By Emanuel Jalonschi
Ah, February. The weather is teasing us with glimpses into a possible Spring, Valentine’s Day awaits around the corner and it’s Black History Month.
To tell the truth, I felt myself in a moral quagmire as to whether I should do a column regarding this month.
When Black History Month became nationally recognized in 1976 it was after 50 long years of struggle for recognition by the ASALH (Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History). It was a good idea then because it made us have to pay attention to an oft neglected part of our history.
Contrary to popular humor, February was not chosen because it was the shortest month of the year. It was chosen to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.
So what’s my issue with Black History Month? Well, I’ve got a couple of issues with this concept. First of all, why are we picking one month out of the year to recognize black history? Does it differ from "real" history and thus need to be distinguished?
Second of all, Black History Month seems to present race as a serious causal issue instead of the resultant issue that it is. Racism is an epi-phenomenon. Why are we rewarding and encouraging pointless separation when we could be working to construct a unified front for our communities? We should collectively observe our successes and mistakes and then learn from them.
Third of all, often times this serves as a way for certain culprits of history in (like Houghton-Mifflin and Randal McNally) to get away with academic murder the rest of the year. We shouldn’t let them off the hook by giving them a month to provide information that they willingly hold out the rest of the year. Take a look at your children’s history books and you’ll still see such historical debauchery as "freemen (free blacks) had basically the same rights as white men." And let’s not forget their continuing persistence on "Columbus discovered America" and "Lincoln freed the slaves." This is the kind of simplistic falsity we let them get away with because for 28 days of the year we actually pay attention to the African-American’s contribution to our society. That’s ridiculous. Teach our kids right from the beginning and then we wont need a month to "catch them up."
Regardless of my protests, this month exists, and I have a feeling it’ll be here long after I’m gone.
While I do recognize the inherent and very real evils of this separatist month, it does offer me a bit of an incentive to recognize some truly great human beings that broke through the barriers of color.
One of the greatest sports figures of our century is Jesse Owens; not just for his feats of athleticism but also for the courage and timing of those feats. He lived in a time even more backward than our own and still managed to retain his human spirit as well as his athletic spirit.
At a tender age, he trained in the mornings, attended school during the days and went to work at odd jobs in the evening. In other words he had what we like to call "the American work ethic."
Continuing to excel as a phenomenal athlete, he was pursued by a variety of colleges. He decided on Ohio State University.
This is when Jesse probably felt the sting of racism and segregation the worst. When away at meets, he would have to separate from the team. When they ate, he would have to eat at all-Negro diners. When they stopped someplace for the night, he usually had to find different quarters from the rest of the team. Or if the hotel owner was generous enough to allow a black man to enter his premises, Jesse would have to enter through the back and use the stairs instead of the elevator. Land of the free? In 1933, you could walk your mutt through the entrance of a hotel but an African-American would be committing a crime if he had the audacity to try to pay for a room while being black.
Then again Jesse was well used to overcoming obstacle after obstacle, on and off the field. The perfect example of what typified Jesse’s competitive spirit happened while he was still at OSU. The late May 1935, Jesse fell down a flight of stairs and seriously injured his back. On the 25th, with the coach pleading with him to rest so as to avoid injury, Jesse set three world records and tied a fourth. What makes the feat even more impressive is that he did it all in less than 45 minutes after he received his last back treatment.
By 1936, his talents were international-caliber and thus he qualified for the infamous "Hitler Olympics" of Germany. That year, Hitler’s Nazi party was powerful and at the beginning of their reign of horror. Hitler was proud of his belief in the almighty and superior "Aryan race." He was convinced that the Olympics would prove his hateful slander true.
Wrong, Adolf! Jesse would have none of that. He didn’t make his statements in a press conference or through and agent. He simply waited for race day. Jesse, on the international athletic stage, tore through Hitler’s racial spew with the strides of his lightning quick legs. He became the first American in Track and Field History to win four gold medals in one day. Furthermore, he didn’t just win the races—he broke the record in three of them.
Jesse’s athletic successes were remarkable on their on. However, the statement he made to the world and a madman was clear and profound.
It is usually in time of crises and difficulty that we see a man as he truly is. Good or bad, a man’s true nature will come out under fire. Confucius once said, "only when the year grows cold do we see that the pine and the cypress are last to fade." Any man has the ability to carry his burden through life. What makes a hero a hero, is the ability to do it while shouldering the burden of many others as well.
Jesse Owens’ name bears recognition for generations to come for the burden he was willing to bear in the face of adversity.