Tips for Understanding Black History Month- 2017 RESIST Edition

gloria-richardson2It’s that time of year again, Black History Month. And in 2017, we may need it more than ever. 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 Feb. 1st seems to signal the beginning of a 28-day long ritual of whining. How come they get their own month? What about White History Month? It’s a cornucopia of misconceptions and endless micro-aggressive racial faux-pas. And this isn’t just from the usual sky boxes of white obliviousness; there are black people (for instance, the formerly employed Stacey Dash) who wade into the stupid with reckless abandon. In a world where actual white nationalists and Nazi sympathizers have made their way into the higher echelons of the government, and punching Nazis is now up for debate, we should expect that the stupid is going to be extra thick, extra fragile and extra whiny. So here are a few tips to better understand the month: a bit of mental armor for those who have to battle the stupid and for those who might be enticed to engage in the stupid.

This is an updated list from an annual post I’ve done for the last three years. But guess what? It never gets old because the stupid, it yet stirs and redoubles its efforts.

Photo- Gloria Richardson, June 1963. Caption should read, “Nah.”

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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. And by racism I mean white supremacy, not the reverse racism unicorns people make up in their heads. That’s it. Pure and simple. Black History Month exists because white supremacy 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, the more savory parts of 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, Of National Characters, 1753, a footnote

See there? And that’s not your run-of-the-mill everyday slack-jawed Pepe the Frog, Egg Avatar, Trump acolyte with 12 followers 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 were too long ignored or are given short thrift. Got it? Good.

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If there was a White History Month, THAT would be racist! Yes it would be. Just like White Identity Politics is inherently racist and White Nationalism is racist and folks who warn about White Genocide are racist. Yes, if you think “Diversity is White Genocide” you’re a racist. I mean think on what that is saying: “the existence of people different from me makes me think I’m going to be destroyed.” It don’t get no race-ier. Whiteness is inherently racist. Period. I know you’re like…but! but! but! Nope. Sorry. No buts. Notice I said Whiteness is inherently racist and not white people. Because. They’re. Not. The. Same. Things. One (white) is a category or group of people. The other (Whiteness) is an enacted behavior. And its enacted to enforce and maintain power and privilege. Whiteness therefore is inherently racist because racism is based on the concept of Whiteness. That ain’t an opinion. That’s scripture. Or, a good college course.

There’s a long history of white people getting together to celebrate Whiteness and coming up with things like the Ku Klux Klan or rolling tanks into Poland. When black folk yelled “Black Power” in the 1960s, most you got out of that was an Angela Davis fro, James Brown doing splits and Soul Train. When people hear folk shouting “White Power!” it makes them nervous–for legitimate reasons. Don’t believe me? Go through history of guys shouting “White Power!” and find me where it didn’t mean mortal danger to some non-white people who were marginalized and with much less collective societal and political power. I’ll wait.

But more than being racist, a White History Month would be plain dumb. I mean, slack-jawed, mouth-breathing, monstrously dumb. Go back to the first question. Carter G. Woodson in the 1920s hailed Black History as a “weapon” to be wielded against the oppression of white supremacy and anti-black racism. If Black History Month exists because of past racism and marginalization 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? (The “What About Irish Slaves?” mythology post can be found here. Oh yes, it’s also racist. Of course.). To commemorate when white people got their freedom? To relive the dark days of Biff Crow, when black people forced whites 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? I know the going trend is that a majority of white people think they’re now the truly oppressed; because, as the phrase goes, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality will always feel like oppression. But 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. It’s also racist.

