For the next four weeks we will all be seeing the posts on social media and various blogs and websites: “Why do we need a ‘Black History Month’?” The answers to that question are multiple and should be set out very clearly.
Long before the United States was an independent nation, much of our accumulated wealth rested on the hunched shoulders and aching backs of African slaves and their progeny. As slavery expanded the slaves took with them not only the dim memories of their grandparents; they took their distinctive cultural styles: music, storytelling, religion, all imbued with survival strategies necessary for a population continually threatened with violence and death. Whites found all of this both “exotic” and “different” – they still do – and tried to steal everything from humor rooted in making fun of their white masters to songs filled with longing for freedom, creating the basis of American popular theater, called The Minstrel Show. The television variety show (now largely a thing of the past) was the last incarnation of what changed its name and shape but was always rooted in white appropriation of African-American cultural forms. From my childhood, Sonny and Cher and Donny and Marie Osmond owe their success in no small part to the ongoing attempts by whites to make the “different” and “othered” cultural styles of African-Americans their own. Even the revealing costumes Cher would wear run in a direct line from white perceptions of the sexuality of African-American women and how that was presented, whether in minstrel shows, the shows at The Cotton Club or Le Revue Negre in Paris, or how Nikki Minaj and other women of color are perceived today. Not only the appropriation of African-American cultural forms, but how whites present their too often distorted perceptions of African-Americans, particularly their sexuality, is one reason we need Black History month.
Things with which we live on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s peanut butter, the traffic light, or the transfusion of blood, come from African-Americans. I doubt anyone would deny the cultural importance of peanut butter! Traffic lights reduced the need for traffic police at busy intersections, freeing them up for actual police work. And the sad fact is that the man who invented the way we extract, store, and then dispense blood for those in need died because he was denied a blood transfusion. Because he was black. His life alone tells us why we need Black History Month.
Finally, we need Black History Month because there are people who still ask the question, “Why do we need ‘Black History Month’?” We need it because when families and residents of cities and neighborhoods march to protest poor living conditions, demanding better treatment and an end to the abuse and murder of their sons and daughters by police, it’s called a riot. When privileged white college students destroy and loot stores, overturn and set fire to cars, and police in riot gear fear moving in to end the violence, it’s called a celebration. When a young man walking through a neighborhood on his way home from a convenience store is shot and killed by a civilian for no apparent reason, many people dissect everything about the young man’s life in an effort to show all the ways he probably deserved to die. We need Black History Month because the person who shot that young man was not found guilty of murder, claiming self-defense; not long after, a young African-American woman, in fear for her life, fires a warning shot at her estranged, abusive husband, yet faces multiple years in prison as the judge denies self-defense and imminent fear as a defense. We need Black History Month because no white parent has to sit with their child and have “the talk”, a talk about the reality that no matter where that child goes or what that child accomplishes, that child will always be perceived as a threat by police, security officers in stores, or groups of white people. No matter how hard that child works to achieve success, that success will always be questioned because of the myth that Affirmative Action rewards people for lack of ability, while denying those with ability opportunities. No white parent will have to sit and wonder if their son or daughter was pulled over by the police for driving through the wrong neighborhood at night. We need Black History Month because a young African-American is more likely to go to prison than to college.
We need Black History Month because we don’t know one another in America. We whites have no idea how African-American families live. We are both ignorant and afraid of the ways of life of those we perceive as “different” from us. It is commonplace to carry on about how ignorant Americans are of their own history; yet so many believe that four weeks out of the year to focus attention of the contributions and lives of a people who have built America, who live among us as both a part of us and apart from us, some people believe this is unnecessary. That’s why we need Black History Month.