Thursday, February 10, 2011

Making Black... History

It’s truly amazing to me how easily various concepts are co-opted and distorted. For example, Carter G Woodson introduced Negro History Week in 1926 (also referred to as Negro Appreciation Week). One of the concessions resulting from the Black Power Movement (aside from school breakfast programs) was the federal ordinance of making Black History Week into Black History Month in 1976. The original purpose of the observance: to educate the American people about the culture, history and contributions of African American people and subsequently expanded to recognize the history and events of people of the African Diaspora and is now celebrated in Canada as well as in the UK in October.

The existence and observance of Black History Month has fallen under sharp criticism and scrutiny form a number of directions. The first one: “Why isn’t there a White History Month?” often truculently posed by people who seem oblivious to the history taught in most schools during the other nine months of the school year. The second, coming from folks who want to know why is it observed during the shortest month of the year. While this is a reasonable question, the people who often pose it rarely do anything to counter-balance the status quo, such as holding schools and school systems accountable for their inequitable approach to teaching a balanced perspective of American history.

The third category of BHM naysayers seems to be the quasi-intellectual (or ridiculously naive) vanguard of the first group: Is Black History Month still necessary? Having stood in front of a classroom of college students (Black and white) where several were surprised that Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. were not contemporaries; living in a nation that completely ignores J.A. Rogers’ revelation of the five (legally) Black presidents who preceded Barack Obama; having seen the self-proclaimed “HNIC” (Head N-word In Charge) and leading academic contender of the Post-Racialist Society theory, Dr. Henry Louis Gates being led from his home in handcuffs by police responding to a possible break-in; and with a nation that still refuses to outright acknowledge the African American roots of it’s “homegrown culture”; let’s ponder that question. 

As a performing artist and arts educator, my phone would start to ring heavily in November with bookings from schools wanting me to come be black for them during February. I remember one principal in particular being devastated about my lack of availability for BHM until I pointed out that March and April were wide open and I assured her that I was “just as Black and charming the other 9 months of the school year.”

Those of us born during the Black Power era (mid 1960’s to mid 1970’s) to socially progressive Black parents came to recognize that:
  • ·      Learning about Black people in American history was relegated to the shortest month of the year.
  • ·      Black History Month would be the only time for students to be briefed on the contributions of a select few Black people related to events learned about during the rest of the year. For example, learning about the building of Washington DC in October, but not learning about Benjamin Banneker until February.
  • ·      There was a considerable focus on the era of slavery (I figured it was a way for some of my teachers to reminisce about the Good Old Days), then jumping 100 years into the Civil Rights era when Martin Luther King showed white southerners the error of their ways (because northern were not racists) and brought about the end of racism in America. Of course, the election of Barrack Obama as president forty years after MLK's assassination was further proof that we are not a racist country... the un unprecedented birth of the group "Democrats for McCain" had nothing to do with the fact that Obama was Black...
Then, after February 28/ 29 we’d return to our regularly scheduled programming.  

It is of little wonder that by the late 1980’s, the college campus activity of many Black students closely resembled that of their fore-bearers from the 1960’s with a revisited outcry of “Black History: More Than A Month!!!” This movement soon merged with the multicultural curriculum movement, calling for an over-all inclusion of the history and contributions of all ethno-cultural groups acculturated into western civilization. The banner of multiculturalism was quickly co-opted by ‘main-stream’ educators and soon multiculturalism became an excuse to avoid addressing the historic elements of race relations; including the presence of a racially based caste system; the social, political and economic marginalization of people of color; and the fact that African Americans (as opposed to Africans and the other cultures of the African Diaspora) remain the pariahs of society.

It appears that since the reconstruction period of the 19th Century, the mission of American society seems to be one of erasing the African American experience from it’s records and consciousness as a means of further covering up the hypocrisy of equality and freedom in American society. Meanwhile, organizations like the NAACP busy themselves with the all-important task of deciding what Negro/ Black/ African American people should call themselves. 

