By Antony Taylor
Question: Is your department or organization celebrating Black History Month?
Without even knowing where you work, I can probably guess how your organization will acknowledge African American history this month. There will probably be an emphasis on the marquee names of the past; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, Dr. George Washington Carver, Aretha Franklin, perhaps Oprah Winfrey or Barrack Obama more recently. Your organization might have a committee and the team of pro-diversity staffers have decided to host a presentation or show a movie or read black themed literature throughout the month? Allow me to guess what movies they will show: The Help…, 12 Years a Slave….Selma…The Amistad…..Hidden Figures…….(The students will recite) Dr. King’s Dream Speech….. or more terrifying….Alex Haley’s Roots? It is notable to mention that all of these movies are created or funded by non-black institutions and the final product becomes their portrayal of the black experience. With all of the significant achievements that African Americans have accomplished and contributed to the United States, are these the best depictions of black people during this month (see: the shortest month) of cultural recognition and praise?
In 1926, Historian Carter Godwin Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History proclaimed the second week of February to be “Negro History Week”. This particular month and week were chosen because it merged two separate celebrations – the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln on February 12th and the birthday of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass on February 14th. These two men had been celebrated in the negro communities since late in the 19th century for their harrowing commitment to the abolishment of slavery in America. Negro History Week was received warmly by the African American community and spearheaded the creation of Black History clubs, as well as created interest of black advocation among educators and progressive whites. In the United States, the Black United Students and the Black educators at Kent State University hosted the first Black History Month celebration from January 2, 1970 to February 29, 1970. “Negro History Week” is the precursor to what we refer to today as “Black History Month”.
Despite the initial aspirations to venerate the many achievements of African Americans, today, the focus has shifted from having themes of upliftment to ingemination of the traumatizing stories and themes of pain, suffering and second-class citizenship. Does Black History equal Slave History? This is why I ask, who exactly is the target audience for the annual Black History Month observations and what are the desired outcomes for the participants after the month has passed? Simply put, when I walk away from the observance, how should I or you feel?
· If we must change the world through our children, is it for the young children, of all races, to be inspired to make the world a better place?
· Is it for the non-black suburban or rural populations to recognize the abilities and capabilities of their fellow (Black) Americans?
· Are the celebrations intended to inspire pride of self?
If the purpose of your observance is to promote any of the things listed above …then how I ask you, how is showing a movie centered around slavery, or Jim Crow, where the African Americans (the people to be celebrated this month) are in abusive, inferior, subordinate, shoddy, situations?
When my 8th grade teacher had the class watch Mississippi Burning (Parker, 1988) I didn’t feel very uplifted or valued. It was quite the opposite actually. Hollywood however, thought differently. Mississippi Burning received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and it won for Best Cinematography. Really? In fact, (since we are on the subject) Hollywood loves to make these type of movies and reward them for a job well done. You don’t believe me? Do a search for yourself. Every year one of these “slave movies” is nominated for it’s phenomenal depictions. From 2019’s Harriet, 2018’s Green Book, 2016’s “The Free State of Jones”, 2013’s 12 Years a Slave” , 2012’s Django Unchained, 2011’s The Help, and and and…the list goes on.
Again I ask, who exactly is this month or those movies for? Is it to uplift the minorities? Is it to neutralize the youth of color so that they can “appreciate” how good they now have it compared to their ancestors? Or is it to maintain the social hierarchy of the majority? After watching these films I wonder who walks away feeling more powerful. Is it the viewer who witnesses people that look like himself/herself being beat and lynched or told which water fountains they couldn’t drink from for two hours, or the viewers who watch the stories objectively from a relational position of power?
All of this pain and suffering enjoyed over pizza and popcorn. Gee, Thanks. Showing Slave movies during Black History Month is as preposterous as hosting viewing parties that feature the reenactments of rape/sexual assault victims during Women’s History Month to “show how far Women have come”. Can you imagine the outrage from the Women’s Liberation/Rights groups? The plangent demands for ingenious media reform would be ear deafening by all groups, left right and center of “wokeness”.
Speaking of which, is being “Woke” the new White? Is proclaiming to be Woke confirmation that one lacks racial biases? I am not White so I can’t say, but I can say that if your organization is planning a cultural event to promote diversity – and there is no diversity in the room making decisions – then there may be a problem.
It goes without saying, but there is much more to Black History than the trauma and resilience that Black people in America have overcome and exhibited. Be it, science, politics, education, sports, cinema, the performing arts, religion, business, activism, engineering…there is no sector in the world, that African Americans have not contributed to in some form or fashion. Of course….we all know that. If we all know this to be true, why are institutions of education around the country still limiting their celebrations to the degradations of Black culture?
Instead of forcing us to regurgitate the same themes and or people each year in February, I think that showcasing the contributions that African Americans have made to humanity would be more effective if we first stopped to acknowledge that Black History, is American History. These two, are synonymous with one another. After the month of celebrations have concluded, do we then not discuss anything noteworthy regarding black history again for the rest of the year? What about Barrack Obama? Are we only permitted to discuss the relevance of the first (and only) African American President of the United States in February? I’m just asking because we appear to discuss the other 44 American Presidents (white men) through lecture or complimentary media year round.
Black History Month is here to stay. Personally, I wish that all of the national observances that isolated historic significance by identity group were not necessary and we as Americans could celebrate each other grandly, without being prompted to. Nobody enjoys the forced round of applause. Well, some do – but most do not.
So this year as we celebrate Black History Month, let us use our imaginations and plan programs and lectures that will uplift, inform, connect and honor the past while appreciating the modern hero’s that currently carry the torches of black achievement.