This was an extra-long month for Black History. We got an extra day, Leap Day 2008. Of course, this would normally be part of a joke I heard many Blacks tell growing up and even while I was in college and grad school. That of course we Blacks were given the shortest month of the year to celebrate our history. That we only really care about the contributions of Americans of Black African descent for one month out of the year. That Blacks will spend the remainder of the year as poster children for crime, drugs and poverty.
The reality of Black History Month is much different than the perceptions of most people in this country, Blacks (or African Americans) included. It wasn’t until I started graduate school that I realized that Black History Month (as such) had only been around since ’76, the year I finished first grade. In the fifty years prior to that, it had been Negro History Week, celebrated during the third week of February. The concept for this celebration of Black heritage, contributions and culture had come from none other than the father of Black history in Carter G. Woodson, most famous for his treatise on Black identity, The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933).
Woodson originally picked February because in those days, it was a great month for America to celebrate two of its greatest all-time presidents in Lincoln and Washington. Lincoln was born on February 12, and Washington on February 22, and the US celebrated these birthdays separately back then. Woodson, ever the intellectual entrepreneur, figured that by having a “celebration of the Negro in America” sandwiched between the two presidential birthdays that it would enable other Blacks to see how important they were and are to this country. At the very least, it would end the exclusion of Blacks from the public and historical arena that was typical in those days.
But that was only one part of Woodson’s plan. The other piece was to have Black teachers, professors and other high-profile African Americans work in concert to promote and teach on the importance of Blacks to the formation and success of the US during Negro History Week. Being that Woodson had made Washington, DC his home, it was the segregated Negro Divisions of DC Public Schools that became the original K-12 home of Negro History Week when it started in 1926. When Negro History Week turned fifty, folks like Alex Haley clamored for it to become a full month.
Why am I talking about all of this now? It’s amazing how much of a short-term memory so many of us have in this country. For all of are differences and diversity, we all have a sense of myopia and amnesia when it comes to our historical facts and contemporary grievances. It’s simply a matter of setting the record straight, at least before midnight tonight.
Of course, Black History Month really isn’t just one month anymore. With the MLK holiday in mid-January, Black History Month has become a six or seven-week-long series of events, lectures, documentaries and other venues for discussing the achievements of the past. And for the most part, this is a good thing. The only problem is, most of us don’t attend, watch or pay attention anymore to Black History Month or its importance.
That’s a shame, but it’s certainly understandable. As I’ve said in previous blogs, the Civil Rights establishment of Black Baby Boomers and those born immediately before World War II have controlled most of the conversation around many things Black over the past four decades. They don’t represent my generation, and they certainly don’t speak to the generation that my youngest siblings were born into in the ’80s. Even I’ve lost interest in the annual rite of February of the usual aging suspects appearing on TV, in lecture halls and at museums, at universities and schools discussing their version of Black history and their triumphs and sacrifices. God knows these things are important. Yet without a focus on the present or the future beyond all of the problems Blacks face or all of the alleged progress as a community, race or people, these events lose much of their meaning.
With Obama’s month of victories against Clinton, however, maybe there’s something to finally be hopeful about. At the very least, his sudden rise to the top of the Democratic ticket is historic. And while the Civil Rights establishment had wavered in their support of Obama in the past year, he’s attracted a rainbow coalition that would make Jesse Jackson jealous. Even now there are a host of folks from the generation of my mother and my former teachers and supervisors who don’t see him as Black in the same way they see themselves.
That’s all right in a way. Yes, Obama is different. Which is why he appeals to so many people who don’t fit the Civil Rights “Black” stereotype, not to mention those who aren’t Black at all. Although it is obvious that support for Black History Month has declined over the last few years, it is also obvious that we are in the midst of Black history in the making, for this month and for this years. If it doesn’t give us a reason to celebrate, it should at least give many of us cautious optimism and hope.