Black History or American History: What’s the Difference?

BY Gwen Ifill  February 17, 2012 at 2:16 PM EDT

I’ve often wondered what it meant that the month we set aside to take special note of African-American achievement is the one that’s usually only 28 days long.

As a child, I took that kind of personally. As an adult, I have another view. Black history is worth appreciating in a society that overlooks minority accomplishment. But it is also American history.

I have given countless speeches touching on black history themes — probably the bulk of them after I wrote a book a few years ago about the new wave of black politicians coming of age.

Like clockwork I am often asked: “Why do we talk about race at all?” And my answer is always the same: The only things we hate talking about are the things we fear.

Talking openly about race, it seems, should be something we all aspire to. It allows us to learn. I was reminded of that sitting across the PBS NewsHour desk this week from Doug Blackmon, the author of “Slavery By Another Name” and co-producer of the film of the same name that aired on PBS this week. Blackmon, a white Mississippi native, discovered the story of post-emancipation enslavement while researching a story for The Wall Street Journal about coal mining in the South.

The more he dug into it, the more evidence he discovered of the widespread practice of convict leasing and peonage that allowed mostly black men to be jailed on trumped-up charges and forced into hard labor.

Until Blackmon wrote his book, this was news to me. And until the documentary aired this week, it was news to millions more. So, delving into black history has its value.

I am fortunate to have one of those jobs where I get to learn something new practically every day, but learning about oneself has particular resonance.

You don’t have to be a journalist to keep learning. But you do have to be curious — about the world around us, and about each other.

To me, race does not always have to be about grievance. It can also be about pride, empathy, humanity and understanding the value of difference.

I have interviewed black artists for a program called “The HistoryMakers” — Quincy Jones, Eartha Kitt, Diahann Carroll, Smokey Robinson and Valerie Simpson. Their common thread of accomplishment was not race per se, but it was about how they had to decide for themselves who they would be.

I have interviewed black leaders from Jesse Jackson to Barack Obama and detected the same themes: how to knock down doors, and what to do once you get to the other side.

These are black history stories, but they are also American history stories. We do ourselves and the next generation a disservice when we do not treat them as both.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.