Every February, some of you invariably ask, why do we have Black History Month? Predictably, some of you will pose this question to the black people you know. As a black person, I offer you my final word on the subject, my manifesto, if you will.
Why Black History Month? Consider these reasons.
#1. You don’t know black history and if you are an American, that means you don’t know part of your own story.
The struggle to teach African-American history in our children’s classrooms continues. Take Chicago Public Schools, for example. They represent the 3rd largest school district in the country and despite having a mandate to teach African-American history for more than 2 decades, it was not until December of 2013 that they officially announced plans to implement a formal, yearlong, integrated African-American Studies curriculum into their public schools.
Without normalizing and institutionalizing African-American history into our collective forums for public discourse, we segregate ourselves from the breadth of the American experience. In so doing, we fail to capture an essential truth about America, that we are a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic population that has benefited from the contributions of people of color from our founding.* Every time we resist that central truth, we deny the very thing that makes us American, our shared history.
#2. You need to say thank you.
As does everyone who has benefited from the contributions of African-Americans to American life. Whether it be for the traffic light that safely regulated your morning commute (thank you Garrett A Morgan!) or the blood transfusion that saved your loved one’s life (thank you Charles Richard Drew!) or the vaccine that prevented your child from dying from a preventable illness (thank you Henrietta Lacks!), we must acknowledge the ways in which our lives are enriched because black people consistently made, and continue to make, defining contributions to our society.
And here I’ve only listed a few examples of notable inventions.
What of the impact of African-Americans on the evolution of music in this country? It is almost unquantifiable. From the folk music, bluegrass, and jazz that drew from the tonality of negro spirituals to the rhythmic beats of rock-n-roll, doo wop, disco, funk, soul, rap, and hip hop that emanate from urban America, African-American culture has created or influenced virtually every aspect of American pop culture through music, including the trending fashion, dance, and American vernacular that grew out of these popular genres. Just ask Elvis Presley’s modern-day protegé Miley Cyrus. Twerkin’ ain’t easy and that charismatic rump-shakin’ didn’t start at the VMAs.
Generations of Americans are being raised in a culture that has deep and expansive roots in the African-American experience, but one that is equally devoid of public and enduring recognition of the contributions of African-Americans. Assuming the cultural expression of a group of people, without acknowledging said group, undermines their importance and in some ways, denies their humanity as it assumes they do not have the right to own their own expression. This is called misappropriation and it is the result of an amnestic historical memory, that is so short, it fails to encompass the areas in which our stories are linked and our lives find common ground. But fear not, the cure for misappropriation is simply a proper thank you.
And what of the countless unknown African-Americans who have given of their lives to protect the honor and safety of our country? Next month, President Obama will celebrate some of those men for their distinguished military service and award them the nation’s highest commendation given for combat valor, the Medal of Honor.** If the President’s actions here may serve as an example, when people give of their time, service, and sometimes their lives, for the betterment of our free republic, we must, even if belatedly so, say thank you.
Finally, I think it generally true, that when you honestly appreciate another person’s culture and life and consider their past and their future indelibly connected to your own, you are less likely to instantly think them a criminal, and “stand your ground.” Perhaps what we should “stand our ground” for is the recognition of the humanity in each other. Because when you appreciate people, you don’t shoot them and if Black History Month offers nothing else, perhaps it can serve as a moment for you to embrace African-Americans and in so doing, help bring our sons home safely at night.
#3. You don’t know black people.
If you keep a running tally of how many black people you know or feverishly defend the fact that you “have black friends,” you may not have had the intimate interactions that allow you to disconnect individuals from the stereotyped characteristics you associate with their race. In other words, if Joe is your “black friend,” he’s not really your friend and you don’t really know Joe.
But that’s okay. Perhaps you live in one of the few ethnically monolithic enclaves in our country, or somehow your only exposure to black people has been through The Cosby Show, or The Chappelle Show, or when Kanye upstaged Taylor. If this sounds like you, maybe it is time to branch out, meet new people, new BLACK people, and see what all the hype is about. The African-American experience is as varied as it is rich and our limited representation in the media doesn’t nearly approximate what it might be like to actually know us, dine with us, laugh with us, grow with us.
On a deeper level, if, as a society, we continue to live segregated lives in which we form ethically homogenous social circles, we will never have a basis from which to collectively digest, interpret, and process the complicated transactions that take place between the disparate cultures represented in our communities. Furthermore, challenges that require understanding another culture’s experience and the historical impacts of institutionalized discrimination, like for example, health disparities, or the educational achievement gap, or the disproportionately low rates of African-American women in the health professions, or the disproportionately high incarceration rates of African-American males, will remain insurmountable.
