So I’ve been reading your comments on the Miss Jessie’s giveaway post, and it’s got me thinking alot about Black History Month. Quite a few of you pointed out the month’s most obvious flaw — its brevity. Also, that black history is American history, the blood, sweat, and tears of our ancestors were shed to build this land. Why have a separate month to shine a light on black accomplishments, and why reduce our historical appreciation to the shortest month of the year? I’m going to float a theory and you can feel free to debate it with me — maybe the powers that be don’t really want us to focus solely on black history for too long. You start mulling over the history of African Americans in this country for too long, and you start getting angry at the long shadow of Jim Crow. Heartbroken over the would haves, could haves, and should haves of our shared past. Angry that more people simply don’t know the extent of the lynchings and murders and unacceptable indignity people of color have endured in this land. Seething at continued injustice.
Black History Month is about celebrating accomplishments and recognizing greatness. It is also when buried memories come to the surface and old wounds are picked open. For example, when Concrete Loop wrote about the destruction of Black Wall Street on June 1, 1921, when 3,000 people were murdered and a thriving black community was firebombed, the comments revealed how successful the burial of history was. Most people expressed their horror that this happened, and dismay that they never learned about it in high school or college. And for most people, that’s where the study of history begins and ends.
It’s really quite shocking what we don’t know about the experiences of our ancestors. I read a really interesting post over at Whatever Lola Wants, that intelligently dissed the concept of Black History Month. She eloquently explains why some have called it “ghetto month.”
“As a professional historian, I donâ€™t like these specially designated â€œmonthsâ€: Womenâ€™s history, Black history, Hispanic history, etc, I donâ€™t think we should just limit the exploration of any one culture to just one month. And yet, we do! And everyone does it! Schools, private companies, the media; we cant escape being inundated with information on whatever particular culture thats being honored that month.
As a historian, I prefer a more â€inclusionaryâ€ (yeah I made that word up) look at history, whether it be American, Caribbean & Latin American, economic or military history, lets look at the various events within those categories as it pertains to ALL INVOLVED, not just â€œBlack economic historyâ€ or â€œBlacks in the military.â€
I completely agree with her on that front — our history should be celebrated year round, thereby eliminating the need for a designated month. Ideally, black history month wouldn’t feel like a bone we were collectively thrown. Ideally, we’d all be immersing ourselves in history, and feeding our minds by reading more, and watching less television. Ideally, the information revealed in PBS’ Black History Month documentaries would be common knowledge to the masses, not an annual surprise to those who choose to tune in. Ideally, our national museums, art galleries, and libraries would give equal attention to all races, and feature ethnically diverse exhibits year round. Ideally, someday, as Dr. Carter G. Woodson wanted when he devised Negro History Week to begin with, Black History Month would eventually be deemed unnecessary.
But I sincerely believe it is still needed, and it serves a wonderful purpose. History has been whitewashed, and school curriculums have been sanitized of many significant bloodstains. From my semester-long experience of teaching an African-American history course disguised as an college intro English class, I’d venture to say that college-age kids today know the bare bones of black history. However, it isn’t fleshed out in a way so it touches their lives. The experiences of our ancestors remain dusty, sepia-toned, and ancient to them. It seems uninteresting and irrelevant to their realities. The students I taught had heard about a time when lynchings were commonplace, but they’d never heard Billie Holiday sing “Strange Fruit” and empathized with the dread that reverberates through that song. They knew Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream before he was assassinated, but that’s pretty much all they knew. They’ve heard that Malcolm X spoke of freedom by any means necessary, but that was the sum of their knowledge. And this was a class full of college freshmen from various corners of the country. Based on the responses I got when I taught that class, and played them “Strange Fruit” and talked about what the song means, watched the closing montage of Bamboozled (I won’t ever forget their shock at seeing racist cartoons for the first time) and realized how stereotypes are constantly recycled… yeah. I’d say Black History Month is still very necessary. (You can read a whole lot more about stereotypes at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, an incredible online resource).
I’d love to see us all make an effort to celebrate our history year-round. We need to step past the old-hat factoids, and educate the next generation about those that paved the way for all of us. Right now, this is what we have. 28 days (29 this year) of documentaries and very special episodes and exhibits and special posts on blogs and columns in the paper. So instead of dismissing the limited time we have, I say soak it up, learn as much as you can, and think of ways to improve what we’ve got. There’s some excellent stuff to see and do and learn this month.
Around the blogosphere, Stereohyped is offering a daily dose of BHM, Concrete Loop has a Black History Spotlight, Listen to Leon is featuring a contest (give a black history fact and you could win a prize!), and the ever-enlightening What About Our Daughters has put together a fantastic list of Black History Month documentaries and television screenings (psst, click here to read Clutch Magazine’s awesome interview with Gina, creator of WAOD).
And I’d love to add, VH1 Soul and VH1 Classic are airing some incredible Black History Month docs every night for the rest of the month. And for next year’s Black History Month roundup of documentaries, I’d personally like to see more of those Ego Trip documentaries and I’d LOVE to see Cartoon Network present something on banned cartoons. Hey, it could even be a whole animated documentary hosted by Huey Freeman of the Boondocks!
What do you think, bellas and fellas? What would you like to see next Black History Month? What would you change about Black History Month?