Traditionally, rapid growth and progress are considered elements of the great American success story: celebrating the individual or small group of people who, start a tiny business that quickly grows into a major corporation, is an integral element of the American Dream. This is true until you get to the social, political and/or economic growth of Black Americans; then it’s a matter of “patience” and “all deliberate speed.” Until American society is ready to truly explore, value and acknowledge all aspects of its history: the answer to the question, "Is Black History Month still necessary?" remains a resounding YES!
e third category of BHM naysayers seems to be the quasi-intellectual (or ridiculously naive) vanguard of the first group: Is Black History Month still necessary? Having stood in front of a classroom of college students (Black and white) where several were surprised that Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. were not contemporaries; living in a nation that completely ignores J.A. Rogers’ revelation of the five (legally) Black presidents who preceded Barack Obama; having seen the self-proclaimed “HNIC” (Head N-word In Charge) and leading academic contender of the Post-Racialist Society theory, Dr. Henry Louis Gates being led from his home in handcuffs by police responding to a possible break-in; and with a nation that still refuses to outright acknowledge the African American roots of it’s “homegrown culture”; let’s ponder that question. 

As a performing artist and arts educator, my phone would start to ring heavily in November with bookings from schools wanting me to come be black for them during February. I remember one principal in particular being devastated about my lack of availability for BHM until I pointed out that March and April were wide open and I assured her that I was “just as Black and charming the other 9 months of the school year.”

Those of us born during the Black Power era (mid 1960’s to mid 1970’s) to socially progressive Black parents came to recognize that:
  • ·      Learning about Black people in American history was relegated to the shortest month of the year.
  • ·      Black History Month would be the only time for students to be briefed on the contributions of a select few Black people related to events learned about during the rest of the year. For example, learning about the building of Washington DC in October, but not learning about Benjamin Banneker until February.
  • ·      There was a considerable focus on the era of slavery (I figured it was a way for some of my teachers to reminisce about the Good Old Days), then jumping 100 years into the Civil Rights era when Martin Luther King showed white southerners the error of their ways (because northern were not racists) and brought about the end of racism in America. Of course, the election of Barrack Obama as president forty years after MLK's assassination was further proof that we are not a racist country... the un unprecedented birth of the group "Democrats for McCain" had nothing to do with the fact that Obama was Black...
Then, after February 28/ 29 we’d return to our regularly scheduled programming.  

It is of little wonder that by the late 1980’s, the college campus activity of many Black students closely resembled that of their fore-bearers from the 1960’s with a revisited outcry of “Black History: More Than A Month!!!” This movement soon merged with the multicultural curriculum movement, calling for an over-all inclusion of the history and contributions of all ethno-cultural groups acculturated into western civilization. The banner of multiculturalism was quickly co-opted by ‘main-stream’ educators and soon multiculturalism became an excuse to avoid addressing the historic elements of race relations; including the presence of a racially based caste system; the social, political and economic marginalization of people of color; and the fact that African Americans (as opposed to Africans and the other cultures of the African Diaspora) remain the pariahs of society.

It appears that since the reconstruction period of the 19th Century, the mission of American society seems to be one of erasing the African American experience from it’s records and consciousness as a means of further covering up the hypocrisy of equality and freedom in American society. Meanwhile, organizations like the NAACP busy themselves with the all-important task of deciding what Negro/ Black/ African American people should call themselves. 

Traditionally, rapid growth and progress are considered elements of the great American success story: celebrating the individual or small group of people who, start a tiny business that quickly grows into a major corporation, is an integral element of the American Dream. This is true until you get to the social, political and/or economic growth of Black Americans; then it’s a matter of “patience” and “all deliberate speed.” Until American society is ready to truly explore, value and acknowledge all aspects of its history: the answer to the question, "Is Black History Month still necessary?" remains a resounding YES!

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