I was 6 years old in 1976 when Black History Month was officially instituted by President Gerald R. Ford for national observance. I still recall how my homeroom teachers, February after February, would display pictures of famous African-Americans – Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, Shirley Chisholm, Rosa Parks and, of course, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. – only to relegate those photos to storage bins at the end of the month. I never wondered at the time about the many, many others whose achievements were ignored, or about why the accomplishments of African Americans only warranted discussion one month of the year.
Today, white Americans like me, who were systemically raised to be the dominant caste of our country, are more sensitized than ever to the inequities of life for people of color. Recent books and documentaries have awakened many to the reality of institutionalized racism, as has the constant cycle of disturbing news stories broadcast before our eyes.
Perhaps the most crushing consequence of ingrained racism is the squandered potential of millions of our fellow Americans of color. Isabel Wilkerson, in her stunning book, “Caste,” writes, “The institution of slavery created a crippling distortion of human relationships where people on one side were made to perform the role of subservience and to sublimate whatever innate talents or intelligence they might have had.”
Black History Month, inspired by historian Carter G. Woodson, was a bold initiative to raise up African Americans as valued contributors to our nation, not as token symbols to be forgotten following each February. I’d like to think that our role is not simply to learn about our blemished national history, but to take ownership of our personal responsibility to move our nation forward.
Our Torah, no less than 36 times, implores us to love the stranger in our midst; there are laws, in fact, that guide us on how to engage and support our neighbors. Moreover, Jews have long been players in the cultural and political life of the Diaspora communities in which they have settled. In this respect, it would do us well to recall the timeless words of Rabbi Tarfon, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (Pirke Avot 2:16).”
Last July, Cuyahoga County Council passed a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis, and County Executive Armond Budish nominated 17 community leaders, including me, to a citizens’ advisory council on equity. The council has resolved to address four areas: health and health care, economic opportunity, equitable quality of life, and criminal justice.
In the short time I have served on the council, I have learned that systemic change requires steadfast vigilance and strategic thinking. It is heartening to share that many who operate inside of our county’s criminal justice system acknowledge the great amount of work that needs to be done, and have even asked to be held accountable.
That is a small step in the right direction. When we free every Black life in our country from racism’s grip, we will all benefit from the limitless potential that every person can offer this flawed and great republic. May we reach a new day in this country when the names and contributions of great African Americans, past and present, are as recognizable to every American as their white counterparts.
Rabbi Joshua Caruso is a rabbi at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood.