The shortest month of the year, and all across this great land of ours, copies of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches and Langston Hughes poems are dusted off, opened gingerly and read for these 28(29) days as an acknowledgement of diversity and inclusiveness…only to be returned to their cobwebbed bookshelves and dusty desk drawers to hibernate for next 338…their purpose and significance forgotten by St. Patrick’s Day as we don green plastic derbies and drink green beverages to “celebrate our Irish heritage.”
For those of you unaware of its origins, African American History Month actually began as Negro History Week, created by Carter G. Woodson respected historian and founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (1915), the Journal of Negro History (1916), in order to draw attention to and create awareness of the accomplishments and contributions of African Americans. Carter felt that racism was “merely the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.” In celebrating and promoting the accomplishments and achievements, he hoped to make the world more cognizant of impact the African Americans had, and illustrate not the differences, but rather the commonalities of success, ability and culture so often overlooked because of skin color.
He picked the second week in February, to coincide with marking the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
It has become the busiest time for those of us considered scholars, historians or experts as we are called upon to give talks about trivia facts, increasing diversity, and the “hidden mysteries” of our culture because our audiences labor under the illusion that African American History began with Slavery and sometime later Dr. King was born and everything was okay. And now with the election of President Barack Obama, the resolve has come even more firmly that efforts like African American History month are outdated and outlived.
And this is correct.
It has outlived its usefulness not because we have finally arrived at a time where all people are considered equal, where the nation has risen up to live out the true meaning of its creed or when justice has rolled down like waters…far from it. But rather because it has become a novelty instead of a teaching tool, a cariacature of what Dr. Woodson envisioned. It is a token gesture by people and organizations show their “diversity” rather than explore and understand the significance of idea and avoid the revelation that can and must come if you seriously embrace the concept of African American History month…African American History does not exist.
It never has.
Like race, it is a sociological construct put in place to facilitate dealing with racism. It is a fabrication that allows us to place a boundary and parameters around an immutable truth in order to stave off facing it head on and having to confront the preconceived notions we arise with and pass amongst our social circles like some preternatural basket of breadsticks at the Olive Garden sampled and engorged upon for the evening and forgotten the next day.
African American History isn’t “African American History”, it’s history.
It is not the sole province nor relegation of African Americans, but rather of all people. Garrett Morgan did not invent the traffic signal for only brown people anymore than Crispus Attucks died only for us. The Civil Rights movement was about Justice, not African American rights and President Obama is not the leader of the United States of African American People…although if you listen to Tea Party Loyalists or Fox News, you would not know it.
No, these elements and individuals are part of what makes up the larger tableau of American History, a rich and divergent past that has shaped our country and citizens into what they are today. It is a piece of the tapestry that is the American Dream and it is well past time we started treating it as such.
African Americans have endured many trials and tribulations, but also shared in many successes and achievements, and most often not alone. Caucasians marched along side us in the Civil Rights movement, Native Americans built homes and communities with us in the old West, Latinos have struggled alongside us to handle the same challenges and so forth. We have more in common and have been through more together than in other parts of the world.
There are a lot of fascinating and great parts of OUR history, from the Harlem Renaissance to Black Wall Street, and there are also some things that will be hard to confront and face like the tragedy of the Tulsa Race Riots to the lynchings in Duluth and across the US. But triumph and tragedy are part and parcel for a great country and a great society. And only through shared experience, positive and negative, examined, acknowledged and understood, can we move past our lowest points to arrive at our mountaintop. To truly be a great country, we have to start treating ourselves as one nation, not as separate but equal.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with taking a day or a week or a month to enhance or focus on underrepresented groups or cultures. It is one way to expose ourselves to things we didn’t know, but the journey should not end there. We must make the commitment to go on; to share the experience and recognize it as part of history, OUR history, all of us.
Celebrate Black History, but recognize that it’s history. It belongs to White people as well. And don’t let that be the end of it. Celebrate the Chinese New Year and learn the true meaning of Cinco De Mayo. Find out why the Vikings came and which Native tribes moved across the plains. Celebrate the diversity that is a part of our cultures both individual and together, and one day, maybe not to far away; we may truly come to understand what it means to be the land of the free and home of the brave.