Beware: it’s the month to be aware

The fact that February is National Awareness Month reminds me of my ambiguous relationship with thematic months. As far as I know, Stephen Colbert has never coined such a term, but in Colbert “truthiness” fashion, I call the phenomenon “monthiness.”

Human struggles for liberty and justice are certainly worthy of designated months; librarians and teachers have a focus for displays, as well as a chance to highlight local connections and worthwhile literature.

But my stronger sense is that these struggles merit attention all year. Recognizing that justice is fragile and easily undone by legislative will or judicial action prompts us to guard our treasure of arduously achieved equality. Even more valuable is awareness of our diverse and equally valid realities. What a treasure of literature, art, music, and films we have to help us transcend our boundaries. It would distress the empathetic soul to limit this exploration to a single month.

The mootness of “monthiness” aside, a confluence of February birthdays beckons us to honor the lengthy struggle for racial justice. Presidents’ Day celebrates the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom struggled with complex and evolving understandings of slavery and race.

Can the George Washington who called slavery “the only unavoidable subject of regret” be the same man who signed the first Fugitive Slave Act in 1793? He was certainly a product of his times, born to privilege in an era marked by a paternalistic world view that designated some groups of people – Africans, indentured servants, women – as weak and lesser and rightfully in need of the “guidance” of their superiors. His ability to recognize the humanity of his slaves while at the same time thwarting their understandable human efforts to escape reflects the ambiguity of his time. If he felt any disconnect between his admiration of the poet Phyllis Wheatley’s intellectual gifts and the subsistence living his slaves experienced, he never expressed it as such.

Sadly, the legacy of paternalistic slavery is an enduring racist mythology as blatant as pseudo-scientific theories claiming intellectual inferiority, as subtle as unequal allocation of educational resources, and as obnoxious as comments that trot out stereotypical assumptions. We cannot hang an explanation for these wrongs on the times we live in.

Recent history has laid bare Abraham Lincoln’s deeply thoughtful and open-minded evolution in his assumptions about race. The 1850’s Lincoln was a man of his times who supported colonization to Africa because he believed in a “physical difference” between the two races that would “forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality.” Yet after countless wartime conversations with black leaders like Frederick Douglass and encounters with black soldiers who fought nobly, bravely, and brilliantly, the Lincoln of 1865 had changed his mind. He likely would have evolved out of his own time had he lived another 20 years.

We all know what Rosa Parks did to illuminate the cruelty of inequality. Born on Feb. 4, 1913, she helped dismantle the Jim Crow manifestation of institutionalized racism with an act of civil disobedience familiar to today’s schoolchildren. Familiar as well is Susan B. Anthony’s fight for women’s suffrage; before that, she was an abolitionist, born to an abolitionist family on February 15, 1820. Daring to speak to mixed groups and distribute leaflets, she coped with threats of violence and even had her likeness hung in effigy. Ahead of her time? Certainly. Additional proof that enlightened ideas are never out of anyone’s reach comes in the story of the 19th-century Grimke sisters, Angelina and Sarah. They fled their privileged position in a powerful South Carolina slave-owning family to migrate north and cast their lots – and their efforts and voices – with the cause of abolition.

So what is left? No more slavery, Jim Crow is gone, many legal protections against discrimination are in place. Perhaps what is left is to take the assumptions of pundits like Sandy Rios with a huge grain of salt. Her proclamation that the “Anglo-Saxon crew” has gotten over racism doesn’t quite square with last year’s Supreme Court setback to the Voting Rights Act, with efforts in some states to limit voting in districts that are, coincidentally, largely black, or with extreme poverty that weighs disproportionately on African-American people.

Perhaps Rios meant to say “prejudice” instead of “racism.” Prejudice comes in all colors as certainly as kindness and love and frailty and brilliance do. To the argument that this whole mess of slavery was abetted by African tribal leaders selling their people to the kidnappers anyway I say, isn’t that the point? Venality is a human trait like all others; it knows no color.

What is left is to fight the bigotry that sneaks into assumptions about “the other” based on physical characteristics that say nothing about a person’s worth, character, or talents. What is left is to recognize the sacred and essential humanness of the individual. What is left is vigilance against outbreaks of institutional racism.

To that end, every month, we can and should be better than our times.

Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to