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Herb Kent: Another Reason Why Black History Month is Still Relevant

Photo (partial) by Rodney Wright, Courtesy of Clear Channel Radio Chicago

Throughout the late ‘50s and ‘60s, every city with a significant black population turned to a black-formatted radio station for the hottest sounds and pulse of the street.

Capitol Men

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Subtitle: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen
Author: Philip Dray
Price: $30.00
Length: 480
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780618563708
US publication date: 2008-09

The Cool Gent

Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Subtitle: The Nine Lives of Radio Legend Herb Kent
Contributors: David Smallwood, Mayor Richard M. Daley
Author: Herb Kent
Price: $24.95
Length: 272
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9781556527746
US publication date: 2009-02

Here’s hoping you enjoyed Black History Month 2009. For a minute there, it almost seemed as though it would be the last one.

Every February in the US, as you’ve probably heard by now, the worlds of education, media and culture carve time out of their normal routines to make some sort of acknowledgement of the contributions black people have made to America. Following the tradition established 83 years ago by historian and educator Carter G. Woodson, Black History Month programming aims to give both blacks and whites a truer sense of the black self, so that blacks can hold their heads a little higher and whites can know why they’re doing it. Said programming can range from a facile roll call of major historical figures, to thoughtful looks at the issues blacks now face, to the umpteenth production of A Raisin in the Sun or some other warhorse from the black cultural canon, to marketing campaigns draped in kente cloth-inspired graphics, making little pretense about sucking up to black consumers.

No one ever grades these efforts for the eyes they open or the awareness they foster; it’s almost as though making the effort to celebrate the month is really all that’s required. That’s led to a gnawing sense of ennui about the concept over the past few years. First, there’s the lame joke about it being relegated to the shortest, coldest month of the year (in fact, Woodson originally proposed marking the second week of February as Negro History Week because it contained the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass).

Then, there’s the disconnect between the relative immersion into all things black for a few short weeks, and the relative absence of that same attention to blackness the other 11 months. That disconnect is felt most acutely by those who don’t want black history to be seen as something apart from American history, but instead as something that needs to be woven more fully into the grand national storyline.

All those impulses, egged on by the election of a black man as President, came to the fore in Rochelle Riley’s 2 February column for the Detroit Free Press, in which she declared Black History Month to be no longer relevant:

I propose that, from this day forward, we stop telling the tale of two Americas and instead document and celebrate the full and storied, multicultural and multidimensional story that is America in all of its colors, geographies and passions, in all of its ups, downs and exhortations.

I propose that, for the first time in American history, this country has reached a point where we can stop celebrating separately, stop learning separately, stop being American separately. We have reached a point where most Americans want to gain a larger understanding of the people they have not known, customs they have not known, traditions they have not known … I propose that this February, we become not an America of black or white or Hispanic or Asian, but an America of black and white and Hispanic and Asian, an America where each of those heritages is a mandatory part of school curriculums.

Those words sparked a lively back-and-forth among black columnists, bloggers and reporters (which isn’t really news; writing about Black History Month is de rigueur every February for many black scribes). Cynthia Tucker sided with Riley’s point of view in the 8 February Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Black Americans have been shortchanged by history as it is popularly transmitted. But giving us our own month of “Black History” makes matters worse. For one thing, it lets the academy off the hook, allowing textbook writers and history teachers to continue their superficial history lessons that gloss over Reconstruction and Jim Crow, ignore the 19th century’s black entrepreneurs and pretend that GI Joe was always white. The picture on my mantel of my uniformed father says otherwise.

Meanwhile, columnist George Curry spoke up for Black History Month in his 16 February posting:

The sad truth is that many groups do not have a sufficient knowledge of their own history and even less information about what other groups have endured and accomplished. This is a good time to change that. A knowledge and appreciation for other cultures might foster better intergroup relationships.

