Creating a Common Memory- A reflection on Black History Month

     Why does America need a Black History Month? Why do both Caucasian and African Americans need to acknowledge this month? We need to acknowledge this month because we do not all have a common memory. Canadian political scholar George Erasmus once stated, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.” How do we, as Americans, reach a common memory? I’d like to suggest that we start with conversation.

     Mark Charles, who spoke at Windows on the World on Feb. 10, is a Native American who seeks to start such conversations with his writings and his talks. According to his blog,, Charles’ objective is to “help forge a path of healing and reconciliation for the nation through understanding and teaching on the complexities of American history regarding race, culture and faith.” One of Charles’ most recent theories on this need for healing is that every American is suffering Historical Trauma (HT), which is known in social work as a “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding, extending over an individual lifespan and across generations, caused by traumatic experiences.”

     This idea of historical trauma is true, and I know it affects me. My mom told me stories about my great-grandmother growing up in the 1920s. She was bullied by everyone in her class simply because she was Italian. She didn’t look forward to much, except for her Tuesdays, because every Tuesday the students from school would walk home with her. When they got to her house, they would eat my great-grandmother’s freshly-baked bread and then leave to torment her again the next day. I wasn’t alive when my great-grandmother was growing up, but I feel an inner pain in my heart every time my mom tells me this story. In the same way I feel a connection to my great-grandmother, I am sure African Americans feel a connection to their ancestors. How much more severe must the pain be of my African American friends regarding the suffering of their great-grandmothers?

     If everyone suffers this trauma, then we are all equally involved in the conversation regarding racial reconciliation. A good way to start the conversation is to allow everyone to have a word. Consider February, Black History Month, the time when we, Black and White Americans, are reminded of our need for this continuous conversation. It’s not about forcing White Americans to repent for historical acts of racism and injustice that they had no part in. I don’t have to feel guilty for something I didn’t do, but if the day comes when I no longer feel empathy for my fellow neighbor, then I am ensnared in vice.

     So what can we do to acknowledge this month? We can all do what we can to fight prejudice and discrimination in our lives. An example of this is found in the film “Hidden Figures,” which is based on the true story of Katherine G. Johnson, an African American woman who worked for NASA and helped launch the first astronaut into orbit. Kevin Costner plays the fictitious Al Harrison, the boss of the mathematics division at NASA. A key moment in the movie is when mathematician Ms. Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, enters the office soaked and out of breath. Costner asks her where she has been for 40 minutes, and she responds, “There are no colored bathrooms in this building, or any building outside the West Campus, which is half a mile away. Did you know that? I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself!…So excuse me if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day.” Costner then picks up a crowbar, heads to the West Campus and beats the “Colored Bathroom” sign off the wall. He then gives the order that anyone is allowed to use any restroom on campus, saying, “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.”

     We cannot change the foundations of this country overnight. What we can do is find what we have control of in our lives and remove any prejudice or discrimination from it. I know we are not all discriminating against people of another color here on campus, but perhaps there are certain kinds of people whom you will never let in your dorm room. Here on campus, we all have something we have control over: let’s not stand idly aside and watch injustice. Like Kevin Costner, let’s instead take our crowbar and bash the signs of prejudice out of our lives. There is room for everyone at this open conversation. Come, friend, let’s admit our traumas, discuss our histories and celebrate our country’s beautifully-mixed culture.


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