#4. You don’t like black people.
And frankly, black people may not like you either. And yet here we are, continuing to co-exist. So what should we do about it?
Get over it!
There is a reconciliation that needs to occur around issues of race in America and I’m not talking about tolerance. Tolerance is complacency in the face of continued unrest. It is offering separate but equal, instead of demanding that equal be the standard for equal. To heal the massive division in this country around racial injustice, we have to actively confront our bias to move on, even when that bias is unconsciously harbored.*** Black History Month offers us the first step to do this. As the great American poet, Maya Angelou said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
Today, we face continued affronts to equality in this country as some Americans seek to marginalize groups they just don’t like. Look what is happening in North Carolina and Ohio to undermine voter’s rights, or in Arizona, where a bill to refuse service to gay Americans made it all the way to the Governor’s desk before being vetoed! Here, our broken history repeats itself and if we aren’t careful, we may all eventually find ourselves less free to pursue liberty and happiness. As Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and we must take a lesson from black history to see the trend repeating itself and threatening all of our freedoms. The solution is to challenge prejudice at every point it rears its ugly head, starting with ourselves.
#5. You are black and yet you feel disconnected from the African-American experience and the Africana Diaspora.
When historian Carter G. Woodson started Negro History Week in 1926, it was a part of a larger effort to cultivate ethnic pride. As the trans-Atlantic slave trade scattered Africans across the western continents, it violently divorced black people from the rich ancestry that informed who they were. The absence of that foundation created a dangerous space for black people to be defined outside themselves, by their new roles and their new lives.
One dynamic of racism that is as inconspicuous as it is pernicious, is the effect of internalized racism on the African-American psyche. It is the wilted acquiescence to the accusers taunts, that you are as they say you are, be that ignorant, useless, dirty, ghetto, lascivious, pugnacious, unworthy, or unlovable. Internalized racism breeds a self-hatred that dissolves the bonds between people who share the detested characteristic.
In short, racism shames blackness.
And internalized racism is the insidious acceptance of inferiority. It acts to separates people from their value and their ethnic community.
For these people, for us, Black History Month is a moment to affirm and accept our value; to remember who we are and where we come from. Despite the positions of poverty and war in which many of our peers struggle today, both here in urban America and abroad in Latin America, Haiti, and Africa, we are not how and where we live. Our worth is not defined by our struggle but rather by the fervor with which we reclaim what has always been our gift, our blackness.
Now, I am not as presumptuous as to conclude that a month is sufficient time to heal a pain that stretches centuries into our past and finds new meaning in the systematic marginalization of black people across the globe. But I will say this, we have to start somewhere and we need to start together. Perhaps, at its very best, this month can cultivate the ethnic pride needed to combat racism, whensoever, and howsoever, we may face it. Because when you don’t feel worthy, you don’t act worthy and racism has become a self-fulfilling, self-injurious prophecy in the African-American community, and I would argue across the African diaspora. It is time to mend the broken fences in our community, to let people in and heal together. Let this be our chance.
Here’s my final word.
As the thread of African-American culture weaves throughout the American experience, it informs who we are as a nation. While a month is hardly sufficient time to truly appreciate the weight of the African American influence on American culture, perhaps it can serve as both a reminder and an invitation:
A reminder to engage in the self-exploration required to overcome the distraction of modern racial discourse that dichotomizes and compartmentalizes our history in a way that disconnects the culture we consume from the historical process by which it was created;
And an invitation to collectively share in the creative brilliance, ingenuity, and public service that defines the contributions of Black artists, musicians, writers, activists, playwrights, poets, scientists, philosophers, physicians, engineers, civil servants, lawyers, filmmakers, educators, servicemen and women, entrepreneurs, athletes, and entertainers.
These contributions enrich our experience as Americans. So on this, the last day of Black History Month 2014, let this be the start of celebrating our shared America history. Because, we, too, sing America.
* Although I must clarify here, that sovereign nations existed on this soil prior to the arrival of Europeans or Africans and the true founding of this land must always be credited to the Native, indigenous people of this continent.
** This award was also given to Jewish and Hispanic soldiers who were previously overlooked for recognition because of discrimination.
*** If you are ready to confront your unconscious bias, take the Harvard Implicit Association Test here!