In 1964 author James Baldwin expressed the frustration he felt as a child learning American history. “When I was going to school,” Baldwin said, “I began to be bugged by the teaching of American history because it seemed that that history had been taught without cognizance of my presence.” Baldwin beautifully captured the alienation that many African Americans experienced when confronted by a history that either grossly distorted or ignored their own past. It also highlights the continued importance of our annual commemoration of Black History Month each February.
On Wednesday, for what has become an annual White House tradition, President Donald Trump kicked off Black History Month with a gathering of African-American leaders, including Housing and Urban Development Secretary nominee Ben Carson; Paris Dennard, an official with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund; longtime Republican strategist and media owner Armstrong Williams; and White House adviser Omarosa Manigault. Unfortunately, rather than highlighting the rich history of black America, the president's remarks unintentionally revealed his own lack of knowledge and appreciation of some of the most important and high-profile black historical figures.
Trump offered a series of rambling and disjointed reflections about Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks, but the president could not seem to get beyond recent White House controversies, his rocky relationship with the media, and his apparent obsession with the black inner city.
Last month, we celebrated the life of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., whose incredible example is unique in American history. You read all about Dr. Martin Luther King a week ago when somebody said I took the statue out of my office. It turned out that that was fake news. Fake news. The statue is cherished, it's one of the favorite things in the—and we have some good ones. We have Lincoln, and we have Jefferson, and we have Dr. Martin Luther King. But they said the statue, the bust of Martin Luther King, was taken out of the office. And it was never even touched. So I think it was a disgrace, but that's the way the press is. Very unfortunate.
As for Frederick Douglass, he “is an example,” according to the president, “of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” Not surprisingly, this statement has received a great deal of attention on social media owing to Trump’s failure to identify any of Douglass’s achievements. More problematic is it appears the president believes that the famous abolitionist leader is still alive.
Most of Trump’s address had nothing to do with African-American history or anything having to do with the past. In fact, it is probably not a stretch to suggest that the president has very little interest in history. Unless questioned directly, he rarely reflects on history unless it affects him directly, as in the case of personal stories about his father. Trump used this event to do little more than talk about himself and as an opportunity to discuss current policy and when it comes to the black community that begins and ends with the inner city.
We’re gonna need better schools and we need them soon. We need more jobs, we need better wages, a lot better wages. We’re gonna work very hard on the inner city. Ben is gonna be doing that, big league. That’s one of the big things that you’re gonna be looking at. We need safer communities and we’re going to do that with law enforcement. We’re gonna make it safe. We’re gonna make it much better than it is right now. Right now it’s terrible ...
Trump’s understanding of the black community is as superficial as his understanding of black history. This is something that we saw throughout the campaign, in speeches delivered to predominantly white audiences. The president approaches black Americans as a monolithic demographic, who reside in the inner city and face the same challenges of crime, unemployment, and drug abuse. Raising this theme in an address for Black History Month, however, reduces that history to a series of dangerous stereotypes. This is exactly what Black History Month was intended to challenge.
In 1926, Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) launched “Negro History Week” to confront the absence of black Americans in history textbooks and other materials. According to Woodson, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” The absence of African-American contributions to history was compounded by any number of gross distortions about the past. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, academic historians at elite universities argued that black Americans were unprepared for freedom after the Civil War. Many white Americans continued to embrace stories of loyal slaves and “black mammies” who cared more for their master’s children than their own. Even as late at the ’70s, most history textbooks used in American classrooms mentioned only two or three black people since the Civil War.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford decreed Black History Month a national observance and encouraged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Every president since has offered substantive and at times meaningful observations about the importance of black history. Bill Clinton encouraged Americans to visit Frederick Douglass’s home in the Anacostia neighborhood of D.C., while George H.W. Bush was fond of quoting from Jacob Lawrence’s depiction of Douglass. Even George W. Bush knew enough to offer an overly simplistic observation that Douglass and Lincoln together were responsible for the end of slavery. It goes without saying that no president has come close to the eloquence and depth of thought that Barack Obama brought to his formal speeches and even casual conversations concerning black history.
Unfortunately, it does not appear that Trump has an adequate grasp of any aspect of American history, including that of Abraham Lincoln. In an interview with Bob Woodward in April 2016, then-candidate Trump offered the following observations about Lincoln:
He was a man who was of great intelligence, which most presidents would be. But he was a man of great intelligence, but he was also a man that did something that was a very vital thing to do at that time. Ten years before or 20 years before, what he was doing would never have even been thought possible. So he did something that was a very important thing to do, and especially at that time.
A fourth-grade history teacher would most certainly flag this response as inadequate. The lack of knowledge about Lincoln’s accomplishments is startling and offers the most compelling argument for the study of African-American history as one of the central threads of our nation’s story. In his remarks the president mentioned, “that we have a museum on the National Mall where people can learn about Reverend King” and “so many other things.” We do indeed. Perhaps the president should mark his first commemoration of Black History Month with a visit.
Kevin M. Levin is a historian and educator based in Boston. He is the author of Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder (2012) and is currently at work on Searching For Black Confederate Soldiers: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth for the University of North Carolina Press. You can find him online at Civil War Memory and Twitter @kevinlevin.