found in the present. The most popular regressive contemporary idea in America is that all the problems of racism have been successfully addressed and we don't have any problems now. Since we have a situation in which inequality no longer exists, we have no need of continued measures to correct inequality or the effects of past injustice. From here the argument urges that equality is only achieved by dismantling measures designed to address inequality. This is why you hear the word "equality" in the mantras of people who are in reality advocating racial domination.

The largest court-ordered award for racial discrimination came not in the 1890s but in the 1990s and was assessed against the U.S. Department of Agriculture ? the second largest bureaucracy in the U.S. government ? for using its considerable power to disadvantage and ultimately bankrupt black farmers who subsequently lost their land. The good news was that the court heard the case and gave an award. The bad news is the black farmers didn't get their land back. The point, to those capable of learning from history, is the job of fighting against racism and discrimination is far from finished. Black history is a good thing.

So, when can we have American history month?