It’s that time of year again, Black History Month. Beginning every February in the United States, the country sets aside 28 (or 29 in a leap year) days to celebrate, discuss and engage Black History. Innocuous enough. And yet what seems to happen every Feb. 1st, is the beginning of a 28-days long ritual of whining (how come they get their own month?), misconceptions and endless micro-aggressive racial faux-pas. And this isn’t just from the usual sky boxes of white privilege; there are black people (some of them noteworthy) who wade into…well…the stupid. So here are a few tips to better understand the month, both for those who have to endure the stupid and for those who might be enticed to engage in the stupid.
This is just an updated list from an identical post I did last year. But guess what? It never gets old because the stupid never changes.
I’m not racist but… How come THEY get their own month? You know the old saying about if you have to start off with “I’m not racist but…” right? Everything after that should just be silence. See the informative graphic above. Basically the answer is, racism. That’s it. Pure and simple. Black History Month exists because racism declared for a very long time that the only history that was worth knowing was white history–that is, the history of the western world, Europe and (if you’re in the United States) white people in America. Don’t believe me? Listen to this guy:
I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men, to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures among them, no arts, no sciences…Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men–David Hume
See there? And that’s not your run-of-the-mill everyday slack-jawed yokel white guy either. That’s David Hume, the great Scottish philosopher of the Enlightenment–you know that age of reason and intellect that gave us nice things like natural rights, freedom, liberty, etc.? Also gave us the fruits of natural scientific racism. And it’s trickled down, by many others of his ilk (very smart reasonable and pleasant white fellows) to permeate our institutions, popular thinking and our understandings of history. If you’ve never heard of black figures in US history like Benjamin Banneker or Elijah McCoy and Mary Church Terrell, but you’ve heard of white figures like Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers and Susan B. Anthony, there’s a reason for that–racism. Those black figures were not deemed important or as worthy as their white counterparts. So you can go through grades 1-12, even through college, and never manage to run across those names unless you take *distinct* classes on African-American studies, history, etc. That’s why there’s a Black History Month, to honor and acknowledge those elements of history that too often go ignored or are given short thrift. Got it? Good.
If there was a White History Month, THAT would be racist! Yeah, probably. Not because white people are inherently racist, but because there’s a long history of white people getting together to celebrate their whiteness and coming up with things like the Ku Klux Klan or rolling tanks into Poland. Sorry, you all have just gone about doing it very, very badly! When black folk yelled “Black Power” in the 1960s, most you got out of that was some fly afros, James Brown doing splits and Soul Train. Don’t blame us if when we hear you shouting “White Power!” it makes folks nervous. But more than it being racist, it would be plain dumb. I mean, slack-jawed, mouth-breathing, monstrously dumb. Go back to the first question. If Black History Month exists because of past racism by white society, and most of the history we learn is already about white people, exactly what purpose would a White History Month serve? To recall the several hundred years of white enslavement? To commemorate when white people got their freedom? To relive the dark days of Biff Crow, when black people forced you to drink from “OFAY ONLY” water fountains? To celebrate Roseanne McParker’s brave stance on not giving up her seat to a black man on a bus? To talk about the White Civil Rights Movement that helped transform America and stop discrimination against white people? To remember the moment when Barry O’Bamasfield became the nation’s first white president? Unless you’re some inter-dimensional traveler who’s fallen through a wormhole and come out the other end from some parallel/alternative America, don’t say this anymore. It’s embarrassing.
How come they gave us the shortest month? This question comes from the black side of the spectrum, who for some reason think we’re saying something deep. The irony is, a little Black History is all one needs to understand the answer to that question:
National African-American History Month had its origins in 1915 when historian and author Dr. Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. This organization is now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (“ASALH”). Through this organization Dr. Woodson initiated the first Negro History Week in February 1926. Dr. Woodson selected the week in February that included the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two key figures in the history of African-Americans. In 1975, President Ford issued a Message on the Observance of Black History Week urging all Americans to “recognize the important contribution made to our nation’s life and culture by black citizens.” In 1976 this commemoration of black history in the United States was expanded by ASALH to Black History Month, also known as African-American History Month, and President Ford issued the first Message on the Observance of Black History Month.- Library of Congress
See? No one “gave us” the shortest month. We did it. And it has a distinct purpose. Now you have a Black History answer to your question about Black History Month. Stop asking it please.
Black History should be YEAR ROUND not just a month! Also from the black side of the spectrum. I hear your alarm, but don’t think you have anything to worry about. Black History Month is not Christmas. There’s no Black History Month tree. It’s not working towards a climax where we all give each other presents, then the season is over and we pack all the Black History into the attic till next time. The stores don’t stock up on Frederick Douglass dolls and then take them down on March 1st and put up Easter candy. Historians of Black History still have jobs the rest of the year. Books on Black History remain stocked on the shelves. Throughout social media, black people will continue to send me tidbits of Black History–some of it good, some of it suspect. I don’t know of any black people who forget about Black History once the 28-days are over. The purpose of Black History Month is to place a spotlight on that history. So Keep Calm.
It’s not Black History, It’s AMERICAN History! Okay, so not stupid exactly. I can’t argue with that. It certainly is. Frederick Douglass or Malcolm X didn’t exist in a vacuum, but in the larger context of American history. It’s important people see that, and not believe Black History exists suspended in some far-away unrelated place. Yet at the same time, Black History Month has varied interpretations. For some, it is mostly about what is more conventional African-American history that deals with the history within the national boundaries of the United States (and the previous 13 colonies). But there has been a long history of expanding beyond that. W.E.B. DuBois in his Souls of Black Folk begins his understanding of Black History in Africa, and proceeds from there. African-American researchers like JA Rogers early on examined Black History across space and time–from the ancient world to the United States to slave rebels in Haiti and beyond. Black History Month can thus at times be about slave maroons in Jamaica, jazz artists of the Harlem Renaissance, ancient pyramid building pharaohs or black faces popping up in places you least expect. African-Americans today are also increasingly from a diaspora that stretches from Black Atlantic communities in the Caribbean to West, Central, South and East Africa. All of those stories may in time become part of this grander narrative. So Black History Month, it turns out, doesn’t have one monolithic voice and can mean many different things.
