For the third consecutive year, Black History Month is unlikely to pass without stirring up controversy in the state Capitol.
Earlier this month, Rep. Scott Allen, R-Waukesha, who is white, circulated a Black History Month resolution honoring mostly white Americans, prompting criticism from some black legislators who have suggested Allen preempted the Black Caucus from choosing how to honor the contributions of black Americans.
“If this was intended to be without controversy you failed,” Sen. Lena Taylor, who is African-American, wrote to Allen in response to his resolution. “Thank you Massa Allen for pickin’ whose we should honuh suh. We sho ain’t capable of thinkin’ fo ourselves, suh.”
Taylor, D-Milwaukee, could not be reached for comment, but previously told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Allen was disingenuous for authoring a resolution that honors white people without consulting black lawmakers. Taylor also took issue with Allen for authoring the resolution while failing to support legislation authored by black lawmakers that Taylor said would address racial disparities.
Allen’s resolution seeks to highlight the history of Wisconsin’s Underground Railroad, an antislavery runaway network that helped more than 100 slaves escape to freedom in Canada between 1842 and 1861.
Allen’s resolution recognizes 10 historical figures as well as members of the Stockbridge-Munsee band of Mohican Indians.
Six of the 10 historical figures recognized in the resolution are white Wisconsinites who were abolitionists or helped free slaves: Lyman Goodnow, Dr. Edward Galusha Dyer, Sherman Booth, Eliza Chappell Porter, Joseph Goodrich and Colonel William Utley. Others honored were black slaves.
In an interview, Allen said he authored the resolution in part to help more Wisconsinites, especially those who are white, become engaged in Black History Month. He said he’s passionate about black History and wants to be part of the conversation.
“People look at Black History Month and diminish the importance of it,” Allen said. “When we say that it has nothing to do with us, as European Americans, and that we should not be involved in Black History Month and the celebration of Black History Month, we’re missing the larger point.”
In a memo Allen circulated seeking support for his resolution, he said it’s important to recognize black history “in a way that raises the prominence of that part of our mutual history so that it is the center of our attention.”
Black History Month has traditionally served to honor the central role of African Americans in U.S. history and the accomplishments of African Americans, so Allen’s resolution honoring white Americans is atypical.
Allen said his resolution was meant to start a dialogue, and that he’s open to working with members of the Black Caucus to amend it or pass it in another month. He didn’t reach out to African American lawmakers before introducing the legislation because his requests for collaboration with them went unanswered last year, he said.
The controversy over Black History Month, which will be celebrated in February, is the third time in as many years that lawmakers have argued over how to commemorate the month.
In an argument last year that garnered national attention, Republican lawmakers in both chambers of the Legislature rejected an attempt by members of the Black Caucus — all Democrats — to include the name of African American athlete and activist Colin Kaepernick on a Black History Month resolution.
The year before, in 2018, the Assembly passed separate resolutions honoring February as Black History Month after a dispute over how to properly honor contributions from black Wisconsinites.
One of those was from Allen, who pushed back against a resolution authored by members of the Black Caucus that he believed should not have been limited to the proposed list of honorees.
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