For about a decade now, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Black History Month. No problems with the idea of it, mind you. I’ve always been proud of my people’s stories and sagas, fascinated by them, and eager to hear new additions to the chronicles, previously untold tales of innovation, creativity and bravery.
But lately it hasn’t gone down like that. What historian Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) conceived 78 years ago as a corrective to the traditional teaching of American history (then, it was just Black History Week; it expanded to a month in the 1960s) has become part celebration, part marketing opportunity. Where Woodson hoped that teaching black history would whittle away at racism by educating white students about black contributions to American life, nowadays it often seems more about opening black wallets than white minds. Some modern-day Black History Month programming does reach Woodson’s other original aim, to uplift the self-esteem of young blacks by teaching them about their true heritage. But a lot of the programming is little more than corporate ads swathed in kente cloth, all the better to reach black consumers. We value your culture, goes the thinking behind the promotions, almost as much as we value your business.
These problems certainly aren’t Woodson’s fault. Black History Month’s basic mission was distorted by two distinctly American traits: pursuit of the dollar and an aversion to the study of history. Yes, schools do teach black history during Black History Month, but many offer only a cursory smattering of it, and an unimaginative one at that. My daughter survived one February bored to tears by yet another round of rounding up Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and all the other, as she put it, “usual suspects” (before he got a federal holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr. was on this list; that day, falling as it does in mid-January, has now almost become Black History Month’s opening act). I can’t rightly say that I blame her for her jaded sarcasm. It’s hard to fathom that almost 400 years of black life in America could prod educators to do nothing more inspired than trot out the same handful of seminal figures and moments year after year, with no attempt to dig deeper or look further into such a rich source of lesson plans.
My larger issue is with the way some of our major cultural institutions have celebrated Black History Month. To be precise, they confine their acknowledgement of black people to February, and move on to another distinct segment of the population (or marketing niche) as soon as the calendar flips to March (which is International Women’s Month - Black History Month has become the mother of all cultural identity months). There’s no law, and I highly doubt it was Woodson’s intent, that black history be acknowledged and taught only during the month of February. But I’ll bet my original vinyl LP of James Brown’s Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud) (King, 1968) that of all the theaters, museums, public TV stations, libraries, periodicals and other outposts doing black-themed programming during this month, half of them won’t bother with any comparable programming for the rest of the year. I don’t know which is worse: to be ignored completely, or to be trotted out once a year, smiled at, then stuffed back into the storage closet.
The year 2005, however, is different for me. As I’ll explain in a bit, I’m setting aside my cynicism and am actually looking forward to Black History Month this time. Last year was a strange year for America: we held a presidential election, but didn’t come close to resolving any of our most vexing issues and challenges. Meanwhile, the mess in Iraq continues while at home the red and the blue remain resolutely apart, and we still grapple over the fate of our educational and health care systems. Yet in just these first few weeks of the new year, events have taken place that can serve as learning opportunities for all of us. If we give any of these events as much of our attention as, say, Donald Trump’s latest antics, we might learn a little bit more about our nation, and that knowledge might provide some sustenance for the long slog ahead.
More immediately, these events, and the significance behind them, constitute 10 Good Reasons to Celebrate Black History Month 2005:
A black woman is America’s chief diplomat.
Granted, I’d prefer one who represented a different foreign policy than the one Condoleeza Rice will be peddling. But the fact that a black woman is serving the White House as Secretary of State, not as a maid or a cook, has to count for something.
Stories from the Civil Rights Movement continue to be told and felt.
We mourn the death last month of James Forman (1928-2005), the former executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Forman was the lead organizer for a legion of young men and women who ventured into the South to end segregation And we marvel at the fact that someone may finally be tried for murder in the 1964 Philadelphia, Mississippi slaying of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, a trio of civil rights martyrs as venerated as the Birmingham church bombing’s four little girls.
Two black quarterbacks competed for a championship, and it wasn’t all that big a deal.
The Atlanta Falcons/Philadelphia Eagles tilt for the conference championship in late January marked the first time in National Football League history that two black quarterbacks (Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb, respectively) faced each other in a championship game. Once upon a time, the prevailing thought held that blacks weren’t smart enough to handle the complexities of running a sophisticated football offense, that their “natural athletic abilities” were better suited to running, catching balls, and tackling people. When Doug Williams led the 1987 Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl crown, it was treated as a watershed moment: the first black quarterback to win the big one. Since then, many blacks have handled the position with about the same ratio of success as their white counterparts. But just last season, McNabb himself, and all other black quarterbacks by extension, were disparaged by none other than Rush Limbaugh in his side gig as an ESPN commentator. McNabb brushed off the ridiculous charges, and ESPN sent Limbaugh packing.
Wilbert Rideau is a free man.