CarterGWoodson

How come they gave us the shortest month? This question comes from the black side of the spectrum.  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. We took our own agency and created a time to celebrate Black History. Nobody handed it to us. No one made it up for us. Pro-tip: you see something celebrating Blackness, guarantee somebody black was probably behind it. The world ain’t been handing out free “Celebrate Your Blackness” points in a minute. A BLACK PERSON CHOSE FEBRUARY FOR BLACK HISTORY MONTH. And he had serious BLACK REASONS for doing so. Now you have a Black History answer to your question about Black History Month. Go run tell, tweet and preach that. But stop asking it, please. Or, read more books.

keep-calm-and-celebrate-black-history-month-18

Black History should be YEAR ROUND not just a month! Also from the black side of the spectrum. I hear your alarm pham, but don’t think you have anything to worry about. Black History Month is not Christmas. There’s no Black History Month tree. It doesn’t even come with a set of nifty Swahili principles. It’s not working towards a climax where we all give each other presents, then the season is over and we pack up 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 and Black Studies scholars still have jobs the rest of the year–at least until the NEH/NEA funding is cut. But Her Emails, right? Books on Black History will remain stocked on the shelves. There’s no secret state police that will come through ordering you not to celebrate Black History outside of its designated time period. At least not yet. 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. Who are they? Where does this happen? The purpose of Black History Month is to place a spotlight on the history–not confine it. So Keep Calm. And keep celebrating Black History.

celebrate-black-history-month

It’s not Black History, It’s AMERICAN History! Okay, so not stupid exactly. I can’t argue with that. It certainly is. Zora Neale Hurston 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. After all, if you don’t understand Black History you really don’t understand American history–I mean, at all. Yet at the same time, celebrating Black History has varied interpretations. And it always has. For some, it’s 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. Carter G. Woodson and Mary Mcleod Bethune called for the same in extolling Black History, stating it was urgent that black people understand the history of everything from African kingdoms to Alexander Dumas to Crispus Attucks. 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 and Latin America to West, Central, South and East Africa. Though as the Afro-Puerto Rican Arturo Schomburg, a founding father of Black History in early 1900s Harlem, reminds us–these connections ain’t nothing new. All of those stories have long been part of this grander narrative. So Black History Month, it turns out, doesn’t have one monolithic voice and can mean many different things. So you know, make it yours, however you wanna.

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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, becoming a mockery of itself. Exhibit A: the Ankh-Right, formerly known as Hoteps. That approach has been, and remains, a mixed bag. Be wary of what you read and do your research. These radical notions of black antiquity were 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. The one we see today in our 21st century nadir. The one that makes us have to shout BLACK LIVES MATTER. 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 (men and women, gay and straight–ALL) 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.

But guess what? In that history of oppression are also stories of resistance. Of black men and women who were abolitionists, and who formed vigilance committees to protect against slave catchers, and who spoke our valiantly against lynching, who stood up to injustice in the courts and in the streets, who volunteered to fight fascism in Spain and Ethiopia, who demanded and shouted and triumphed. They were people like this. And these right here. And look at what they did! That’s Black History too. Embrace it.

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 didn’t really know what he was talking about–though he certainly was passionate about it. To summarize his argument, Freeman claimed no other group (and he pointed to Mike Wallace being Jewish) has a month set aside for their history, which made him think Black History was being relegated and segregated out.

First, Morgan Freeman 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. April is Arab-American Heritage Month. June is Caribbean-American Heritage Month. October is LGBT History Month. October is also Polish-American Heritage Month, German-American Heritage Month and Italian-American Heritage Month–a European-based history month trifecta! And those are just the federal, state, or locally recognized months. There’s been for instance a push for Persian-American month around the Persian New Year (Nowruz), July is usually considered French-American Heritage Month (as it contains Bastille Day) and Scottish (Tartan) Heritage Week in April has been celebrated with parades in places like New York. So umm. Yeah. Before you get so hot-and-bothered about something, hop on the Google.

And hey, you know why all those various months celebrating ethnic, national or marginalized groups exist? Guess. No really. Guess why? Because of Black History Month. All were inspired, directly or indirectly, by what Carter G. Woodson set forth to do in the early 1900s, and for similar reasons. You’re. Welcome. Everyone.

It should be pointed out, Morgan Freeman also claimed that if people stopped talking about racism it would go away. That’s worked out well, hasn’t it? 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.

