I am old enough to remember when calling February Black History Month was still considered controversial. When I began teaching in my home town of Xenia, Ohio in 1973, I had to get written permission from the parents of my students to teach them black history. I will never forget the note I received from one Spring Valley father, ” Help yourself, but that is going to be one short lesson.” What he meant to say, of course, was that blacks had not contributed anything much worth talking about.
I would like to believe that in the three decades plus since then that Black History Month has not only come to be accepted, but that most of the American people know that we could, indeed, teach a year long course in Black History. As a matter of fact I used to do just that. But, I am afraid that would be a false belief. Most black people do not know their own history and to most white people it is still the undiscovered country. This includes, unfortunately, the majority of white teachers in the K-12 system and the majority of white college professors as well as most of the regular white citizens of our fair country.
History books and history teachers have a problem. We are getting more history every day. But school years are not being extended. That means if you teach history you have to decide what to concentrate on, what to emphasize, whose story to tell the most. Most people will chose to tell their own stories. To begin with they have baseline info, although some of the things we hear as kids are untrue ( George Washington did not have wooden teeth, he had a penchant for red wine which stained his ivory teeth to look like wood) our cultures do give us some rudimentary history, we do not have to start from scratch most of the time. If, however, ones history is anything but white, Protestant, heterosexual and male, one is likely to have a bit of difficulty getting a lot of information easily.I was probably 25 before I read anything that described the contributions blacks had made to ” settling the west.” Including, unfortunately, our participation in the genocide of the Plains Indians via the Buffalo Soldiers and other black settlers and soldiers. It is speculated by some that 25% or more of all ” cowboys” were black.Hard to tell that from movies though. Maybe they were trying to spare us the bad reputation of massacring Native peoples, but I doubt it.
I am not so sure that Black History Month is still relevant. It was kind of good to have at least some recognition that blacks did exist before the 1960s at one point, but that has basically been conceded now. The accomplishments of black people are rarely emphasized during the month, people prefer to concentrate on what they consider black culture.
That means singing gospel songs, watching black entertainers or speakers, and mentioning some black celebrities from time to time. There is frequently a good dose of religion in many of the gatherings, ironic since 11AM on Sunday is still one of the most segregated hours in America. But, the people we tend to hear about are generally either dead or in show biz. Live black intellectuals get short shrift, probably because an unfortunately large portion of our population believes the term black intellectual to be an oxymoron.
I am personally getting a bit tired of seeing exhaustive lists of Black History Month events listed in papers and on campuses. I want to ask each person who is conducting or hosting or facilitating or performing, ” What is going to change in the relationships between black people and other races because of your efforts?” Does watching a Roots retrospective make anyone take more umbrage when politicians do things like calling President Obama a “food stamp president?”
In 2012 America certain elements have done a great job of changing examples racism from a serious thing to be condemned to minor etiquette lapses to be ignored or tsk tsked over. When people can use racial slurs like Dog the Bounty Hunter or people in my own circle, and not suffer any consequences we are creating a slippery slope. What do people have to do to garner censure and/or punishment?
Oh I know, I am being overly sensitive, I am seeing problems where none exist between the races. Things are fine, better and better all the time, look we have a black president for goodness sakes. The fact that he has been shown more disrespect and outright vilification that virtually any other president since Lincoln was trashed by the South, does not have anything to do with race. Of course not.
The fact that black congressmen or women are rarer than hen’s teeth, even from states, like NC, with large black populations is just an accident. The fact that half of the black males and half of the Latino males in NC do not graduate from high school is a coincidence.
Black History Month needs a tune-up. It needs to be renamed Anti-Racist Month. Maybe then we could concentrate on the real problem. Teaching people about what black folks did is not going to make them less racist. Teaching all people to fight racism, along with sexism, homophobia and any other oppressive bigotry may actually work.
I am very popular this month. A lot of people seem to realize all of a sudden that I am, indeed, black and just might have some resources or contributions to make to their Black History Month celebrations. I call it my busy season. Nevertheless I have prepared a little quiz for you. Good luck!
Who were/are these black people?
Paul Lawrence Dunbar
Alexander Dumas ( pere ou fils)
fewer than 3 you fail, see me during office hours! 🙂