We Need A Fresh Take On Black History Month
January 25, 2023
We Need A Fresh Take On Black History Month M. Toussaint January 25, 2023 A century after Negro History Week was created, its successor, Black History Month, is in need of a reimagining for the times we live in today. American scholar and historian Carter G. Woodson became the “Father of Black History” when he established the Negro History Week on the second week in February of 1926. The week was bookended by the birthdays of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglas and American president Abraham Lincoln with the intention of bringing attention to the contributions Black people have made to the US. In his own words, Woodson said, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” The celebration of the history of a people in the New World is perhaps one of the best gifts a historian can give. It is as an African American and a historian that Woodson would no doubt appreciate the changes of the past century, but I wonder if Woodson the educator would consider the expanded week a continued success. He was, after all, the writer of the seminal book The Mis-Education of the Negro, and certainly, at this point, Black History Month helps spread a miseducation of sorts for 28 days in this new millennium. George Washington Carver Years ago when I was a teen, my sister organized a talent show at a middle school in Queens, New York. In an effort to add educational value to the mix and sell the school’s administrators on the talent show, she hosted a Black History Month Quiz. Maybe 10 questions were asked and prizes were given for the correct answer. Time after time the answer my fellow New York City teens gave was “George Washington Carver”- even after his name was already used as an answer. Carver did not invent the Three-Light Traffic Signal, nor was he the only African American man to win Wimbledon and the U.S. and Australian Opens. When I got older I learned that George Washington Carver was sort of a public intellectual type of Neil deGrasse Tyson figure who was quite famous in his day. So through fame and confusion, the man who created a crop rotation that was so important it allowed farmers to prevent depletion of the soil from the damaging effects of only planting a cash crop like cotton became Garrett Morgan and Arthur Ashe respectively. Through the decades Woodson’s focus on history and biography became a focus on biography, then a focus on fun facts, and eventually tangled trivia not worth teasing apart to win a Black History Month-themed game show quiz. In the end when the question, “Who invented peanut butter?” was asked George Washington Carver’s name was shouted by some teens in that auditorium as if it were an easy answer. The trouble is in getting history wrong and misattributing accomplishments to a people that have accomplished so much beyond mere survival. Our inspiration from history is squandered when and if we finally learn that peanut butter was invented and reinvented several times over the centuries in the Americas. Carver produced peanut butter, but never patented it, and by 1914 many companies were already making their own. Silos of History An important part of Black History Month in the US is the biographies of notable African Americans who made history. One could easily assume these individuals transcended their racial group by being so excellent. You would have to be forgiven for not knowing that not only did W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey interact, but DuBois called Garvey "the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America" while saving some other choice words for Booker T. Washington. Louis Armstrong did not “dig” Josephine Baker for demanding that she play to desegregated audiences according to a transcript in Ricky Riccardi’s “What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years” (2012). https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/what-louis-armstrong-really-thinks Malcolm X and James Baldwin debated in 1963 and so on. Even comic books don’t keep such a strict focus on singular characters the way BHM approaches history. Even Black Panther has a team and friends. Not only are the biographies siloed, but the great man theory of history is also almost magnified as the great men (and sometimes women when anyone remembers) are separated from the people they came from like so much background noise. The historical information is far from being parsed like A People's History of the United States. Stories about the groups of African Americans that made up the NAACP or any other organization are rarely told. In fact not only are groups eschewed most individuals are also in favor of one great man of history- the man President Barack Obama insisted on referring to as “a preacher from Georgia”. Further still, MLK’s contributions are boiled down to a sliver of the end of one speech. Where Have All The Commies Gone? Plenty of persons of African descent have been and still are leftists. Looking at BHM you’d never think this was the case. Leftist politics play such a major role in black history in the US that many major figures in the BHM pantheon were some form of socialist or communist. If black youth knew the Black Panther Party for Self Defense were Maoists or that MLK was a Dem Soc they might look at being members of the left differently. This way audience members of the recent 2022 film Judas and the Black Messiah would’ve had more context for the very few Fred Hampton quotes sparingly strewn about in that script. This brings me to my next point. No Arts - Fewer Movies - More Art Can we all demand that history, especially black history, not be taught by Hollywood? Black Panthers founder Huey P. Newton said it himself, “I do not expect the white media to create positive black male images.” I don’t expect Hollywood to create positive black images, I expect Hollywood to sacrifice nearly anything to make more money. It’s a sad state when people depend on movies to bring history to life as if this can happen in no other way. There are myriad ways to appreciate black history through the arts like attending “Revelations”, from the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, viewing the paintings of Ellis Wilson somewhere beside the livingroom on The Cosby Show, or visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture without expecting it to include everything African Americans have to offer. Art illuminates the human experience. With BHM’s heavy focus on promoting black excellence, there’s little room for asserting black humanity, which is the more appropriate response to racism. Skin Folk and Kin Folk “Zora Neale Hurston's famous quote, ‘All skinfolk ain't kinfolk,’ suggests that some people of color may…actively discriminate against people of their same racial group.” So what of the skinfolk and kinfolk of the diaspora? In an attempt to combat the idea that black history begins with slavery in the US, the BHM narrative cuts off the black diaspora in the Caribbean, the Americas, Africa, and everywhere else. Even the biographies are siloed in themselves when we can’t acknowledge that Malcolm X’s mother was of Caribbean descent, Black Power promoter Stokely Carmichael turned Kwame Ture was from Trinidad, and Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, creator of the famed Schomburg library in Harlem, NY was Afro-Puerto Rican. Including this is just a part of reimagining what BHM could be. Real Intentions Let’s revisit Carter G. Woodson’s intention: A record of accomplishments to give inspiration from education. I would argue there isn’t much inspiration left at this point if by the 1990s George Washington Carver’s peanut butter is eagerly taught by teachers attempting to make BHM relevant. BHM is already relevant and an accomplishment in and of itself. W.E.B. Du Bois said, “[Woodson] literally made this country, which has only the slightest respect for people of color, recognize and celebrate each year, a week in which it studied the effect which the American Negro has upon life, thought, and action in the United States. I know of no one man who in a lifetime has, unaided, built up such a national celebration.” I hope we can all pitch in in the many ways available to us to celebrate BHM that honor Dr. Woodson’s intention so we can be inspired by our fellow Americans, and our fellow human beings, in a real way.