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February is Black History Month. The idea originated with Dr. Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), who taught United States history as a high school teacher in Washington, D.C. However, he realized that something was missing from teaching the story of our country. His students were not learning about the history of his people. Dr. Woodson had a strong belief that relations between the races could improve if black history was taught to whites, blacks, everyone.Since Americans were celebrating many special weeks during the year such as Brotherhood and Education Week, why not include Negro History Week? His idea grew and eventually became a reality in 1926. Now Black History Month is celebrated each year in February. Why February? Because the month includes the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (the anti-slavery, 16th president of the United States) and Frederick Douglass (1817-1895), the great orator whose speeches convinced people of the evil of slavery. The former slave helped recruit black troops in the Civil War.The great paradox in early U.S. history is how could we have allowed slavery to go on in this land of the free for so many years? Many books on this subject are simplistic and moralistic in answering this question. "Slavery was totally evil," they conclude, "and everyone owning a slave was evil as well."Of course slavery was evil, but many slave owners were not necessarily evil people. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were not evil people, yet they owned slaves. Why would such honorable men do something they knew was wrong? I guess they found it most difficult to change an ingrained system perpetuated over hundreds of years.But let me let you in on a little secret. Did you know that Virginia's George Mason (a founding father) refused to sign the Constitution after protesting that it did not prohibit the slave trade? Yet Mason was a slave owner who never freed his slaves. South Carolina's John Rutledge argued at the Constitutional Convention in favor of slavery and the slave trade, won his point and then went back home and quietly freed his slaves.And how about the problem of the black slave owners? During the Civil War, some 12,000 slaves were owned by black owners. "Why did black owners enslave their own?" you ask. For the same reason whites did. It helped make them more prosperous. But modern genetics brilliantly created a brand new problem for the racists.If I had my DNA examined by a genetic specialist, I would discover that I am African American. Yes, me, whose Jewish familial history goes back thousands of years, and, guess what? The odds are that you, dear reader, be you Italian, Polish, Asian, or everything in between, are also African American like the rest of us.The mitochondria (thread) in my cells would show that I am descended from a matriarch who lived in Africa, possibly in present-day Ethiopia or Kenya. This was 70,000 years ago, and she seems to be a common ancestor of all Caucasians as well as all Asians. These kinds of DNA analyses illuminate the raging scientific debate about whether there is anything real to the notion of race."There is no genetic basis for any kind of rigid ethnic or racial classification at all," say the experts. Nor is there such a thing as an Italian DNA or a Polish gene. We're all closely related. To put it bluntly, "race" is biologically meaningless. (Yipes! I am kin to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad!)It would have been nice to learn that my ancestors originally hailed from Queens, but ancestry can almost never be pegged that precisely, and I probably would appear as a mongrel. On the other hand, is race really "biologically meaningless?" Bigotry has been so destructive that it is tempting to dismiss race and ethnicity as artificial, but there still are genuine differences among population groups.Jews are more likely to carry mutations for Tay-Sachs, and Africans for sickle-cell anemia. And hemochromatosis (a blood disorder) affects fewer than 1 percent of Armenians but 8 percent of Norwegians.A few years ago profilers thought that a serial killer in Louisiana was white until a DNA sample indicated he was probably black. Indians and Pakistanis may have dark skins, but genetic markers show that they are Caucasian. Conversely, African Americans are, on the average, approximately 17 percent white.Hopefully, further genetic research will end, once and for all, history's long misadventure (and misconception) of race. Although racial and ethnic distributions are real, they are greatly exaggerated. The world must take heed and remember that most humans are mongrels, and this makes a mockery of racism forever.Now you know why I will (and the rest of the country should) be celebrating Kwanzaa this year.
©2008 Community Newspaper Group
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