How Black America Is Neglecting Black History Month

by Kirsten West Savali

Black History Month

In many ways,  Black History Month has become one long month for beneficiaries of white supremacy to assuage their guilt over slavery, or feign solidarity, and I was this close to saying ‘damn it all to hell,’ we should get rid of it.

It wasn’t because I didn’t like the shiny commercials, and “all black everything” for 28-days strong. I had just become sick and tired of the publicity stunts. You know, those corporations that only trot out a black rep during BHM, and it’s generally with some symbolic gesture to prove that they really and truly do like black people, so black people really and truly should buy their product or patronize their business for 12 months out of the year, not just one.

Very similar to how the Democratic Party made voter suppression the key issue for black America, invoking the spirit of the Selma boycott and throwing in a picture of the first Black president sitting in Rosa Parks’ seat on the bus. By the time they had finished the old Beltway Shuffle, some black people were linking arms, marching to the polls, and singing “We Have Overcome.” And some of these same people are only just now realizing that push-back against voter suppression only benefits the party in power if that party doesn’t address our specific concerns as a community once they’re in office.

Yeah, kinda like that.

When McDonald’s (strategically placed in low-income, minority neighborhoods) and Wal-Mart (one of the most unethical corporations in the country), are carrying the torch for Black History Month, then something is seriously wrong.

We’re being sold our own history.

The same white-washed stories we’re taught in schools, are being fed to us as “Black History” nuggets of wisdom about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and now President Barack Obama. And as garnish, we get to bask in our many achievements while white people debate the alleged hypocritical racism of doing so.

Today, many of us don’t use the opportunity to discuss Toni Morrison, and her brilliant deconstructions of race and colorism, or Zora Neale Hurston and her insistence that prayer is for people not at peace with the universe, who attempt through coercion to change the will of God — if there is one. We don’t pay homage to the Black Panther Party and their tireless work to bring the Free Lunch Program for Children into fruition.

Most of us don’t teach our children about Dr. King’s opposition to the Vietnam War or support of unions. We certainly don’t discuss how United States government agencies were found guilty for conspiring to assassinate him in 1999. Instead, we’ve become satisfied to let his legacy rest in “I Have a Dream.” Many of us certainly don’t discuss Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and Paul Robeson. What if our children knew that the most revered artists of a generation didn’t focus on ” money, cars and hoes,” they instead used their influence to speak out again injustice, regardless of who perpetuated it, and would have been caught dead before being found guilty of what Mr. Belafonte so eloquently described as “patriotic treason”?

We most certainly don’t discuss how El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz  (Malcolm X) embraced diversity in religion, but never stopped speaking out against the virulent racism in this country, which just this week allowed the FBI to apprehend his grandson, Malcolm Shabazz, and release no information on his whereabouts.

There are many more examples, but they all lead to the fact that many of us have allowed ourselves to become content with postage stamps and Lifetime specials. We’ve become lazy, allowing this country to repackage our history, wrap it in a shiny bow and wait for us to say thank you.

Black History is so much more than a feel good 28-day PR blitz during which accolades are valued over accountability, and if Dr. Carter G. Woodson were alive today, he would be appalled at the level of mis-education that has taken place. When he created “Black History Week” it wasn’t so that others could control with advertising dollars what sliver of our story would be recognized, but so that our history would never be forgotten — especially by us.

And it’s past time that we remembered that.

  • Zeus

    Maybe they need to abolish the farce or at least call it what it actually is: “SLAVERY AND THE AFTERMATH HISTORY MONTH”. Calling it “Black history” is a misnomer and a joke, akin to calling BET “black entertainment”.
    Black history is more extensive, interesting and more complex than the recycled stories about MLK, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks et al.

    I’m a black immigrant and I find it absurd that “black history” should be celebrated every febuary instead of being recognized as just another part of American history.
    It’s also time to put some of the collectivist ideas championed by your heroes because those kind of ideas are not going to work in comtemporary America. especially the talented tenth idea and the likes.

  • Chika

    Actually, when I was growing up my mom and uncle taught me about just about everything you mentioned in this article. My book case was filled with writings about Malcolm X, Ida B. Wells, Huey Newton, Angela Davis and more by the time I was in 3rd grade. My mom used to make sure I heard the Black History fact of the day on the Tom Joyner show every morning. I was this little black girl at this all-white Catholic school spewing the truth to everyone outside the month of February. There were actually some parents that called in to complain about what I was saying!

  • Cocochanel31

    This is why I am so thankful for my parents for rearing me in a household where Black History was 365 days out the year! I always looved history black history in particular. I used to check out all of the biographies on famous people in our community at the school librbary in junior high. I think I finished all of James Baldwin’s works by seventh grade, all that to say it’s so important we self educate and not rely on anyone else bc we allll know there is so much more of our history than Dr. King and Rosa Parks.

