Making lemonade out of lemons can still leave a sour taste.
This year my alma mater, Howard University, and my church, St. Mary’s Episcopal in Foggy Bottom, will celebrate their sesquicentennials. Both celebrations mark the founding of institutions compelled by our country’s ugly racial history.
Had there been no slavery, or no 19th-century nation’s capital burdened by chaotic conditions engulfing a growing population of freed slaves, there would have been no need to train preachers, teachers and other leaders to address those problems — and no need for Howard University.
Similar circumstances led to the founding of other African American schools of higher learning.
No American slavery, no American black colleges.
St. Mary’s Church wasn’t an inspiration born out of diocesan polity. It became the first African American Episcopal congregation in the nation’s capital for much the same reason other black churches were created in this city more than two centuries ago. Simply put: White churches — solemnly committed to the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God — weren’t all that accommodating to black Christians.
Tuesday marks the end of Black History Month, an annual commemoration created in 1926 as “Negro History Week” by Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
As with the founding of Howard and St. Mary’s, the raison d’etre for a Black History observance rests less upon aspirational yearnings and more upon a need for remediation of racial ugliness.
The 1920s were a time in the District when my mother and father, and their siblings and friends, had to walk past white schools on the way to the one school set aside for kids of their color.
It was a time when black people kept their chins up and moved past department stores, and movie theaters, and restaurants that wouldn’t serve people who looked like them.
Those were days when, among all the people who made laws, and all the people who enforced laws, and all the people who judged laws, not one black face could be found.
That was not only my parents’ world, but it was also the world in which I was raised.
It was a world that taught us, through history books and popular culture, that black people had no history worth knowing; that we were barely part of America’s past; that we had no traditions, no literature, no intellect. It was a world that told us we deserved to be ignored.
If education were equated with indoor plumbing, we were relegated to the outhouse.
Negro History Week/Black History Month sought to teach otherwise. The annual celebration still does.
And that is a good thing. The sesquicentennial and annual Black History Month celebrations give us moments to pause to remember the giants who came before us, to learn about their struggles and to pay tribute to their achievements. There is much to celebrate.
But those commemorations don’t blot out the bad things in our past, take away the painful memories or make up for the losses that those bad things caused.
Nor do they mask the changes taking place before our very eyes:
The displacement of black and brown neighborhoods with younger, better-educated, more affluent white millennials.
The socioeconomic disparities — more than $60 million allocated to renovate Murch Elementary School in the prosperous upper Northwest Van Ness neighborhood, while Savoy Elementary School in poverty-stricken Southeast was shut and its students parceled out to other schools because it was overrun with rodents and bedbugs.
The radical changes in priorities — a family leave program costing tens of millions of dollars and primarily benefiting non-D.C. residents; a city commitment to keep operating, for at least the next four years, a no-fare streetcar line along gentrifying H Street NE at $8 million annually.
Closing out observance of Black History Month, and surveying the evolving D.C. landscape and the drift of things, the sour taste lingers.
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.