Observing Black History Month

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So far 2014’s Black History Month has elicited the familiar feelings of dread and anticipation I often experience during this time of year. An all-girls school in Northern California created a Black History Month menu of fried chicken, cornbread and watermelon. Nick Cannon protested a Harriet Tubman Google Doodle all by himself.  George Zimmerman, a murderer who refuses to cower away into obscurity, claims that he fears for his life yet agreed to participate in a celebrity boxing match, goading on the only famous black men he could think of, rappers Kayne West and DMX. American cultural values are deeply confused when women become famous for making sex tapes (Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, etc.), and white men become famous for murdering black teenagers. Something is insidiously wrong if I’m expecting the worst during a time that’s supposed to be celebratory and contemplative.

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Originally, Black History Month was supposed to encourage the teaching of African-American history in public schools. Its precursor “Negro History Week” was created in 1926, the second week of February, which was chosen because it marked the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Considering the original intent behind Black History Month, it’s shamefully odd that a school would attempt to honor this event for historical observation in the educational system by creating a menu completely disrespectful of that history. To ignorantly present a list of foods that have been used to demean African-Americans seems woefully misguided, not to mention depressing. The incident indicates quite acutely that there doesn’t seem to be a concise, shared understanding of Black History Month’s purpose. If instead the menu was used to explore racial stereotypes throughout history or even to explore the evolution of African American cuisine over the years—for example, frying became popular amongst slaves because high-calorific fried foods cooked quickly, tasted good and also gave energy that would sustain slaves throughout the day as they worked in the fields—perhaps then the menu would have seemed more beneficial to those students. The disconnect here is confounding and troubling. How can one celebrate Black History Month if one doesn’t know African-American history or the history of race relations in America? How can one celebrate Black History Month with such a ridiculously narrow-minded view of African-Americans?

Similarly, Nick Cannon’s response to Harriet Tubman Google Doodle exposed his sensitivity… his expectation that Google would have a malicious intent. Cannon’s initial twitter response:

Really Google??? This is the way we are kicking off Black History Month #UndergroundSearchEngine #WhoApprovedThis #WhySheRockingALouieVscarf #AmIJustBeingSensitive #FeelingSomeTypeOfWay #RacistMuch. 

Cannon objected particularly to the cartoon’s use of a do-rag yet the specific do-rag worn on the cartoon Harriet Tubman mirrors a do-rag worn by Tubman in an iconic photograph. I’m not so much concerned by whether he deserves to be offended or even skeptical of Google, but rather how his comment might demonstrate what little he knows of Harriet Tubman, who wasn’t only the conductor of the Underground Railroad, but an activist in the women’s suffrage movement and a spy for the Union forces during the Civil War.

 

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What should Black History Month mean to those outside of the education system? What does this month mean to adults who might believe their edification stopped when they graduated high school or college or graduate school even? The purpose of Black History Month seems to vary from one individual to the next because each individual can decide how, or if, he or she wants to observe this month. Critics against Black History Month, Morgan Freeman included as one, suggest a number of reasons why Black History Month shouldn’t exist. Freeman argues that African-American history is American history, and considers Black History Month to perpetuate racism rather than alleviate it or bring awareness. In simple ways, his argument makes sense. African-Americans have been apart of American history for centuries. How then could one possibly squeeze African-American history into one month? That would suggest African-Americans were a fleeting part of American history, a period that ended. Yet Freeman’s argument operates on the illogical assumption that the very presence of Black History Month negates that African-American history could be taught during the other eleven months of the year. People might misuse Black History Month, but that doesn’t mean Black History Month shouldn’t exist.

Or there are those critics who believe if Black History Month exists, there should be a White History Month. As a colleague Mary Alice Daniel argues in her salon essay, “The History White People Need to Learn” race is a social construct. “If students are taught that whiteness is based on a history of exclusion, they might easily see that there is nothing in the designation as “white” to be proud of. Being proud of being white doesn’t mean finding your pale skin pretty or your Swedish history fascinating. It means being proud of the violent disenfranchisement of those barred from this category. Being proud of being black means being proud of surviving this ostracism. Be proud to be Scottish, Norwegian or French, but not white,” she writes. Daniels stresses the importance of history during a month in which people can so easily superficially remember it.

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I observe Black History Month by reverentially remembering the past, interrogating the present, and contemplating what the future could look like. To me, celebrating Black History Month means recognizing those amazing individuals, whose histories might easily be whitewashed or forgotten if they’re not observed and remembered like Ida B. Wells, who bravely investigated lynchings in the South and published her report despite the danger to her, a report that found blacks were lynched for offenses as simple as not yielding to a white person; James Baldwin, who wrote essays and fiction and who wrote these two sentences I’d like to share, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive–Claudette Colvin, who was the first person arrested for resisting bus segregation in Alabama preceding Rosa Parks; Bayard Rustin, who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and who, among may other accomplishments, helped organize the March On Washington despite being shunned from other civil rights leaders because he was a homosexual; Nina Simone, who had the most beautiful crooning voice to ever exist and who used her voice to fight for equality, ‘Mississippi Goddam!‘”

I practice this kind of remembrance the other eleven months of the year, but it’s nice to know there’s a particular month devoted to it.

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