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By Joey Kennedy
A few years ago—heck, a quarter-century ago—I got a phone call at my desk in the editorial page office at The Birmingham News. The call came during the debate about whether to put the Confederate battle flag back on top of the state Capitol in Montgomery.
Caller: “What’s wrong with the Confederate flag flying above the Capitol? Black people want to celebrate their heritage, but they complain when white people want to celebrate their heritage.”
Me: “Well, that Confederate flag above the Capitol is divisive.”
Caller: “Only because black people don’t want it there. Why can’t we remember our ancestors?”
Me: “The Confederate flag is bad for business, if nothing else. And some people find it offensive because it’s been commandeered by white supremacist groups.”
Caller: “Well, black people just don’t like it.”
Me: “Sir, I’m white, and I don’t like that flag. It’s a disgrace to the state.”
Caller: “Oh! You’re just like my daughter!”
The caller simply didn’t get it. Sure, flying the Confederate flag above the Capitol is a generational thing. Younger people mostly understand. But there are other factors as well. Maybe the caller would have a better argument if the flag that used to fly above Alabama’s Capitol was, in fact, the actual flag of the Confederate States. It wasn’t. It was a battle flag, placed there by Gov. George Wallace to show solidarity in the early 1960s in support of segregation.
But whatever one thinks about the Confederate battle flag, it’s offensive to many people—blacks and whites and others. Sure, it has a place in museums, but it shouldn’t be flown over a state Capitol. It represents racism, slavery, hate. Division. White supremacy. The Alt-right.
And it’s another reminder that heritage months like this month’s Black History Month are meaningful.
With minorities being marginalized more than ever by the terrible political atmosphere we find our nation in today, it’s vital we keep celebrating diversity at the top of our priorities.
I teach in the English Department at UAB. I make sure my courses reflect the diversity of the UAB campus, one of the most diverse campuses in the nation. We study Martin Luther King Jr.’s marches in Birmingham and Phyllis Wheatley’s poetry. We read Countee Cullen and the protest poetry of Langston Hughes and June Jordan. We discuss James Baldwin and Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano and Zora Neal Hurston. We also read Native Americans and Asian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans. And the LGBTQ community, too. All of those groups have historical heritage months as well.
But this is Black History Month. My friend and former colleague Edward Bowser (his wife, Javacia, writes a column for this magazine) does a great service in covering all issues, but especially those that involve the African-American community. Bowser often pushed back against the powers-that-be at Alabama Media Group when he wrote about these issues. He didn’t tell me this; I watched him doing it as I sat next to him during my last two years at that organization. He was a voice for those who seldom had one.
Celebrating Black History Month “is as important as it has been in maybe my lifetime,” Bowser says. “During the Obama years, we were in (supposedly) a post-racial America. Well, we have seen that more than ever, racism is alive.”
Bowser, now content creator at Big Communications, continues his journalism through his work at Big, his music blog, SoulInStereo.com, and his freelance work for other publications.
“Black history is as much my history as it is yours,” Bowser says. “We have white history month 12 months a year. We talk about the achievements of the majority class all year long.”
Quite simply, in many schools and colleges, we don’t give minority historical events and figures the same weight they deserve.
When Bowser (or I) writes about these issues, there’s always pushback from those who don’t—or won’t—try to understand.
“There will always be pushback,” Bowser says. “We’ve seen clearly the need for understanding the black experience and incorporating it with our culture. Pretending that these issues aren’t there is not going to fix anything.”
Black History Month isn’t just about MLK or Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman or other well-known African-American figures.
“We celebrate those trailblazers in the worlds of medicine, civil rights, sports and technology,” Bowser says. “This is something we all should be proud of.”
We’re talking about people like Percy Lavon Julian, a Montgomery-born research chemist whose work led to the development of cortisone and birth control pills. And Professor Derrick Bell, known for becoming the first black professor at Harvard Law School. And Toni “Tomboy” Stone, the first woman to play for a men’s professional baseball league. And Dr. Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham, who, as the Montgomery Bus Boycott was ongoing, also led a bus boycott in Birmingham. There was Will Marion Cook, an African-American composer in the late 19th century who created a series of successful Broadway plays and compositions.
“This is the time to celebrate our culture and to celebrate the people who helped make this country better,” Bowser says. “There’s always room to learn, and that’s why this is important.”
So let’s celebrate. Let’s learn.•