  • SAMURAI36

    I agree that we have been sold our own history back to us. It’s like the bullshit food we eat these days: it’s been recycled, processed, broken down, & stripped of any real nutrients. It doesn’t contribute to our overall health, in fact it adds to our deterioration.

    Black history will never be a relevant concept, so long as the white media complex controls it. TV, magazines, textbooks, all come from them.

    It’s also why “Black History” only amounts to African American history. The history of our people began long before 1555, when we found ourselves on the shores of this last. We contributrd to the history of the world, past & present.

    In fact, Aside from Malcolm & the BP’s, Af-American history is the least interesting aspect of our millennia-long tale, IMO.

  • http://defendingmoney.wordpress.com Marketing Gimmicks

    Yes. Black history is being bastardized, sanitized and anesthetized for the masses…it would be great if someone could upstart a Wikipedia for Black History because that mess that Soledad O Brian is producing at CNN is watered down and diluted.

    I honestly feel that Black History IS American History and should be fully weaved into the fabric of what is taught as American History. Asians, Indians, Africans, Eastern Europeans, Caribbean’s could all use an American history book or two…cause these are the folks that tend to know the least about race and racial politics. A lot of immigrants don’t know that if it weren’t for the struggles of African Americans a lot of them wouldn’t have the freedom to pursue their happiness and their dreams of a better future. Idealistically this is a tall order but to me is the ultimate goal.

    The culture of power will always treat the economics of slavery, white privilege, reconstruction, and Jim Crow as a side dish like cold limp string beans out of a can. It has always been our job to own & protect our history cause we know deep down certain white people (not all) want US to go away and neglect our roots. But without roots you cannot flower.

    As for Black America. Honey chile hush and goodbye. Things aren’t looking too swell on our end. It would appear that many of us don’t care and don’t have time to care; only time to react to shenanigans and shallow pool pop culture.

  • Zeus

    “A lot of immigrants don’t know that if it weren’t for the struggles of African Americans a lot of them wouldn’t have the freedom to pursue their happiness and their dreams of a better future. Idealistically this is a tall order but to me is the ultimate goal.”

    Immigrants know about the struggles of “African Americans” and appreciate them for taking all those lumps circa 1700- 1965.; but what’s the point of your ancestors struggles when a substantial amount of you have decided not to take advantage of the myriad of opportunities available?

    Besides, too many of you value groupthink and being of one accord even when your values are asinine don’t mesh with the type of society this country is supposed to be. And when someone like Clarence Thomas shows some individuality, many of you call him a triator but somehow a charlatan like Al Sharpton has enough clout to have tv and radio shows.

    Well, immigrants now have the “freedom to pursue their happiness and dreams for a better future”, the question is, what have most of you done with that same freedom?

  • Cocochanel31

    I KNOW THAT’S RIGHT CHIKA!
    #RIGHT ON!

  • YeahRight2011

    I wanted to get here before the “We as a People” brigade shows up. They already have a deficit in their perception of other black people and they’ll cosign this piece. I never appreciated the condescending tone black writers and speakers use when addressing a racial concern either. It would great of they’d stop doing that.

    Anyway the lack of interest comes from the lack of inclusion and depth. The writer listed the obligatory list of Black historic celebrities and the Panthers (the only group listed and not the first of their kind). The motivation behind innovation in the arts and academic and economic, social, and political reform is missing. The bold ideas and demonstrations by black teenage boys and girls are missing. Black men’s innovation in community development and economic expansion is missing.

    The effective and efficient political activity of Black women prior to the 60’s CRM is missing. I saw an article in Ebony from 1960 where the National Council of Negro Women hosted an Int’l Debutante Ball. They had debutants come from India, South Korea, Sierra Leone, Bermuda, Jamaica, Ghana, Israel, Puerto Rico, Senegal, South Africa, and China and the First Lady and Lena Horne were there. It looked like any major social event that would command international press but it wasn’t covered in any major papers even though the First Lady was there. That led me to the Harlem Housewives, Black women’s union reform activity in the South and Midwest, and the Black women’s club movement at the turn of the last century. I’ll admit I was under the impression that Black women weren’t political active until the CRM. Serves me right too. I’m still learning about Black women’s activism during and after the 1960’s but I do know the “Black women left CR/BP for Feminism” narrative is not accurate, by a long shot.

    Maybe showing Black History as an evolving and expanding record of cultural synthesis and ordinary people with an extraordinary ambitions for the time would help, we all love a good story. West African, Latin American, and Caribbean history would spice things up a bit too. But at least expanding Black History beyond figureheads/individuals would be a got start.

  • stef

    excellent post, i have always noted the same things you have. I remember as a kid we were taught more about Eli Whitney and the cotton gin than a w.e.b dubious and even then i said to myself “didn’t his invention make life harder and worst for black people”?

