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Pondering Black History Month

COLLEGE PROFESSOR • What's past is prologue for activists continuing the civil-rights struggle

Each time an election rolls around and I feel my moderately youthful apathy telling me not to vote, I think about Fannie Lou Hamer's bruises.

Hamer had resisted racist Mississippi cops who didn't think blacks should be allowed to vote, much less agitate for those rights.

Often when I share this anecdote with my black studies students at Portland State University, they stare back blankly.

I, too, am confused: Do they not know Hamer's story? Or are they confused about the notion of actually voting?

In this post-2000 election climate of Supreme Court-selected presidency, I cannot blame them if the thought of voting seems, frankly, ludicrous.

However, I cannot as easily excuse their lack of knowledge of historical black figures. That lack speaks to the failure of older and younger scholars and activists to, as disability-transgender rights activist Eli Clare says, 'dig deep.'

Once we get over the 'innocent' irony of Black History Month being the shortest month of the year, we need to look at our own practice when it comes to celebrating our accomplishments and examining the future of African-Americans in Portland and in the United States.

In particular, we need to find a healthy balance among celebrating the same heroes (Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, etc.), denigrating anyone who attempts to provide new African-American leadership and create new history, and recognizing our grass-roots heroes.

I believe that the stagnation in how we view black history was behind much of the furor over the irreverence toward black history icons in the movie 'Barbershop.' We've spent so much time coddling romanticized notions of black struggle and what it means to be black that we have forgotten how to dig deep into the struggle for principled antiracist living.

What lessons might we learn if we took a more critical position toward our leaders and their history? Just because our leaders and the foot soldiers of the movement exhibited human foibles does not mean we must disregard all the work they've done in the name of social justice.

This history can, and should, be done at the local level. Who are the black heroes, past and present, in Portland? I've had a number of students tell me of parents or other relatives involved in the Portland or Seattle-area Black Panthers during the 1970s.

What about black women involved in labor movements in our community? Where are the oral histories of black women and men who migrated from Georgia to Oregon and the stories of the racism and sexism they faced and their resistance to discrimination?

Where would a historical examination of black citizens and police abuse guide us in building coalitions around the murder, and awarding of medals in the death, of Portland's Jose Santos Victor Mejia Poot?

Locally, there is much to take advantage of this month and many forums in which to ask questions about African-American history. Portland State University's student-led Black Cultural Affairs Board is hosting black nationalist speakers with perspectives bound to make us all think, if not actively debate, as well as speakers on education and the role of blacks in the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Though many of the speakers are nationally known, we here in Portland can gain valuable insight into the direction of racial discourse and begin to look closely at our own community for the gaps in our collective knowledge and activism.

As a character in the critically acclaimed film 'Daughters of the Dust' observes, 'What's past is prologue.' The survival and resistance of African-Americans in Portland can be informative not only for the African-American community, but for other people of color and activist communities dedicated to antiracist struggle in the many movements for social justice that flourish in our city.

What good is a historical month of remembrance if it doesn't remind us that the struggle continues?

Kimberly Springer, a resident of Old Town/Chinatown, is assistant professor of black studies at Portland State University, editor of 'Still Lifting, Still Climbing: African American Women's Contemporary Activism' (New York University Press) and an active volunteer with KBOO community radio (90.7 FM).