::IBé, The African-in-America
Where I am from, we don’t have “black history”, let alone Black History Month. What we have is history. And it is very black. Every day we are taught it, every day we celebrate it, every day we are taught to make it. In fact world history exists only as it relates to us: Europe because of colonization, America because of slavery, Asia because of Islam and legendary pilgrimages some of our forefathers took to Mecca. We learn about Mansa Kankan Moussa, Sundiata Keita, Bai Bureh, Samory Toure, Sekou Toure and the story continues…everyday!
I don’t remember my first February in America. But I remember my second. At first I didn’t understand “Black History Month”. Why set aside one month for one group’s history? Why is February so different from say January or November? I didn’t understand. But then by the end of that month, I learned more about Black, indeed American history than I did my entire year and half in America (or ever since for that matter).
That year, my African-American history teacher did more than have us read the usual texts, meet then quickly forget the usual heroes. Mr. Branch turned his classroom into a living history, a monument to everyday Black people whose blood flow in the crevices of American history. In those pictures and words posted around the classroom, cotton seeds and other items of the African-American experience, one-on-one conversations with Mr. William Branch during my lunch or free periods, I learned what no text book could teach. The whip-marked back of a former slave told me everything I needed to know about the cruel institution that was American slavery; the bewildered and solemn faces of the Scotts (Dred and Harriet) showed me what comes naturally to other Americans must be legislated to her black citizens. And I came closer to understanding America and my place in it. Mr. Branch suggested I watched “Eye on the Price”, a six part documentary series on the Civil Right Movement. Then I understood the frustration that caught fire in the form of the 1992 Los Angeles Riot the April before.
Every day is black history, yes, but not every month is February. In a perfect year, there will be no need for February. But then again, years are seldom perfect, especially when they pass in America. For a young nation, America has a long history that owes pages to lots of people and places. Unfortunately, perhaps because of this youthful disposition, she is one track minded, attention only for one child. Black History Month is an attempt to pull America’s attention from her usual gaze and for one month retrain it to see her “other child”.
Though Black History Month doesn’t make an African sense, it makes perfect American sense. That is, while anything like it would be ridiculous anywhere in Africa, it is necessary in America. Because Black history is an important part of American history. Because neglecting it entirely to the few pages allocated to it in general American historical discourse would be a disservice to all Americans (old and new). And left to the winds of “anytime” it would never be right now.
But like many good intention, sometimes it falls victim to misrepresentation. Instead of using it as a starting point, Black History Month is being used to tokenize the Black experience. Now instead of dinner table conversations and tough ones between teachers and pupils, friends and fellow Americans, the only thing that reminds many people of Black history in February is McDonald’s and Walmart through commercials that claim to celebrate Black history 365 days a year (but airs only in February). Oh yeah, and that dream we all seem to remember right about now.
Black history is not just about Dr. Martin Luther King and his dream, or Rosa Parks and her seat on the bus, Jackie Robinson and his bat. It’s about Phillis Wheatley and her pen, Dubois and his books, Nat Turner and his gun (or knife or axe, whatever he had), Frederick Douglas and his words, and by all means I hope you know at least one of Langston Hughes’ poems (by heart). But please don’t stop there, talk to an old Black person and listen to their story. You will find a reason to love America despite her troubles.
::Gerald A. Montgomery, The African-American
Black History Month or Slave History Month?
I recently attended a Martin Luther King Jr. Day Program (here in Minnesota) in which I was invited to recite a Spoken Word piece, pro bono. The program was held the Sunday before MLK Day at a church and the audience was nearly 80% White, a fact I did not learn until I arrived, but would otherwise be irrelevant to a group of people honoring Dr. King’s legacy.
Traditionally Martin Luther King Jr. Ceremonies have two key components; “Retrospection” and “Progression.” Retrospection is about revisiting Dr. King’s speeches and overall mission, interpreting them and making them relevant for the current generation. Then – after pointing out that despite improvements in our society, “the Dream” has not yet been fulfilled – there is Progression; a challenge to the current generation to pick up where Dr. King left off. Urging them to identify or support their leaders (present and future) and use the best methods available in our sociopolitical system (i.e. organized voting, protesting and boycotting) to force progress, non-violently of course.
