Black History Month: The Moral Decadence Of Not Learning Black History

by Duke Magazine

The 18th-century German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, was a professional pessimist who advised against tectonic efforts to change the world according to some ethics and norms.

Primarily, the harder we try to make the world a better place, the worse our failures, with each disappointment more stinging than the last. Schopenhauer is notable for churning out pieces of advice for people to avoid effecting social change but to embrace quietism, the ascetic suppression of the worries of the mind and body. 

Schopenhauer’s minimalist requirements to a happy life have fed modern-day arguments for what political theorist Robert Nozick would call negative rights. Negative rights are the liberties we have to not suffer other people’s actions. If I have a negative right to life against you, it means you have no right to take away my life. The concept is important to modern libertarian praxis as was theorized by Nozick himself.

What we have the right to not suffer has been stretched over the last few decades. The debate on whether we have a right to be ignorant (or a negative right to be informed) arose in the last three decades of conversations in bioethics. Doctors and specialists had to confront individuals who did not wish to know their health status as well as genetic conditions. Some of those who say that we have a right to not know our health status have been known to cite Schopenhauer’s thoughts that the more we know, the less happy we are.

Last week, in Utah, United States, the director of a charter school announced that parents had been given the option to withdraw their wards from Black History Month activities. Although he lamented that some parents had taken the option, director Micah Hirokawa pointed out that individuals had the right to “exercise their civil rights to not participate in Black History Month at the school.”

The school reportedly teaches a student population that is 70% white. Ordinarily, the case for Black History Month would point out that students at Maria Montessori Academy are most needful of Black history lessons. But in the modern liberal state, avoiding information may be as morally defensible as the right to information. This is because the modern state places above all, the right to self-rule or autonomy unless the law prohibits one’s liberty.

So, do people have a moral right to not learn Black history? The question itself cannot be answered outside the historical structure in which it is conceived and its lessons. Probably, Langston Hughes would be in the better position to briefly give a representation to Black people’s existence in this world vis-a-vis the horrors inflicted on them.

Hughes’s poem, Remember, circumvents through the nitty gritty of what needs to be learned about the tortured Black existence:

The days of bondage,
And remembering,
Do not stand still.
Go to the highest hill
And look down upon the town
Where you are yet a slave.
Look down upon any town in Carolina
Or any town in Maine, for that matter,
Or Africa, your homeland,
And you will see what I mean for you to see,
             The white hand:
             The thieving hand.
             The white face:
             The lying face.
             The white power:
             The unscrupulous power
That makes of you
The hungry wretched thing you are today.

The obvious question that stems from the above is the future of a country that grants the moral right for some of its people, indeed, the descendants of the offending party, to refrain from learning this past. One would think the answer is George Santayana’s description of those who are condemned to repeat history. It is almost a deal with the devil to allow this to happen but the ethical impetus to force people to learn Black history simply does not occur. 

Hirokawa was right, prima facie. It is a free country where none is compelled to sympathize with Black people as all are to paying taxes.

In the strictest sense of liberalism, that moral right to avoid the gory lessons of white exploitation of Black humanity exists. Liberalism can be seen as the affirmation of individual liberty, even via social engineering but never at the expense of central authority. Sure, there are revisionist versions of liberal political philosophy that challenge the unique power of the old-school European enlightenment era kind.

European liberal philosophy, starting from John Locke, founded the basis of the American constitutional proclamation that all men are equal. Although the promise of a prosperous equilibrium for everyone was rendered nonsensical by the very existence of slavery, Americans kept up the appearance. After World War I, it became clear that the free-market, the free exchange of needs and wants, was not capable of healing the ills of western society and that government intervention is necessary. Governments in Western Europe, particularly in the UK and France, and governments in the United States, would start interceding in the free-market on behalf of the vulnerable, as advised by J. M. Keynes.

One has to remember that in America, federal seriousness was attached to civil rights only in the 1960s. Employers and service providers could not discriminate on the basis of race but one was under no obligation to sympathize with Black people. The revision of the liberal philosophy is still inadequate to prevent what happened last week in Utah.

And this is an uncomfortable truth for all well-meaning citizens who believe in the ambition of creating a more perfect union from all who were supposedly created equal. The liberal order, arguably our best foot forward, still offers backdoor channels unhelpful to a perfect union.

It is easy to see how one could argue that white students should be forced to learn Black history. W.E.B. DuBois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk: “Herein lies the tragedy of the age…that men know so little of men”. Knowing about ourselves and from where we have come is of intrinsic communal worth. But that utopia demands a critique of current proceedings.

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