On Black History
In the late 1940s there was no such thing as Black History
Month. During that time, however, a man named Carter G. Woodson
founded Black History Week so African Americans could learn about
key figures and transformations of the past. With that knowledge,
he reasoned, they could gain reassurance that black people were
important contributors to the making and shaping of American
society. That gave them pride in their histories, pride in their
people and, above all, pride in themselves.
As an '80s kid, I was always taught about people like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. In junior high school I learned in more detail about the same people and the same movements. I came away with the notion that black people had been given their freedom and were now considered as equals in this free society. And Black History Month served its purpose in reinforcing the textbook version of the progression of African Americans that I was already taught in the classroom.
Well, Black History Month (ironically, the shortest month of the year) has arrived again, and I am taking this time to find meaning in these 28 days of reflection, learning and celebration. But I must ask myself, What am I celebrating? What does Black History Month mean to me?
Yes, I can appreciate the knowledge of the contributions of my people. I can appreciate their struggle to pave a smoother path for my generation. Black History Month also focuses my attention on the successes of an oppressed people.
But how can I celebrate when I know that many black people in this country still feel the sting of social injustice? How can I celebrate when I know that many black people are still in economic strife? How can I celebrate when I know that gunshot wounds are the leading cause of death among black males in this country? How can I celebrate when I know that a large number of black males are behind bars rather than behind a desk in a classroom? How can I celebrate when I see the black family deteriorating? How can I celebrate when I see the lives of so many young black people being extinguished by drugs and violence? How can I celebrate when I still see too much inherent racism, resistance and fear of black people?
I have no doubt that we can all learn from history. But it does us no justice or good if we do not build upon it. February ought not be a month when we just dig through the archives and film footage, and decorate boards with colorful pictures of key figures and metaphorical images of freedom. We have to take these 28 days to use what the pioneers of the past used to gain freedom and change. We can't just remember them and talk about them and praise them. Their lives, their struggles and their accomplishments need to be used as models to find resolutions for the problems we face 365 days of the year.
Recently, I spent time with some African Americans of different generations on the Homewood campus. I wanted to discover what Black History Month meant to them and what purpose it served in their lives. Some believe Black History Month relieves white Americans from guilt; others believe that it educates white Americans about black people and their abilities. Some believe having a black history month minimizes the contributions African Americans make all year.
The older folks with whom I spoke of Black History Month are reminded of the immense amount of strength that black people have as a culture. They were grateful to know that there were black people who played important roles in history.
For some of the baby boomers, Black History Month serves as a time of frustration. They believe that even though we celebrate overcoming slavery, it in many ways masks the reality that there is still much inequality yet to be overcome.
My generation seems to view Black History Month as a time of thanksgiving. We use models of the past to help guide us through paving an even smoother path for the next generation.
For me, it needs to be redefined. Until we have a society that is truly ready to integrate the histories of all Americans into the educational, political and social arenas, we have to educate ourselves and other cultures through what is called vernacular. And with that vernacular we must seek to teach, not isolate, not reiterate and not reinforce the slave psyche.
Often when people hear the word vernacular they automatically think of language. English is a type of vernacular. Spanish and French are also types of vernacular. But vernacular is also art, music, storytelling, acting, and other forms of expression. It's part of the human psyche, serving as a mechanism by which we can all build firm understandings and a sense of communication.
In this way vernacular ought not to be used as a way to allow people to separate themselves or keep them from understanding each other. Every culture has its own vernacular. That is what makes America unique. But we must attempt to find ourselves in each culture in some big or minute way. Whether it be tasting curry or Mexican rice. Or whether it be listening to gospel music or blues or classical music. Black History Month itself should be a way to share and celebrate our vernacular in the present tense. Thus we can move past slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination and racism.
The theme--"Beating the Drums from Africa to America"-- acknowledges that African Americans were enslaved and denied citizenry. But progress has been achieved for the most part. We are celebrating our talents and contributions in the present tense with the acknowledgment that there is still work to do.
What Black History Month means to me is that I can thank my mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers for keeping their heads held high when their backs were bent, for wanting more for me and for knowing my worth and their worth. But I believe that my worth, my power and my accomplishments transcend beyond one month of the year. And so do those of the people that lived before me. That's why Black History Month to me means remembering the drumbeats from Africa as well as celebrating what we have become and where we are going.
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