    The main lesson to learn is stop demanding on the decedents of your formers slave master and oppressor to teach you and your children your history.

  • stef

    Black history month should also be about African Americans learning about Caribbean and African history and understanding the struggle that west Indians and Africans went through especially under colonialism and neo-colonialism. we know full well race and racial politics but from a different perspective.

    This will go along way in creating a truly unified people

  • prettysmudge

    Unfortunately at this point in time, just simply removing black history month from the calendars won’t solve anything. This country still needs a black history month, but it’s what we do with it that needs to change. Instead of complaining, why don’t we come together and make black history month our own and teach what needs to be taught? I’ve posted various things on all the subjects mentioned in the article on my facebook page. I’ve provided people with a free download of Assata Shakur’s autobiography. And I’ve given links to my favorite websites to learn about true black history – and I mean ALL blacks. And I’ve told everyone to read these things in February and all year ’round. We can all put speakers together. We can all come together to hold community discussions. Whatever it takes. Until we take it upon ourselves to change how it’s used, it will remain the same and we will never move forward.

  • http://www.urbanexpressive.com J. Nicole

    Yes, we know any history lesson taught in school is watered down and begins with the enslavement of Africans- as if there was no civilization prior to a violent interaction with Europeans. But we also have to take responsibility on learning our history. I’m glad I went to a school that had a wide curriculum & diverse teachers. Add that to my family making sure I knew my history. But even before that, I took it upon myself to learn. Its a shame that younger kids today can relate every lyric to a Drake song, break down every feature of an iPhone yet don’t use that same energy in learning about where they came from. I make sure for every lesson I hear one of my nieces & nephews brings up, its juxtaposed with a person of color. We also need to learn & share info from every person effected by African diaspora: Black Americans, Afro-Latinos & Carribeans included. It’s not just one type of history.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Pret.A.Porte Ronnette A. Cox

    You should of wrote this piece!

  • Treece

    Wow, so true! Much of what I learned about Black history my parents didn’t even leave it up to my school or television to teach me. The depth of my understanding of Black and African history came from them 365 days a year in my upbringing. So many generations after the CRM have been fed the same cookie cutter Black History Month factoids that they become tired of it and nobody makes it feel inclusive or relates history to what is going on in their lives right now.

  • Smitty Werbenjagermanjensen

    Great comment. I now have some researching to do.

  • CulturallyAware

    I agree that we are being resold our history, in a convenient package. I think the ignorance among us with regards to African American history is due to the rat race of life and not prioritizing things like reflection, reading for leisure…alot of us are just trying to keep a roof over our heads and feed our children. For those of us in the position to leisurely pursue our history more in depth are priviledged!I believe that Clutch is in a great position to be one of the many pioneers to be influential on the type of black history we consume. So instead of complaining about how black America is neglecting our history, focus on the little you can continue to do Clutch, about the type of black history your readers consume. I agree that our history is beyond Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X., Black Panther Party, Civil Rights and Slavery. It is important to note the roots of some of our famous leaders of the past came from ..the talented tenth…a group of educated and well exposed African Americans. This group was so rare that mainstream black America and even black America at the time did not really know that people like them were capable of such great achievement, in spite of the incredibly harsh adversities they faced. Some of the talented tenth understood and believed in the power of partnership and coming together for the greater good and social advancement. When I read the book Our Kind of People by Lawrence Otis Graham and learned about exclusive African American social clubs like Jack and Jill, The Links etc. and generations of wealthy African American families pre and post civil rights..I was amazed. There are many things that I dont agree with , like some of the elitist mentality that some of our wealthier brothers and sisters have, but the take away from my knowledge about these kind of people is being able to step outside you comfort zone and partner with the right people (black or white) that will put you in a position to live the lifestyle you want and use your color to your advantage..not a disadvantage!Don’t get caught up in the hype that the white man is out to get you..yes they are some people like that..but there are many that want to help you and because of that you can advance socially and have free time to reflect, consume and teach the black history you feel needs to be shared.

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  • Yb

    There are other months for Africans and Carribeans. Black Americans are never allowed to think of themselves first and must focus on every other ethnicity before putting ourselves first. Amazing on a month started by us, dedicated to us you suggest we learn about things that don’t pertain to us.

    Could you image telling a West Indian that in June instead of immersing themself in their history they should learn about Black American History?

  • Kam

    “A lot of immigrants don’t know that if it weren’t for the struggles of African Americans a lot of them wouldn’t have the freedom to pursue their happiness and their dreams of a better future.”

    Exhibit A of the ignorance of Black history. This myth needs to die. West Indians and Africans were fighting right alongside!

  • Yb

    Keep perpetuating a lie to help you cope with not acknowledging the realities of black American history.