In 1961, Rideau, a black man, was sentenced to death for killing a white woman after a bank robbery in Lake Charles, Louisiana (the sentence was later commuted to life). Forty-four years later, after being found guilty of murder three times by all-white juries, his charge was reduced to manslaughter, and he was released for time served. While in jail, Rideau found a direction for his life, becoming a journalist and directing a documentary (The Farm) on Louisiana’s harsh penal system. He is living proof that circumstances need not define the person, or confine that person’s spirit. I hope he continues his work on the outside.
Some folks want Russell Simmons to head the NAACP.
Simmons, the hip-hop entrepreneur and high-profile political activist, has been suggested as a successor to Kwesi Mfume, who stepped down from the helm of America’s oldest civil rights organization late last year. I don’t know if Simmons wants the job or would be the right fit for it, but floating his name for the post is the kind of creative thinking that all of our major black institutions many of which date back generations need in order to adapt to a society that is vastly different than anyone could have anticipated back when these bodies were formed.
Some people are nostalgic for slavery and they’re trying to pass that nonsense on to the youth.
A private school in North Carolina has a pamphlet in its curriculum that alleges that slaves bonded amicably with their owners. Apparently, no one in charge of that school has ever seen Roots, or any of the other zillion books and accounts to the contrary. Black History Month is as good a time as any to begin correcting that slight imbalance.
A state’s school system will teach black history lessons beyond February.
Maryland has introduced a public school curriculum that incorporates black history in all its courses, at all grade levels, throughout the entire school year. It comes from a partnership with the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, set to open in Baltimore later this year. Students will study the blues in music class, for example. If this works, it will be as close as anyone has ever come to institutionalizing Woodson’s original vision of history as a road map to a deeper understanding of America.
John Kerry blasted the Ohio voting controversy on MLK Day.
The good news is that he finally got around to backing up his campaign pledge to make sure that every vote counted (and got counted). The bad news is that he did it on the King holiday, a day when people tend to reduce King’s message to the part that directly involved black folk, despite King’s work on behalf of all oppressed people. I admire Kerry’s intent, but to me the timing smacked of opportunism. Note to politicians: you don’t have to wait for a “black” occasion to talk about “black” issues.
That was the only time black issues figured into the campaign.
This past presidential election was the first in my lifetime (which dates back to the tail end of the Eisenhower administration) in which black people were a non-factor, save for those black churches that got faith-based program money from the Bush administration and swung some votes in Ohio and other key states. We were all but invisible, taken for granted by the Democrats and ignored by the Republicans. Do we no longer matter on the national political stage? Did someone declare racism to be over? (If they did, they didn’t tell us or those who act against us.) Are we even still in the radar of the established political powers? It’s true that, ideologically and demographically, we don’t all fit into one category or speak with one voice, if indeed we ever had. But there are ties that link the preacher and the plumber, the baller and the barber, the maid, the cook and the Secretary of State. We cannot let America slip into a convenient amnesia about who and where we are, and how we got here.
A former gangsta rapper is now making schlocky comedies
While watching Barbershop 2 on cable the other day, I took the moment to remark to my 12-year-old daughter how strange it is that Ice Cube is now making movies like the innocuously goofy Are We There Yet?. Back in the day, I explained in full culture-critic mode, Ice Cube was part of a rap group called N.W.A., which aroused the ire of the FBI for songs like “F—- tha Police.” No one, I continued, would ever have guessed that the one-time “Nigga You Love to Hate” would be doing the lamest sort of comedic fare imaginable.
My daughter was not particularly impressed with my thumbnail Ice Cube bio. Like most 12-year-olds, she’s not much into music made before she was born. But I wasn’t trying to wrench her away from her current faves, I just wanted to share with her a little bit about how the music she loves evolved to its current state. Not to equate Ice Cube with Booker T. Washington or any of the other “usual suspects” (or myself with Carter G. Woodson, for that matter), but that brief sharing of a trivial anecdote, along with an attempt to attach some relevancy and context to it, might well be a modest approximation of the whole idea behind Black History Month. Take stock of where we are, see how black folks helped get us here, and then wonder about what might come next.
It’s been said more times than I can count, in Black History Month events and beyond: America will never achieve its promise without attending to its racial divide. In that respect, we need acknowledgement of black history not just a litany of names and dates, but a deep appreciation of what it has meant for our nation more than ever right about now. Remember that the goal is to enlighten both the young and old, the black and non-black, towards the ultimate aim of building a better America.
So let a thousand Black History Month programs bloom, and if 28 days in February isn’t enough time to capture all that history, then make some room elsewhere in the year. Just don’t bore us with the factoids we’ve heard ad infinitum, or speak to our spending power instead of our good sense and judgment. And whatever else you do, please don’t suggest that slavery wasn’t all that bad.