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I’m not Black, why is Black History Month Important? Because. That’s my answer. It’s important just because. You think you understand the American Revolution? You don’t if you have never heard of Crispus Attucks, the paradox of his martyrdom and why he was whitewashed out of history. You don’t understand it at all if you don’t know about Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation and the role black people, both slave and free, played within–and why it’s even mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. That’s the thing. Black History doesn’t exist suspended in the air somewhere hovering about outside of the broader historical narrative. It’s not a set of trivia questions. Black people did not sit on the sidelines as spectators while history occurred. Black people were part of that history. They influenced it. They played roles. They were actors and agents. You don’t understand Black folk history, then you don’t understand history–period. Particularly the history of the United States. In fact, maybe if more Americans understood that history, they’d listen to black people more on things like, say, voting for qualified non-fascist presidential candidates or terrible foreign policy decisions.

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. They’re just saying words, based on an absolute understanding of nothing. The rest are being intentionally malicious, because they thrive on anti-blackness. Confront them. Because this isn’t the year to back down. Confront them, drag them and shut em’ down. If not for yourself, for the other folks watching. But mostly this month, engage and learn. Remember that Black History Month was born out of a long history of struggle. And that struggle still has a lot to teach us about the strategies we’ll need for the present and the struggles yet to come.

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5 thoughts on “Tips for Understanding Black History Month- 2017 RESIST Edition

  1. “Because this isn’t the year to back down.” Truer words were seldom written. Thanks for the essay: I knew some of the names, but not all of them by far. And not because I learned them in school, either. One thing I’m beginning to see is if some of us officially don’t count…none of us do.

  2. Maybe if all those people would spend the time they waste complaining about Black History Month learning about black history instead, they would be happier? It seems to me that any opportunity to learn is a good opportunity, even without going into the reasons for Black History Month. I mean, they seem convincing reasons to me, but then, I’m not American, so I’m not really part of that discussion.

    Anyway, I enjoy these posts every year, because I always learn something from them – so thank you for that, and please keep it up 🙂

  3. “Whiteness is inherently racist. Period. I know you’re like…but! but! but! Nope. Sorry. No buts. Notice I said Whiteness is inherently racist and not white people. Because. They’re. Not. The. Same. Things. One (white) is a category or group of people. The other (Whiteness) is an enacted behavior. And its enacted to enforce and maintain power and privilege. Whiteness therefore is inherently racist because racism is based on the concept of Whiteness.”

    Absolutely right, but you know the same can be said about blackness. You have to recognize that the concept of blackness is cut from the exact same cloth as whiteness, that these racial categories rely on each other for definition like some kind of hellish yin-yang, and that the origin of both is distinctly European.

    You want to lionize blackness and black history? Good, I think that’s a good strategy to help a group of people that have had this label violently forced upon them and have been forced to live their lives acting out a part in someone else’s story. Blackness has to be talked about and talked about in a way that reverses how it’s been used in the past, to weaken and to subjugate. Blackness has to be remade into something that a person can wear with dignity and freedom not because the concept of blackness itself is so great, but because it doesn’t come off; it’s been stitched into black skin.

    One thing that’s important to remember though, I think, is that it’s still a white racist’s concept in its origins. It’s not hard to deconstruct and invert the black/white conceptual opposition so that black becomes the dominant partner in the pair, but it’s another matter entirely to get rid of that power dynamic where one HAS to dominate the other. The real ideal would be to imagine your way out of that opposition and all the ugliness that comes packaged with it entirely.

    So what am I trying to say here? I guess I just think that even though it’s important to talk about black history, we shouldn’t worship black history. I think it’s very important to remember that by using these concepts we’re playing with the devil’s tools, and we shouldn’t be afraid to criticize our own cherished concepts. I keep that criticism pretty muted right now, being white and not wanting to be mistaken for some alt-right #AllLivesMatter jerk, but I think it’s important not to forget it.

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