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FIRST-PERSON: Distorting history: a disservice to us all

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP)–Controversy over the statue of N.Y. firefighters raising the American flag in the midst of the collapsed World Trade Center towers has indeed reminded us that those who seek to distort a historical act continue to disrupt the spirit of unity.

To fail to acknowledge that the three American firefighters raising the flag were white, by creating a replica that depicts a white figure, a black figure and a Hispanic figure, is a disgrace to truth and justice.

While the argument is made that a multiethnic, multiracial image reflects the diversity of the city and the suffering experienced by family members of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, in my opinion, this still would not justify distorting a historical act. Regardless of how well intentioned, such politically correct arguments fall short of any real ethical rationality.

Blacks have complained for years about the misrepresentation of historical facts about African Americans, both in text and media. Black Christians have questioned depictions of Jesus with blond hair and blue eyes as not being true to the Messiah’s genealogical, historical and biblical context. Why then should those who have been so impacted by misrepresentation support a move to distort an historical act in order to make some individuals feel good?

Just tell the truth.

Once distortions occur, you often find yourself trying to defend the very thing you distorted. For example, why wouldn’t Native Americans, Asian Americans and Arab Americans be represented in the statue? Were they not also impacted by the tragic events of 9/11? Of course they were.

The truth, not fabrication, sets us free.

The month of February is traditionally set aside as Black History Month. This month is a time to recognize the many contributions made by black Americans in American society.

We remember such black Americans as former slave Crispus Attucks who became a soldier, fought and died in the American Revolution. We remember Benjamin Banneker who was one of three men selected by President George Washington to plan and design the new capital city of Washington, D.C. We remember Phyllis Wheatley, a former slave who wrote her first poems at age 15 and later became recognized as a world-famous poetess. We would not want the acts and achievements of these and other heroic Americans distorted one bit.

Across the street from the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, Ala., stands a series of statues paying tribute to the black children who were viciously attacked by police dogs and sprayed with fire hoses under the orders of Eugene “Bull” Connor, head of the Birmingham police department at the time. It would be unthinkable to change those images even though all of Birmingham, black and white citizens alike, were tremendously impacted by the awful events in that city. The statues simply depict the facts of the acts themselves.

Similarly, we would not want to change statues of Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King Jr. Even though Jesse Owens’ record-breaking feat in the 1936 Berlin Olympics made all Americans proud, there is no need to make a statue of Jesse with other Americans who supported him in Berlin, demonstrating national solidarity. Jackie Robinson’s entrance into professional baseball broke the color barrier for Hispanics and other people of color, but let’s not make a multiracial Robinson statute. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a beloved community transcended race and ethnicity, but let’s keep King’s statue as it is. These statues represent historical acts and real people, and should not be distorted.

Rather, let us all work for the day, as Dr. King did, when we will “live in a nation where we won’t be judged by the color of our skin but by the content of our character.”

Let’s simply recognize those who had the courage to lift up the flag. Let freedom ring!
Terriel R. Byrd, Ph.D., is assistant professor of religion and director of ethnic church ministries at Palm Beach Atlantic College, West Palm Beach, Fla.

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  • Terriel Byrd