Monday, February 06, 2006

In the Center of it All by Gerald Early | Black History Month

10:28 pm
28 Days

We have arrived once again at Black History Month, that time of year devoted to the remembrance and celebration of all things African American as something like a public duty or civic penance, depending on one’s view. PBS is rolling out African American Lives, a four-hour special by Henry Gates; Turner Classic Movies will devote a day to Sidney Poitier, Ethel Waters and Paul Robeson; public service announcements on many radio stations will remind us about the lives of great black Americans – an inventor or a civil rights lawyer – who most of the public has never heard of; bookstores will prominently display books by black authors or about black people in their windows; school children will be told about the glories of the civil rights movement. For 28 days the red, white and blue will be swathed in the red, black and green flag of black liberation. And here I am at The New York Times.

Is it all passé, having separate space on the calendar about blacks? Does it all smack of a kind and gentle form of Jim Crow? Or, looked at another way, why celebrate this particular minority group without celebrating others? Why not a Chinese American History Month, a Filipino American History Month , an Italian American or Irish American History Month? Why are blacks the exceptionalist group among American non-white and European minorities?

When I was a boy my Irish and Italian friends reminded me that their ethnic groups did not try to have Columbus Day or St. Patrick’s Day extended into week-long celebrations. (This was in the 1960’s, before Negro History Week became Black History Month.) I always replied by saying, “Why not? There are a lot of weeks in the year that aren’t doing anything.”

Detractors of various political persuasions argue variously: 1) Black History Month is assigned to the shortest month of the year, a sign that our nation does not really take it seriously. 2) African American history ought to be discussed throughout the year, not just during one month. 3) Black History Month reduces African American history to “contributions” made to a larger history of the nation. It becomes a sub-history, a history contingent on the larger narrative of white history. 4) Black History Month is divisive, part of the fragmentation and multiculturalization of American history, where every group must have its own version of history and cannot share a common one.

Taking these objections in turn: the creator of this commemoration, Carter G. Woodson, who earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard and became one of the most prolific African American historians ever (though, with his crabbed writing style, never the easiest to read), chose the second week in February for Negro History Week in 1926 because of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12, which, when I was a kid, was a national holiday) and Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14), although, of course, Douglass never really knew when he was born. Lincoln’s birthday was clearly the more important because it tied African American history to the one white person who could make it a transcendent topic of human importance to both blacks and those whites who cared about this issue at all.

Could he have chosen a better month? Thirty one days hath July and August but Negro History Week was primarily for school children and most didn’t go to school during those months. In December, it would have been overshadowed by Christmas. In March or April, Easter might fall. January may have been good: the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on the first day of 1863. But Woodson didn’t want the week tied to a particular historical act. He wanted instead to emphasize the larger historical issues of the Union and the process of social transformation that Lincoln as a historical figure made possible.

In short, he wanted to place the week in such a way that blacks would seem “present at the creation” of a new society, indeed, their condition being the cause of it. As historian Paul Johnson has asserted, the Civil War made the United States a nation. So why not tie it to Lincoln? The week was expanded to a month in 1976 and there seemed to be little reason to change it at that point to another, longer month.

The argument that Black History Month in fact segregates black history misses two points: first, that blacks, on the whole, rightly or wrongly, feel their history is sufficiently precarious — actively suppressed as it was for a good part of the 20th century — to merit a guaranteed space on the national calendar to ensure discussion of it. The very nuisance quality of the occasion, which some disparage, is the very element that makes it of some cultural and historical importance to blacks. They have always had to assert themselves as a nuisance group in order to achieve much of anything in this country. For some, to say that black history should be integrated into the fabric of American history in some way denies the power of black history as a political polemic. Second, it can also be argued the segregation of the month only serves to remind the nation as a whole about how segregated blacks have been in our national life, a point that should not be forgotten.

Most nationalist or Afrocentrist types disparage any vision of a history built on “contributions.” This perspective asserts that black people have a whole, organic history independent of any purely “American” context or “American” understanding. As a radical friend told me in the 1970’s, “There are no ‘sub’ realities. There are only competing realities.”

“Minority classification fatigue” is understandable, but it also takes on more than a little of the quality of “majority envy.” It is hard to say whether Woodson saw Negro History Week as “contributionism,” it is unlikely, judging from “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” Woodson’s most popular and accessible book, which legitimated for many blacks the idea that history is nothing more than political propaganda that either works for or against one’s self-interests. But “contributionism” is obviously only a strategy, a way for an outside group with relatively limited power to work its way toward intellectual and emotional ownership of the majority’s history. A sense of ownership of America and of its institutions, something blacks were denied for most of their history in this country, is essential for their future here.

Some conservatives have argued that Black History Month is divisive, part of the leftist pluralist vision of American history. There is actually very little to support this view. Black History Month is part of a push for inclusion, not separation. Its “pluralist” bent was only a recognition of the racism that forced the study of black people to be a separate academic and civic enterprise. There have been separatist moments among American blacks: during the 1850’s, for instance, and again during Marcus Garvey’s heyday in the early 1920’s (a holdover from the 1890’s), and later during the Black Power era of the late 1960’s. But African Americans on the whole have displayed far less of a separatist temperament than the French in Canada or the Basques in Spain or the Koreans in Japan after World War II or many other groups around the world.

The creation of Negro History Week and, later, Black History Month, has probably done a great deal to ensure a sense of black civic pride and commitment. What I think irritates some conservatives is not that the occasion is separatist but rather that blacks, through it, make a persistent claim to a form of exceptionalism as both a minority group and historical victims. But what makes them exceptions is slavery. And some would argue that if Black History Month reminds the nation of slavery, it is doing a good service, for that is a topic most of us would rather forget.

It might be thought from all of this that I am, on the whole, favorably disposed to Black History Month, and that this piece is a defense of it. But actually, I am not. As a boy, I remember Negro History Week as pain and embarrassment: Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Mary McLeod Bethune, and a few other historical blacks were trotted out by stern black teachers in what seemed to be nothing so much as a fit of racial piety that lacked both conviction and purpose. And, alas, there was the subject of slavery, which no one could make sense of except that for some mysterious reason white folk enslaved blacks and for an equally mysterious reason, a few hundred years later, decided to free them.

As a boy, none of this seemed heroic, interesting or even intelligible. It only made me wonder how I was supposed to relate to black people and why. That is, what did this past, such as it was, have to do with me? Black History Month, or Negro History Week, was the institutionalization of uplift, which I hated, as I was subjected to it almost daily in some form or fashion.

The preoccupation with uplift seemed to prove to me that blacks had swallowed their own sense of inferiority. Why was I being burdened with that problem? The tale of people obsessed with their inferiority, with being “cured,” was no kind of historical narrative that was going to do me any good as a kid. So, for a long time, I associated Black History Month with a kind of two-bit therapy that tried to turn guilt into pride, that only the persecuted could fashion. I was, on that score, always a skeptic.


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