Celebrate yourself, Part I
3rd February 2014 · 0 Comments
By Edmund W. Lewis
Every February, schools, churches and community organizations across the U.S. gather to celebrate the history and achievements of African America. It’s a tradition that dates back to 1926 when historian Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson established the first Negro History Week.
Woodson, the son of ex-slaves James and Anne Woodson in Canton, Virginia, taught himself to read and write and did not attend school until he was 20. After graduating from high school in less than two years, Woodson went on to earn an undergraduate degree and master’s degree from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from Harvard University.
In 1916 Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History which published the Journal of Negro History. Both the organization and publication were used to chronicle the history and achievements of Africans in America.
What began as Negro History Week and was celebrated every second week of February — to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln — expanded and evolved into Black History Month, a month-long celebration of Black history, achievement and culture.
Some whites have criticized the observance of Black History Month as divisive and unnecessary since Blacks are Americans and American history is taught in schools across the country.
While it may be true that American history is taught in schools, far too often the history of Africans in America is relegated to the fringes of U.S. history. Usually all that is mentioned is slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr. That hardly touches on the complexity, breadth and profundity of the Black experience.
There are also some Blacks who have problems with Black History Month.
In an article published In Savoy magazine some years ago titled “Why I Hate Black History Month,” Evan Narcisse describes some of the problems he has with the annual observance.
“February always finds me on edge,” he wrote. “All those African Americans on TV, radio, the bookshelves—they make me nervous. Maybe it’s just my thirtysomething cynicism kicking in, but Black History Month feels empty. Don’t get me wrong: I’m fully aware that BHM has lifted and enlightened this country for nearly a century. Sometimes, though, it seems like the producers and marketers of ‘Black culture’ recycle the same old ideas about what February should mean. By the end of the month, I invariably feel bitter and burned-out, blackened to a crisp, you might say.
“The notions that we as a people can be neatly packaged in one month of the year and that non-Blacks are only interested in our culture for 28 (29, if it’s a leap year) out of 365 days riles me,” he continued. “Publishers saturate the market with every Black author or book they have. And a flood of Black movies are aired on TV to compete against similarly targeted fare. The achievements of the Civil Rights era get trotted out to applause even as legislation threatens to erode many of those gains.
“It’s the time when Coltrane sells SUVs (“A drive supreme”); Reverend King shills cellphones (“I have a dream that one day no man, woman or child will pay roaming charges!”) and fast-food companies trot out gospel choirs to get us in the spirit for clogging our arteries. Ads that run every month in Savoy suddenly appear in Time and Newsweek. It’s all good, as long as Black history gets celebrated, right?”
The brother’s message is unequivocally on point.
As someone who bemoans the kind of shameless commercialism that has trivialized and diluted Black history and culture, I am inclined to agree. We live in a republic that equates barbecue and firecrackers with the Fourth of July, a predominantly Christian society that teaches youth more about Santa Claus, a red-nosed reindeer and Frosty the Snowman than it does about the birth and life of the Son of Man every December.
I think it’s safe to say that we’ve moved far away from what Dr. Carter G. Woodson had in mind when he established Negro History Week 88 years ago.
All too often we merely pay lip service to holidays and occasions we celebrate annually, completely missing the symbolic meaning and importance of these observances. I think that’s true for Americans of all races, creeds and political persuasions.
There is certainly enough work to be done in recapturing, reclaiming and celebrating the history of Black America. Many of us still know little or nothing about our direct line of ancestors, who they were and how they came to America.
Instead of becoming bitter about the knowledge of ourselves and our history stolen from us—which is certainly an understandable reaction to oppression—I instead get very excited about the prospects of recovering that which was taken from my family so long ago.
While we may never be able to fully recover what we have lost, genealogical research holds much promise as a means of bringing the past to life and re-establishing the circle of African cultural continuity.
Many of our stories, collectively and individually, have yet to be told. That’s a challenge that offers enriching possibilities.
Another important point Evan Narcisse makes in his essay is that we needn’t utilize Black History Month solely for the study of past struggles and triumphs.
It is in fact an opportunity for us as a people to come together to talk about some of the goals and challenges of African America.
That, of course, is already happening in some circles.
This article originally published in the February 3, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.