In Wisconsin this February, one lawmaker wants to mark Black History Month by celebrating 10 Americans — including a Civil War colonel, a newspaper editor and a church deacon.

All are heralded for their bravery; but most on the list are white.

The resolution, circulated this month, identifies a group of people integral to the state’s Underground Railroad system, both slaves who traveled it and abolitionists who sheltered them. The author, state Rep. Scott Allen (R), says it’s a sincere effort to salute important historical figures.

But several black legislators have called the effort disingenuous and said it undermines the purpose of Black History Month: to highlight the accomplishments of African Americans so often overlooked in classrooms and history books.

It’s the third year in a row that Wisconsin’s commemoration of Black History Month has devolved into a largely partisan struggle over issues of cultural appropriation, identity politics, privilege and power — a small-scale tableau of some of the nation’s deepest divides.

“Why should you be leading what we do on Black History Month?” state Sen. Lena Taylor (D) said in an interview, referring to Allen, who is white. “The fact that this even needs to be discussed is a reflection of where we are as a society. I wake up every day as a black woman, I’m not exactly sure what it is that Scott Allen believes he knows better than me."

Allen said he knows the optics are bad: “Here I am, this white guy, proposing this resolution that honors some white people during Black History Month, and those are easy headlines to put out there and run with,” he said in an interview. But his intent, Allen said, was to craft a resolution that would also appeal to his white Republican colleagues who in the past have accused the Legislative Black Caucus of politicizing the list of honorees.

“I’d rather we work together to pass a resolution the Republican caucus can be excited about,” Allen said. “If we can do that one simple thing, then we can start attacking the tougher issues.”

The list includes six white abolitionists, four black slaves and unnamed members of the Stockbridge-Munsee band of Mohican Indians, and it’s meant to “demonstrate our unity by highlighting an aspect of American history that has made and continues to make us stronger together,” Allen wrote in a memo to fellow lawmakers asking for co-sponsors.

But Taylor, who is also running for mayor of Milwaukee, said the resolution is patronizing, and in an email to Allen, she compared him to a slave owner trying to control how black Wisconsinites memorialize their history.

“Thank you Massa Allen for pickin’ whose we should honuh suh,” Taylor wrote. “We sho ain’t capable of thinkin’ fo ourselves, suh.”

If Allen were serious about helping black residents, she said, he would back her legislative efforts to address racial disparity. Allen, in response, has said he disagrees with Taylor’s solutions, but agrees that some of the state’s biggest problems are the achievement gap between black and white students and the deep residential segregation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city.

The observance of Black History Month can be traced back to the 1920s, when the historian and scholar Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week to celebrate the February birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. In 1976, the week became a month, and President Gerald R. Ford encouraged the country to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Taylor said the idea of deviating from Woodson’s intention — by honoring several people who are not black — is offensive and ignores the fact that black history has been marginalized. It’s like responding to a chant of “Black lives matter” by saying “All lives matter,” she said.

“Black History Month, for me, is about making sure we honor the people who have not been recognized,” Taylor said. “It’s about black people being honored in a state where that has not happened."

“The fact that Representative Allen wants to co-opt Black History Month and redefine what it is and who you recognize saddens me,” she added.

Allen, whose wife is black and whose children are biracial, said he doesn’t want to diminish the history of African Americans but would like to “get people of all races excited about celebrating Black History Month.”

“We so want to cling to labels in this country, we want to cling to identity politics, but we shouldn’t be looking at this strictly because of race,” Allen said, echoing criticisms shared by Republicans nationally, who themselves are often driven by white identity politics.

Taylor and other black Democratic lawmakers said they’d be more inclined to trust Allen if his party didn’t have a recent history of trying to disrupt the ceremonial resolution.

In February, Republican lawmakers blocked the black caucus’s Black History Month resolution until Democrats agreed to remove the name of Milwaukee-born ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick from the list of honorees. GOP leaders deemed Kaepernick, who protested police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem, too controversial to include.

The quarterback’s removal was “a textbook example of white privilege” and a “slap in the face,” the resolution’s author, Rep. David Crowley (D), told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

In 2018, Allen and Taylor were also at the center of a debate over a Black History Month resolution, as Allen complained that several worthy figures were left off that year’s list — including David Clarke, the controversial former sheriff of Milwaukee County who has compared the Black Lives Matter protest movement to the Ku Klux Klan.

Allen instead proposed an amendment that replaced the “exclusive list of names” so “ALL African-Americans who have contributed to Wisconsin are included and recognized,” the Wisconsin State Journal reported. Legislators later decided to pass two resolutions that year.

This year, the divide again appears intractable — the rare point that both sides seem to agree on.

“I think it’s a reflection,” Taylor said, “of how far we have not come.”

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