Why do we just hear about Civil Rights and Slavery on Black History Month? Our history didn’t start with slavery! Another one from the black side of the spectrum. And again, not stupid. But at times misguided. I understand the sentiment. Go back to that comment by David Hume above. Through the years, the Black Atlantic has sought to respond to these denigrations of black humanity by highlighting counter “achievements.” So if Europe touted Greece and Rome (never mind that ancient Romans or Greeks would have thought it spectacularly puzzling that some Anglos, Saxons and Gauls were claiming them as “racial” kin), black people would tout “Aethiopia” and Egypt (at least some of it), and later look to Songhai or Mali or the like. Some of this has been valid and important information that has helped effectively counter white-supremacist narratives. Certainly. Other times however it skirts the boundaries of the questionable or veers into the outright absurd (*cough*- Hidden Colors), becoming a mockery of itself. That approach has been and remains a mixed bag. Next time someone gives you a list of “10 Things You Didn’t Know…” do some research on the back end. But this ideology was also infused into Black History Month, which for a very long time in the 20th century focused on “firsts” and black “achievements.” Black History after all was supposed to instill pride. In the 1970s however African-American historians like Vincent Harding began questioning this approach. Harding argued that Black History had to move beyond “firsts.” Black History in the United States had to face its place not just within the American mosaic but the American paradox, the double-consciousness that W.E.B. DuBois spoke about. It had to be willing and able to explore its place within the dark side of American history, the one rooted in oppression and inequity. So yes, that means Black History Month is also about slavery–that several hundred year process that laid the foundations for modern society, built American society and that pulls on us much stronger than far flung African empires. It’s about Jim Crow. It’s about lynching. It’s about anti-black race riots and redlining and more. It’s about all those marginalized and forgotten voices who weren’t great “kings and queens” or “firsts.” Black History has to deal with ALL of this vexing complexity–or it remains incomplete, and perhaps hollow.
Did you see that clip of Morgan Freeman on Black History Month being “ridiculous?” Yes. And my answer? Morgan Freeman is ridiculous. Or rather, Morgan Freeman doesn’t really know what he’s talking about–though he certainly is passionate about it. To summarize his argument, Freeman says no other group (and he points to Mike Wallace being Jewish) has a month set aside for their history, which makes him think his history is being relegated and segregated out. First, he would be well-served if someone hipped him to the previous few points mentioned above. Second, claiming no other group has a recognized month…? Errr… May is Jewish American Heritage Month. Sept-Oct is Hispanic-American Heritage Month. May is also Asia-Pacific American Heritage Month. November is Native-American Heritage Month. March is Irish American Heritage Month and Women’s History Month. And those are just the federally recognized months. There’s been for instance a push for Persian-American month around the Persian New Year (Nowruz) and April has become popular for Arab-American Heritage month. So umm. Yeah. Before you get so hot-and-bothered about something, hop on the Google. It should be pointed out, Morgan Freeman also believes if people stop talking about racism it will go away. I wonder if we stop talking about Morgan Freeman, if he will also magically disappear? Moral of the story, don’t get your Black History from Morgan Freeman. Great actor, terrible on holidays.
I’m not Black, why is Black History Month Important? Because. That’s my answer. It’s important just because. Here’s a good example that fits the theme of this blog. The Marvel series Truth: Red, White & Black by Robert Morales and drawn by Kyle Baker retells the story of the super-serum program that created Captain America, using black history (most notably the infamous Tuskegee Experiments) as a backdrop. The inclusion of this history sparked both shock and awe among the geek-o-sphere, many of who were introduced to this real-life story (now interwoven with their favorite super-hero) for the first time. As critic Adilifu Nama points out, the story “admonished the reader to incorporate the experiences and histories of black folk that paint a different picture of the cost and quest for freedom and democracy in America.” This site is similarly dedicated to speculative history, authored under my pen name Phenderson Djeli Clark. The middle part of that name basically refers to the famed storytellers of western Africa. Their tales were both history, in the western sense, melded with folklore and the fantastic. History is one of those things that fantasy and SF writers and others in speculative fiction can’t escape. Anyone engaged in speculative creating, knows that just the act of world building can require endless historical research. You can’t do fantasy in your medieval pre-industrial setting unless you have some history (whether that’s Eurocentric Westeros, African-centered Nyumbani or more diverse conjured up realms). Your steampunk America is pure fantasy if it doesn’t deal with slavery or Jim Crow or colonization. Even our futurist creations are often based on imagined histories that mimic and reflect those of our past. Movies like The Matrix make little sense outside the context of race in America. Want to understand the meaning behind that BI-66ER Unit in The Second Renaissance that helped spark the war with the machines? You better know your Dred Scott Case & certain characters from your Richard Wright novels. So Black History is important, because it fits into that larger human history that we draw upon in our creations. It’s important, just because.
That’s all I got for this year. This doesn’t cover everything. And I’m pretty certain that before the month ends new mind-boggling bits of WTF will pop up regarding Black History Month. My advice? Understand that most of those people really don’t know what they’re talking about. Confront them if you must. But mostly, engage and learn this month–because that’s what it was meant to do.