Many writers struck a middle ground, advocating that black contributions should be included in the broader telling of the American history, without shoehorning James Weldon Johnson and Magic Johnson into the same niche just because of their common hue. That’s as it should be – after all, we are all Americans, we are all in this American thing together, and we’d better well know the complete story of how we all got here if we want to truly understand what comes next. Those seeking to appreciate the moment Barack Obama’s victory has prompted in the evolution of black political leadership, for example, might be better off reading Philip Dray’s Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), his researched accounts of black men elected to Congress from the South in the wake of the Civil War, than any of the hot-off-the-presses instant Obama analyses.

But American history is already an awfully big topic, and within the massive effort required to get all of the basic facts and events down correctly, there are bound to be untold stories that don’t make the primary cut. Black History Month is a perfect opportunity to call attention to pieces of the puzzle that might not register within the larger scheme of things, but offer nuance, detail and illumination to the grand themes represented by those basic facts and events.

Herb Kent’s tale is one of those pieces. If you haven’t been listening to Chicago radio much over the last 50 years, you probably have no idea who he is. But throughout the late ‘50s and ‘60s, every city with a significant black population turned to a black-formatted radio station for the hottest sounds and pulse of the street. The disc jockeys kept listeners entertained with colorful patter and jive, which many credit with laying part of the groundwork for rap.

Black businesses relied on black radio to reach their audiences. And in a turbulent time, black radio was the only broadcast media devoted to presenting black voices and local newsmakers. In Chicago, beginning in 1963, the leading black radio station was WVON-AM (owned by the Chess brothers of the venerable blues record label, its call letters assumed to stand for “Voice of the Negro”), and Kent was one of the “Good Guys” who ruled its airwaves.

After a lifetime on the air, Kent still holds down a Sunday afternoon oldies shift on Chicago’s WVAZ-FM. Over the course of the long stretch from Sunday morning gospel to Sunday night slow jams, he spins everybody from Jackie Wilson to Prince, referees a “battle of the bands” popularity contest between R&B acts (a staple of black radio from back in the day), and passes the time away with his gift of laidback gab.

He’s now collected some of his tales in The Cool Gent: The Nine Lives of Radio Legend Herb Kent (with David Smallwood; Lawrence Hill Books). It’s a personable account of his battle to get started in the business, the generations of celebrities he’s met, the addiction demons he conquered, and more than a couple of his adventures on and off the air.

In the broader picture of American history, the role of black radio stations might not even merit a footnote (for all its charms, Kent’s chatty autobiography isn’t the book to consult for such in-depth consideration). But in considering how black people lived their lives in an era highly charged with racial tension (and when most mainstream media outlets only had a couple of blacks with bylines or airtime, if any at all), knowing the role black radio played becomes critical to filling in some of the gaps. The subject might not merit a lot of classroom time in a general history course, but within a black history context (or, for that matter, a broader history of American broadcasting), it has a lot of lessons to offer.

This isn’t just a black thing; there are numerous subsets of American history that merit and reward serious scholarship and attention on their own apart from the broader narrative. The ill-fated air traffic controllers’ strike in the early ‘80s was a key moment early in Ronald Reagan’s presidency, but would likely occupy a lot more real estate in a breakdown of modern labor history than in an overview of the decade’s politics. And now Americans are into Women’s History Month; one wonders if someone would have proposed setting this month aside had Hillary Clinton won the election.

The basic telling of American history, which necessarily expands even as we speak, can’t possibly make room for all the fascinating sidebars and tributaries that fill in the blanks of the broad sweep. This isn’t to excuse educational and cultural institutions for failing to include blacks in that sweep, or for leaving up all up to one lowly month to take up the slack. But it is to say that there will always be a role for Black History Month to fulfill.

As paradoxical as it may sound, both those who would do away with the month and those who wish to hold onto it have a point. Black history is part of American history, and must be acknowledged as such and incorporated accordingly (and please, let’s move past the same five or six names lazy lesson planners always reference, a practice my daughter once derisively termed “trotting out the usual suspects”).

But it is also a field continuing to generate riches and surprises for us all in its own right, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking some time to explore it up close and personal (and we don’t need to wait until February to do it). Without any consensus reached in the whither-Black-History-Month media discussion, it appears we’ll pick up the conversation in February 2010. But let’s all do some studying on the subject in the meantime.

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