Black History Month still important, vital to us all

The first Black Culture Center at Kent State University is where many of the first Black History Month celebrations took place in 1970. The month was officially proclaimed by President Gerald Ford in 1976.

There was a time a few years ago when I began to let the thought creep into my mind that Black History Month was becoming obsolete.

In the beginning – that is, in the 1970s – I was an enthusiastic supporter of creating a month to celebrate black contributions to U.S. history. I was a young, white journalist, and I had covered race protests the preceding summer.

I came of age in the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement transformed America from a racially segregated society that openly discriminated to an evolving society that embraced a multicultural revolution – albeit in awkward leaps and falls.

My introduction to race relations began in 1967, when my family decided to take a cross-country car trip to visit Expo 67, the world’s fair in Montreal, and other sites along the way.

I grew up in rural Oregon, a state with fewer than 1 percent racial minorities in those days. At 14, I had only seen one or two black people in my life, and none up close.

In an amazing combination of naiveté and courage, my parents decided to partially finance the trip by working as migrant laborers. We picked cherries in Michigan and cucumbers in New Jersey.

To most middle class Americans, that sounds like a crazy idea. But my parents weren’t like most people. Both school teachers, they were diminutive in size – 4’11’ and 5’4” tall – but they also were smart, stubborn, and fearless.

In Oregon, where I grew up, it was a common sight to see migrant workers in the fields. As children, we picked strawberries and beans to raise money for our school clothes, often in the same fields as Mexicans who migrated up the West Coast following the crops.

So when my parents realized they were a few hundred dollars short of financing the summer trip, it seemed like an obvious solution.

That explains why I found myself, during that hot, tense summer of 1967, picking cucumbers in central Jersey a hundred miles or so south of Newark, where the streets were burning from the national race rebellion.

In the next row was an old black man who happily showed my family the tricks of the trade – how to lift the leaves to find the cukes hiding along the ground, and how to avoid getting your arms scratched by the spiky vines.

He also told stories while we picked, and many of the families surrounding us sang songs as they moved up and down the rows. They accepted us for what we were – people just like them who needed to make some money, although for our family it was to pay for a vacation, not a livelihood.

They knew what was going on in Newark, and so did we. Some of them drove north on weekends to join the protests.

They gained an extra measure of respect for us when my father refused to drink first from the water container. The farmer brought water by every hour or two, and tried to make sure we got it before any black workers.

When my father realized what was happening, he took the water and offered it to our new black friends first. It infuriated the farmer, but underneath his poker face I’m sure my father was smiling.

Over the years since, I’ve had countless interactions with people of all races. I’ve had friends, neighbors, and colleagues from a variety of races and backgrounds. I’m proud to live in a multi-cultural nation that embraces people of all colors, creeds, and cultures.

Through the ‘70s, ’80 and ‘90s, as one barrier after another was broken, it began to feel like we were getting close to the kind of country Martin Luther King envisioned.

Maybe someday black history could have its appropriate place inside U.S. history, along with contributions of note from Asians, Hispanics, women, indigenous people and all the other groups that have been marginalized in our textbooks.

Then something happened. As a new century progressed, the deaths of innocent young black men at the hands of vigilantes and police officers began to pile up on our screens.

The surge of emotion that accompanied each incident made it clear that discrimination in America was deeper, more intransigent, more insidious, than well-meaning people like me realized.

I began to understand that my comfortable, middle class white life was masking the damning evidence that existed all along – the disgraceful incarceration rate of young black men, the income and education gaps, the employment rates – showing that progress was more superficial than real.

I’m still proud to be an American, and I’m still proud of the progress we’ve made toward a more equal and just society.

But as we begin to celebrate Black History Month in 2018 – 51 years after my cucumber summer – I’m back to enthusiastically supporting the importance of the concept.

Yes, it’s about black history. But it’s just as much a chance to remind ourselves that work needs to be done, and that each of us has a role to play.

For me, it means telling the story of those black families who helped us when they could have turned their backs.  

It means opposing injustice when I see it, and treating every relationship with kindness and respect.

Mostly, it means facing up to the disparities that our history has left us and realizing there's more that I can do.