Black History 2.0

If looking back to move forward is “Progress 1.0,” what is the relevance of Black History in a multicultural world?

It is estimated that by year 2050, White Americans will no longer be the majority racial/ethnic group in the United States. And, if you live in California, as I do, that is already true for individuals who are less than 18, among whom Latinos now comprised greater than 50% of the population.

Clearly, the cultural landscape of our country is changing and it is becoming more, and not less, culturally diverse. Increasing diversity will present both opportunity and challenge. Meeting this future with humility and understanding will require more than the superficial litany of facts and firsts that has become modern Black History Month. So how do we collectively engage the American story in a way that responds to the burgeoning questions of our time?

To start, let’s ask the difficult questions that Black History may help us answer. Like:

What does it mean to assimilate when the majority culture is comprised of minority populations? Will the concept of “passing” or assuming the cultural identity of the dominant (historically White) culture divide Latinos into white and non-white groups (a distinction our census already supports)? If so, will socioeconomic divisions, political allegiance, or race be the greatest determinant of cultural affiliation?

Is Rosa Park’s influence limited to her seat on the bus? If so, do we ignore the early influence of women of color in cultural movements? How does a woman’s position in society impact her ability to affect cultural change?

What are the commonalities between the US Civil War and the War on Terror? When the language of war is entangled with the language of cultural affiliation, how does that impact our modern understanding of prejudice and patriotism? And, how does that impact a population’s opportunity for upward mobility?

What can understanding the Middle Passage lend to current immigration debates? Does how you arrive matter and ultimately shape your destiny? What suffering is endured for the illusive American dream? And, is it worth it?

How does the color of one’s skin affect one’s health? When medically under-served populations enter the majority, how will that shape our national health policy agenda and our priorities for federal funding of health science research?

As a young pediatrician I certainly do not know the answers to all of these questions. But as a former student of African American Studies, I do know how Black History folds into American History in ways that impact our collective future. In my mind, as many fields, including medicine, seek to re-define their relevance in an evolving world, a world increasingly influenced by the growing presence of brown voices and cultures, Black History Month remains one of the few opportunities to publicly engage issues of race, ethnicity, and culture, and the ways those constructs gain meaning in our lives.

Ultimately, to remain relevant in our future, Black History Month must be rooted in the present. The time to broaden our national lexicon of cultural understanding and make sense of the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead, is always now.