    Like Black America, West Indians and African lead the fight for civil rights in THEIR OWN COUNTRIES. Was there a number of West Indians and African who contributed to the black American civil rights movement? Yes. Where they a majority? Of course not. Not even half.

    Black Americans also contributed in the fight for civil rights and against colonization in Caribbean an African countries, but it’ll be a cold day in hell before we pretend we spearheaded those movements.

    Imagine AA’s patting themselves on the back saying they ended apartheid. You couldn’t dream of it.

    There are also quotes from black American leader saying that Jews were more willing to help with the American Civil Rights move then West Indians.

    Claiming Black American history as your own only undermines the accomplishments of your group as well as embarrasses you.

  • Ask_ME

    @YB

    Thank you! I’m reading some of these comments from non-black Americans and I’m thinking, “WTF?”

    When I visited various parts of Africa I was met with the insult of being called “white” yet I’m supposed to embrace the entire African Dispora on a month reserved for Black American history???

    GTFOH!

    Some of you may not want to admit it, but the whole reason you’re able to eat, sleep, breath and immigrant to this country is because BLACK AMERICANS struggled, scarified, died and march for the freedom you have here.

    Respect our month and keep it moving.

    I’m no more interested in learning about West Indian history in February than they are learning about Black American history in June.

  • The Artist

    Black history starts in the home. Honestly, I get so sick and tired of children drilling one another over designer labels, yet they fail to know their own history.

    History taught in the school system is complete BS. During a US history course in middle school, I got so tired of hearing the white people.. invented that…conquered that…wrote that…established this.I raised my hand and said, “So what did the Black people do”? The instructor, a white man, completely stopped, stared for 5 seconds and said “Oh errmmm they were mostly out West during this time period.” Or course I knew at the time, his response was completely ridiculous”.

  • YeahRight2011

    “….it would be great if someone could upstart a Wikipedia for Black History.”

    Granted!

    There is a website called BlackPast.org. A wonderful site with summaries, sources, images, and the name of the contributors, quite comparable to Wiki and covers Global Diaspora history. You might want to see whats out there before you suggest what we need.

    “A lot of immigrants don’t know that if it weren’t for the struggles of African Americans a lot of them wouldn’t have the freedom to pursue their happiness and their dreams of a better future.”

    I think they do know, they’re just trying to figure out what the heck happened after that. Their even looking at second gens like “WTH?”.

    I’ve had my run ins with Black Immigrants and 1st gens but my enthusiasm about my culture and history is contagious. After a while it stops being about differences and more about similarities, especially with the women. But I don’t let anyone insult me though.

  • http://gravatar.com/hsm36 Whatever

    “It’s also why “Black History” only amounts to African American history. The history of our people began long before 1555, when we found ourselves on the shores of this last. We contributrd to the history of the world, past & present.”

    Thanks You! Black history embodies the history, stories and heroes of the ENTIRE African Diaspora. One piece without the others us incomplete. Our history goes further back than slavery and extends further than the United States. If more children were raised with the knowledge and appreciation of the entire diaspora there wouldn’t be such a dive among us (Black Americans, West Indians, Africans).

  • http://gravatar.com/hsm36 Whatever

    “A lot of immigrants don’t know that if it weren’t for the struggles of African Americans a lot of them wouldn’t have the freedom to pursue their happiness and their dreams of a better future.”

    This is bullshit and this is the EXACT reason so many AA are lost. You need to know the ENTIRE history of the African Diaspora. Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican Immigrant was the inspiration for many during the civil rights movement including Malcolm X. During the 60′s Castro, Che, Patrice Lumumba and Kwame Nkrumah (to name a few) spoke out about the injustices against blacks in this country. Please go pick up several books, have a seat and get top reading!

  • Barbara

    I’ve tried to find out why Malcolm X’s grandson was arrested and what happened to him. Perhaps Americans are not allowed to travel to Iran?

  • Blue

    I’ve learned more about my history outside of grade school. What I find disturbing is how people are making jokes about it online & in the radio. Jokes such as “First black woman to not give a damn” etc. We have a time set aside for our history & we make unnecessary jokes instead.

  • Gina Wild

    @YeahRight2011. I agree with you and Ronnette A. Cox. In passing, it’s «you should have WRITTEN this piece.» No offence, Ronnette.

  • http://herdiamondback.blogspot.com/ eparksm

    The real truth here is that there has been an overall dumbing down of America, where no one learns -Black, White, or otherwise. As much as White heros are presented and taught, I’m pretty sure you would not be able to find a kid who knows about the War of 1812. With that said, I do agree with the article that Black people should not fall in line with the propaganda and sterilized facts presented, and it means that it is even more important now that we take responsibility for our education. Personally, though I do not subscribe to a month, and I believe that the notion of BHM has been thrown away b/c of the “Black 365″ mantra.

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