Unfortunately this particular MLK Program had neither retrospection nor progression, but rather “Reflection” only; a holy-hands-holding, sad-song-singing, feel good devotional in Dr. King’s honor. No progress report or “where now” directives for the African-American community, because “we are all the same in God’s sight.” Just an “As Is” display of love and tolerance for others. As if Black Americans should just pray then wait on the Winds of Change to make everything alright.
This is not who Dr. King was! A man only guilty of non-violence, yes. A religious man, certainly. But he was never a passive man or one who refrained from pointing out the error of his government and fellow citizen’s ways. He prayed like clergy then fought like a Lieutenant Colonel. He fought because we are not all the same in man’s or God’s sight. We are “red and yellow, black and white…” As the song goes. All precious in his sight. I believe God marvels in His creation and that He made us diverse for the same reason he made animals of the same species diverse; for range of beauty! I believe God sees ethnicity; the beauty of if. So pretending we are all the same isn’t helping the struggle one bit – because it simply isn’t true! We couldn’t be more different! So our argument against racism shouldn’t be “we are all the same,” but rather “we are all different, so who the hell are you to say which is ok and which isn’t?”
In fact my Spoken Word piece (in which I pointed out the blatantly subliminal messages of fascism, racism, and exploitation of black children on the radio) was the closest this program got to a progression tone. And I was glared at by many audience members as if I were rocking the boat or rabble-rousing. So I can only describe this event as “token.” I left there wondering, would it shock this group to know one of Dr. King’s sermons/speeches contains the following, “…the price that the United States must pay for the continued exploitation of the Negro and other minority groups is the price of its own destruction,” Passive, indeed.
Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black History Week (later improved to a month), stated, “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” By the way, Black History Month is in February because it’s the month of Fredrick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays, not because it’s the shortest and one of the coldest months of the year. This is why Carter Woodson selected February for his Black History Week.
Heritage is the hypothesis for humanity! No history, or connection to one’s origin, [translates into] no humanity. Thus the paradox of the enslaved coexisting with free men in a free society was resolved by denouncing the humanity of the African in bondage. To accomplish this feat, the African was stripped of his heritage (e.g. language, knowledge of self), denied the dignity of marriage (or to surname his children) and intellectualism (e.g. education and religion). Then, so his descendants could forget, America renamed him Negro, siphoning every ounce of African out of him over multiple generations. The subhuman nature of the African was certified through the disciplines of medicine and science, documenting his supposed lack of aptitude and physical limitations. (I can think of no better reason why it necessary to refrain from calling him African.)
This is the reason “Black” History month should be important. Unfortunately all the American society feeds the so-called African-American year after year is Slave History, not African History. As token as the Dr. King program I attended! If they’re not reminding us of our value as slaves (i.e. the self-worthlessness they project on to us) they’re reminding us to continue being good Christian folk and wait on the Winds of Change to improve our condition here in America; to quench the yearning for revolution within, as any oppressed people would harbor.
Recognized black heroes are either accordant abolitionists or peaceful protesters. In other words, Black history has been defined only in reference to individuals’ reaction to [white] oppression. And even then we are reminded of the role whites played in supporting or sponsoring these individuals (i.e. good White folk vs bad White people). Black history’s focus should be on that which builds esteem; independent of slavery, oppression, or white intervention! Black history should most definitely be Afro-centric, as in of or pertaining to Africa, to strengthen the connection to our humanity.
If Black History Month is just another way for an oppressive society to remind a people what is worst about them, then all we will never be are former slaves! The Irish were also enslaved by the English, yet they are not reminded of this every St. Patrick’s Day. There were signs on American establishment that said, “no dogs, no Irish allowed.” But the Irish are not made to relive this era year after year. As it is, Black History Month continues to make basket cases of the black man in America. This most certainly needs to change; in our homes, in our schools, and in our societal celebrations!