Black History Month [Sho' Nuff!]
With all due respect to Dr. Carter G. Woodson, I'm about done with Black History Month. Don't get me wrong, I don't think that it's no longer necessary for America to highlight the contributions of Black people, I just don't think Black History Month is the right means of dissemination. And while I understand and appreciate the joke that has February as being picked for Black History Month because it's the shortest month, that has nothing to do with what I don't like about it. I wouldn't care if Black History Month lasted the whole May-ember, as long as it was for a set period of time, I would be against it. As long as we teach American history, we should be teaching Black history, because they're braided together tighter than Bo Derek's hair in that movie, "10." So what I plan to do here is lay out my case against Black History Month (BHM, for short), then step up with some possible solutions or at least additions to the regular fare. One of the main faults of BHM is actually inseparable from the way American history is taught in general. When it comes to America, it's all about the individual, truth be damned. To be fair, not all history is taught in this fashion, but it is for the most part. Just think about what we know about Rosa Parks. Basically, the way the Rosa Parks story breaks down is that one day, she was tired and fed up and refused to give up her seat, then Rev. King came down and the Montgomery bus boycotts began. In a sense, that's true, but it's nowhere near close to the truth. In reality, Rosa Parks' remaining seated was not predicated on her being tired, it was a planned event. Rosa Parks was not just a meek little domestic. She was the secretary for the NAACP, for crying out loud. Because of the way we make history hinge on the individual, however, many people don't know this. They don't know that the Montgomery boycotts were not spontaneous, but a planned event. According to Douglas Brinkley, author of Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin was a teenaged girl, eating a candy bar while sitting in the "whites only" section of a bus. The bus driver barked at her in racist terms to move, but she refused...The national NAACP was about to make her the prime case to challenge segregation follwing the Brown v. Topeka ruling, but because Colvin was an unwed pregnant teenager, she ended up being deemed an unacceptable candidate by the black leadership. My point here is not to discredit Rosa Parks (even though that suit against Outkast is absolutely ridiculous and without merit) but to point out that there's just a general lack of knowledge about what really happened. I didn't know this stuff until I got to college. There's nothing wrong with acknowledging more of the people and institutions involved than just one specific individual. That's just not the way narratives go in our culture. That's problematic. Another problem I have with BHM is its limited focus. Every February, we hear about the same few people. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, maybe Malcom X if the teacher is feeling particularly adventurous; mayyybe George Washington Carver, but probably not. Garrett A. Morgan? Marcus Garvey? A. Philip Randolph? Nat Turner? Dr. Mae Jemison? Guion S. Bluford? Frederick Douglass? Booker T. Washington? W.E.B. DuBois? No shot. Black Wall Street in Tulsa? Eatonville, FL? Zora Neale Hurston? Langston Hughes? (well, Langston Hughes might get some run) Toni Morrison? Earl Lloyd? Larry Doby? Curt Flood? Come on. Art Shell? Bill Russell? Seriously. Black History is not just about getting brutalized and enslaved and getting brutalized during Jim Crow. All of that is important, but that's not all there is to it. No matter what the focus is, all the action didn't take place during the 60's. (And by the way, Dr. King's life didn't end in 1963, after the March on Washington. He had a lot more to say than just, "...I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Why doesn't anybody talk about his opposition to the war in Vietnam or the Poor People's March? Like Chuck D says, Dr. King wasn't just a dreamer, he was a doer. He didn't go back to sleep.) Even worse than the lack of content that's passed off during BHM is the manner in which it's given. Most people know Black history like a category on a game show. "Who was the first Black astronaut? Guion S. Bluford! Yessss!!!" It's terrible. We spit random facts that may or may not be related to anything else that's being taught, without much historical context and without any significant connection to what's going on today, right now. As I write I am thinking mostly of middle school and high school students, but I'm convinced that there are a lot of Black adults who don't know Black History outside of the aforementioned few and maybe Kunta Kinte. So what's my solution? First of all, I think that the way history is taught has to be changed. If not a wholescale change in curriculum, then at least at the classroom level by individual teachers. (And as I say this, it pains me to have to admit that when I taught I didn't have the foresight or the classroom control to implement any of these ideas.) History has to be more than just a recounting of what happened, it should be a means of exploring what can happen and perhaps what should happen. (Althought that should kind of worries me these days.) What about teaching not just actions but philosophies and ideologies? Why did Booker T. Washington propose the course of action he did? What about DuBois? What shaped his outlook? How were their philosophies similar? To what extent was their difference of opinion a precursor of what was to come between Dr. King and Malcom X? (And by the way, with this madness of trying to de-religify public education, how is it possible to really teach about Dr. King? His whole nonviolent philosophy was based in his Christianity. It's just not possible to extract what he did from what he believed.) How 'bout highlighting the strength of the Black community? For instance, in the movie "Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored," there's a part of the story where one of the young men in the family gets beaten up by the KKK. The audience doesn't see that part, though. We just see him before and after. We never see an instance of white racism that is not met with Black resolve and dignity. Why not teach Black history like that? What's wrong with teaching about Black Wall Street in Tulsa? There's something in that story for every political bent. Wanna prove how Black people could achieve in the face of the most virulent racism? There you go. Wanna show how depraved some white have acted? It's right there for you. Wanna show Black power before it became a catch phrase and an image? Right there. But of course, ultimately, it's not just about the content, it's about the time. Even if a teacher were to present these ideas, why should it be confined to February? Why can't it be a part of American history? Of course it can. And it absolutely should.