This is Their Story, This is Their Song — and it’s More Than 28 Days Long

Black History Month is over. For some. For others it doesn’t really end. I’m not going to go into how it’s the shortest month and all that. I mean an African-American scholar is the one who chose it — albeit to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, as well as Frederick Douglass’. (Historical narratives have developed over the years to allow for a more “complicated” version of the Great Emancipator). But Dr. Carter G. Woodson, early on, was aware that American history (and culture) was being taught and purveyed absent of Black people. His idea was to inject his people, his ancestors, back into the stories that kept getting told by and about White people. Now, he also had intended for February to be a celebration, a culmination of all the amped up study and programming occurring throughout the year around Black history. And that’s where Black History Month, as it is today, has failed.

This month has certainly provided a bevy of lectures, panels, creative presentations and historical documentaries surrounding the history of Black America — which is, of course, the history of America. Networks, government, educational and cultural institutions make big plans each year about how they will acknowledge the African-American citizens of this country. There is an embarrassment of riches, really, making it difficult to even catch all that is being offered. There is a real sense of urgency for some of us that we better catch as much as possible before the airwaves and video screens and classrooms return to the foregrounding of Whiteness for another year. I mean, doesn’t the fact that there is just so much to say and show — from the PBS Black Church series, to CBS’ features on Black athletes, to YouTube’s Black Renaissance — get these folks in charge to consider that maybe, just maybe, they need to keep up with the programming throughout the year?

I think “the firsts” are the worst for me. All February we see little mini-showcases about the first Black fill-in-the-blank. And it’s usually the same handful of people. And it’s rarely mentioned just how utterly egregious it is that, for example, the the first Black woman to appear in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition (Tyra Banks) did not happen until 1997; or that the first African-American Secretary of State (Colin Powell) did not hold office until 2001; or that the first Black anchor to have his own newscast (Lester Holt) only occurred 6 years ago?! That’s a lot-hundred years of Whiteness, wouldn’t you say? These firsts come with a subliminal message that, yes, there have been some African Americans who made something of themselves — and 28 days is sufficient to list them all, thank you very much.

Oh and one more thing, the “statements” put out by various institutions — from education to entertainment:

The White House: “This February, during Black History Month, I call on the American people to honor the history and achievements of Black Americans and to reflect on the centuries of struggle that have brought us to this time of reckoning, redemption, and hope…”

New York Stated Education Department: “…Certainly, there is tremendous value in recognizing these contributions that helped advance our knowledge and our civilization in so many ways. …”

Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Virginia: “…In his recent Christmas message, Pope Francis  reminded us, ‘Our differences, then, are not a detriment or a danger; they are a source of richness. As when an artist is about to make a mosaic: it is better to have tiles of many colours available, rather than just a few.’”

As Eliza Doolittle sang in My Fair Lady, “Words Words Words/I’m so sick of words/I get words all day through/First from him, now from you/Is that all you blighters can do?”

So what do I want? Why the complaining? I want African Americans, Americans of African descent whose ancestors built this country in the most literal as well as figurative way possible, to be a regular part of the grand discussion. I want history teachers who teach World War I to spend time on the plight of Black American soldiers’ return to “their” country; I want African-American writers to be mainstays in literature courses; I want to be able to find a movie with a Black cast, in a myriad of genres, any day of the year. I really just want there to be a time when we don’t have to continue this crazy catch-up, this reinsertion of Americans into their own culture and history. Why do we have Black History Month — and Women’s History Month, and Hispanic Heritage month, to name a few months? Because we’ve ignored the majority of our citizens for so very long.

The problem is, by the time next February rolls around a whole bunch of new important things will have been done by African Americans. Yet we’ll still have little kids coloring in the face of Dr. King, and grownups watching the latest documentary about select “heroic” African Americans of past centuries. Reparations cannot be limited to financial compensation, but must also include cultural compensation, a shifting away from our White (male) focus to a lens that sees all of this country’s actors. Until then, I guess February will continue to provide us with a packaged version of Black History, a check-marked box on the to-do list of our nation’s conscience.

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