I looooooove Black History Month. I love what it stands for. I love how communities, and organizations, and families, find themselves in conversations over who did what when, and what it means today. I love how, even in schools that don’t have Black students, people are focusing on the struggles, contributions and triumphs of people who look like me. I love how it grew from Negro History Week to Black History month, and how it paved the way for Hispanics, Asians and women to also have months to celebrate their struggles, contributions and triumphs. Yet, the more “conscious” we become as a people and as a nation, the more the concept of a month dedicated to Black History seems unnecessary… even disrespectful in some way. There are so many questions about the need/validity of a month dedicated to Black History. I hear so many things that are anti BHM, that I almost question my love for it; things like:
Why did they give us the shortest month of the year?
Why do we only get to celebrate Black History one month out of the year?
We always talk about the same people over and over again, what good is that?
Everybody already knows Black History, we aren’t stupid. Let’s talk about the future.
We’re all American, so we should talk about American history and not just Black history.
Why don’t we have a White History Month… Why do we only celebrate Black History?
Although many of these things contradict each other, the people who say them sometimes make good points. But then I think about Carter G. Woodson. What would Dr. Woodson think about these opinions? How would he feel if he heard people saying “they gave us” the shortest month of the year, when in reality he chose February to celebrate Negro History Week to honor the birthdays of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. He would probably feel disrespected that people didn’t know enough about Black History to know that. What would he think about the fact that he started Negro History week to introduce topics that would encourage people join his Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and read his Journal of Negro history as part of their year-round study, only to find that people still don’t join educational societies or read educa ational journals, and just want others to spoonfeed them information on a regular basis. What would George Washing Carver say about people being tired of learning about a man who “invented the peanut”, knowing that getting respect for Black people’s intelligence was so important to him that a real study of his life would include something about allowing himself to be castrated so that he could work at Iowa State University without them fearing he would sleep with any of the White women there. He would probably feel pretty disrespected that people couldn’t even get his inventions correct despite his sacrifices. I know all the people who made history would be broken-hearted to know their sacrifices were seen as something that has nothing to do with the future, since everything they did was to make sure we had a future. Then again, the families of all our mixed race presidents before Obama (there were six) are probably glad that we still see American history as separate from Black History.
I remember back in college reading an article written by a woman who was a known historian, and well-versed on all things “Black”. She talked about her love/hate relationship with BHM; she loved being able to reach a wider audience with her information, but she hated the fact that her phone barely rang until December, and by the end of January it rang off the hook. Then in March it was quiet again. She talked about how, when someone called to schedule a presentation, no matter what they said to influence her to come speak, all she heard was: “Come be Black for Me.” I thought it was hysterical, yet insightful. Even moreso, years later when I was making the rounds during Black History Month. I would speak at grade schools, colleges, community agencies, and churches. After a few years, I recognized the pattern of calls. When someone asked me what I was doing on a particular evening in February, I would say I had to go be Black for ____________ (fill in the name of the group).
It was fun being Black for people. I loved being Black for Black people, because after people thanked me for telling them something they never knew, they would complain that they should have learned it in school. I took that opportunity to tell them to push their school board members to make sure that it’s included for their children… or just take their children to the library to learn for themselves. I loved being Black for Hispanic/Latino groups because it gave me a chance to emphasize the aspects of our cultures that were similar, as well as how we were connected in our roots. I loved being Black for White people, particularly the kids, because it gave me a change to plant multiple seeds to question why history is presented the way it is and then point them in a direction to find the answer, rather than just beat them over the head with us good / you bad facts. I remember speaking at a school that I will not name, but it rhymes with South Shore Christian High School in Levittown, N.Y. I was their first ever BHM speaker, and they really didn’t want to celebrate the day, but the growing Black student population demanded it. In the negotiations, they said I had to speak for free… which they knew would deter me… except they didn’t know me. So I paid for my flight from Buffalo to NYC. By the time I got there, I had decided to teach the faculty that voted not to pay me a lesson on the depth of Black history by using the students in an interactive presentation.
After a basic introduction, a few jokes and a few interesting facts, I gave them my affirmative action relay race analogy… which always makes White Folks go… “wow, I never thought of it that way.” I went on to say how honored I was to be there since, as a former Hempstead High Student, I knew that back in HS I wouldn’t have been allowed on their campus unless there was a sporting event. Then I told them I wanted the students to represent recorded history, with each student representing 100 years. I had two Black students line up along the wall. “These two students represent America since its independence”. Then three more Black students lined up. “These students represent the time since Columbus’ arrival, and also the time since the first arrival of slaves. These 500 years represent US History. Then I lined up a mixed group of 18 students (I wanted to use Black students, but I ran out). “These students represent the approximate duration of time going back through ancient Greece and Rome that our 500 years was patterned after.” Then I lined up 17 more White students. “These students represent the period of time that Ancient Egypt and Kush existed as modern organized societies before Ancient Greece. So as you can see, our time in the US accounts for only 1/8 of Black History, just five out of 40 students. Yes, Africans were brought as slaves 27 years after Columbus first arrived, and 12 years after Roanoke and Jamestown were settled, so we were here from the beginning of US history. But Black history is more than slavery, and abolition. It’s more than Abraham Lincoln and MLK. It’s 8x more (not including “pre-history”)
I said a lot more, but the words were barely heard because the visual was so stunning. The Black kids represented American history, and the White kids represented Black history… and there were obviously more White kids to look at. The Social Studies teacher was pissed, ‘cause he knew he had to deal with this mess when I left. But the students, Black and White, were amazed. And the principal was... impressed. Do you know that man went to his office and wrote me a check to cover my plane fair!!!! Of course, he wrote it from the students’ activity fund, but he paid me under the Little Rascal’s policy: "If we like the show we pay as we exit!" And the Black kids were proud to be Black that day. They should have been everyday, but the reality is… they weren’t. When you’re in environments that are hostile to you’re Blackness, particularly when you are judged based on the coonage of others being portrayed in the media on any given day, it isn’t always easy to be proud. That’s not self-hate, just negative affirmations having the same effect as positive affirmations. You shouldn’t need positive affirmations all the time… just once in awhile… like maybe… one month out of the year. I enjoyed being Black for you here, now you can go and enjoy being Black for someone else… you don’t even have to be Black to do it. Happy Black History Month! Let it be the inspiration for you to continue learning and sharing for the rest of the year… just like Dr. Woodson intended.