I am occasionally asked why, in an increasingly racially diverse America, is Black History Month still relevant?
The question is a loaded one; Black History Month is an outgrowth of Negro History Week, which was begun in 1926 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson to herald the achievements of Black people in America.
(Dr. Carter G. Woodson)
But when asked this question in the public sphere, my response typically is akin to the following: “BHM still exists because the majority racial demographic in America (read–white folks) dominate local school boards and school administrations and while designing curricula to teach “American History,” said majority demographic often deliberately limit how much they feature the achievements of black people. Said demographic also often overlooks the vicissitudes of the black experience in America, one that saw black people subjected to nearly 350 years of slavery and Jim Crow (1619-1968)–all because of the color of our skin.
On average, most Americans, regardless of their race, have a prodigious lack of knowledge about global Black History facts and figures. Such willful ignorance could be easily overcome for anyone with a smart phone and a tad bit of curiosity. But as we descend deeper into a new Dark Ages, the simple fact is that our collective interactions are stunted when the truth about racism in ages past, and racism and sociopolitical bias in the present, are suppressed.
So, we enter into yet another BHM where the dominant culture will trot out a few quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and believe deep in their collective hearts that they get “it.” But they do not, and American history classes, seminars and proficiency are incomplete when:
* The average American of any race can tell you that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the white section of a segregated bus in Montgomery back in 1955, with most incorrectly believing that she did so because she was tired after a long day of work–not that such was a coordinated campaign of civil disobedience. Even fewer know that Claudette Colvin, 15, had committed the same act of civil disobedience in Montgomery nine months earlier as part of the strategic challenge to Jim Crow laws.
(If you have heard of Rosa Parks, but have not heard of Claudette Colvin, your American history teachers failed you)
* The average American can tell you that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “had a dream” that we all would be judged “not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character.” But relatively few can tell you about how King’s character was assassinated (no pun intended) by President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, both of whom suspected that King was a communist. The Kennedy brothers allowed FBI Director J.Edgar Hoover to make King’s life a nightmare from wire taps of his phones, to threats of death–even by sending a tape to King’s wife, Coretta, of King allegedly having sex with another woman.
(Dr. King with the Kennedy brothers; threatening letter from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to King)
In 2017, I had the privilege of viewing Hidden Figures, a movie that chronicled the achievements of black pioneers Katharine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson in helping America ultimately win the Space Race against the Soviet Union. Prior to this film, to let history books or Hollywood tell it, NASA was only led–and staffed–by White men.
(Hidden Figures cast above the real life black women critical to NASA’s early success)
But the same holds true with respect to black history across the globe as well. Long before there was enlightenment in Europe, civilization, culture and knowledge were developed on the continent of Africa. But to let world history teachers tell it, civilization and knowledge has its roots in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, with few teachers of antiquity willing to tell the whole truth that the Greeks and the Romans owe so much of what they pass off as their original thoughts about philosophy, the sciences, mathematics and religion to the Ancient Egyptians, which we all know is on the Northeastern tip of Africa. (Nota Bene–while majoring in History at Morehouse College, I happened upon a map in Woodruff Library that claimed the entirety of the northern segments of Africa as “Southern Europe;” we will explore this more in the days to come).
Even fewer teachers of ancient history are willing to concede that Egypt, before being invaded by Greece and later Rome, was filled with dark-skinned rulers and citizens who shared blood and heritage with their kinsmen in the central and southern part of the continent.
(The Ancient Egyptians used color in paintings and sculpture–had the population been white like Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Yul Brynner or Charlton Heston, surely the art would have indicated it)
So why the whitewashing of history?
Well, it is far easier to convince people that they should remain enslaved or in the economic doldrums if said people are robbed of any true knowledge of themselves.
It is also far easier to falsely claim superiority of said people if one believes that the sum total of knowledge and culture derives from Europe–and nowhere else. Such is why even unto this day, when a black child opens his or her American history book and receives these incomplete histories, such is a subtle reminder that they are “lesser,” and that their people have contributed little to American and world history. Which is a damnable lie!
Similarly, when a white child reads the same textbooks, he or she gets the solipsistic–and wholly false notion–that blacks were merely slaves, sharecroppers, mammies, bucks, criminals and welfare dependents who are only gifted at singing, dancing and playing ball.
Now, while I tend to incorporate black achievements in my blogs and articles every week of every year, BHM is always a treat for me as I strive to do my small part to spread knowledge about people, places and events long forgotten. To that end, I invite those so willing to join me this month as we crush stereotypes and explore the truths–not alternative facts–about black history in America and beyond!