Black History Month Revisited
By Ambra Nykol
From February, it starts. The United States commemorates what we somewhat affectionately call "Black History Month". So begins the 28 days during which much of white America runs around trying to be "deep" and "in touch" and "ethnic" and as far as I'm concerned, "fake".
The January lead-in to February is the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday, the day on which the "oppressor" makes atonement for their racial sins by being cleansed in the fountain of guilt, honkeyness and requisite chorus of "We Shall Overcome". Similar to Martin Luther King Day, "Black History Month" has become overwhelmingly trite over the years.
This isn't to say that setting aside a part of the year to acknowledge the historical contributions of Black people is a bad thing. Considering what's being taught in the average U.S. History course, the holes certainly require some filling in. However, I often wonder if what was once a good means is no longer proper for the end. That is merely to say: “I’m getting a little tired of singing ‘Lift Every Voice And Sing’”.
Growing up under the banner of the typical elementary and secondary school "Black History Month" curriculum can give a person a cynical attitude toward the month and its purpose.
By high school graduation, we all knew just about everything there was to know about Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass, and Malcolm X. These were of course the heroes of "Black History Month", or what I affectionately call "the token Negroes".
Not to negate their achievements, but it always came across as a bit patronizing to me that we spent the better part of 12 years of our education learning about the gaggle of accomplishments of Mr. White Man ‘The Great’, only to spend less than 28 days a year studying everything but the lint in the pockets of the same four African Americans.
The worst of these occur when the subject of black achievement comes up and everyone and their mothers point to Martin Luther King Jr., like he was the only black person of significance ever to walk the planet. Growing up, it seemed to me that black people certainly had more to offer than that. It didn't take me long to find out that they did.
And while I've heard some Conservatives argue the reason white people get so much play in history curriculum is because "they built America", I’d like to point out that we often fail to recognize on whose backs the building was achieved.
The way I see it, the inherent problem with "Black History Month" is that it further isolates a subject that has already had its share of isolation. In singling out the issue of black history, we never call people to account for the fact that black history isn't just "black" history; it's all peoples' history. It shouldn't just be taught alongside or in addition to our "regular" history, but instead should become a part of the curriculum that was lacking wholeness in the first place.
Perhaps I'm delusional to think that something so monumental could really take place, but I believe we need to start holding our educational systems accountable to more objectivity in how history is taught. Changing the way we think about this topic may not take place in the older generations, but we can certainly start with the young.
Throwing together some month full of festivals, special commercials, and school assemblies is no excuse for our failure as a community to acknowledge the accomplishments of black people throughout the year.
While we can't get rid of "Black History Month" yet, here's to hoping that one day we can, and our end goal is such.
Ambra Nykol is a columnist for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Soundpolitics.com, Seaspot magazine and Modestly Yours. She owns and blogs at nykola.com
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