Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Oh Yeah, It's Black History Month

I got home last night from work, cooked myself dinner and sat down in front of the television. I flipped through the channels and found Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. talking to Chris Rock on a local PBS station. (Most of us in the DC area have 3 PBS stations) It was a replay of a program I'd been wanting to see for some time called "African American Lives 2." Gates reveals the family histories of black celebrities that had been traced back to the days of slavery, with their impressive post-slavery achievements chronicled. Unfortunately, I only caught the tail end of this episode, but what little I saw was touching and inspiring.

Credits rolled and I started channel surfing again, finding a bio on Marvin Gaye...on WETA, another PBS station. And I thought to myself "Whoa, two black shows on one night! What's the deal?"

Then it dawned on me: it's Black History Month. I'd been so caught up in the Super Bowl and contemplating my pending birthday, I'd totally forgotten. Obviously, I knew it was coming, but February 1st isn't exactly a red-letter day on the calendar marking the beginning of BHM.

Anyone who went to high school with me knows that I have spoken out on BHM before. When I was a junior, I wrote a mean-spirited piece for my high school newspaper that ridiculed the idea of BHM and the watered-down black nationalism that manifests itself as the "Black National Anthem" and the "Black National Flag"-- and I made some very unnecessary comments and comparisons in the process. (For what it's worth, PHHS alumni, I am sorry about that.)

Admittedly, I still feel the same way about the black national anthem and that the black national flag is--well, by definition, they are both indeed--contrived. And, having seen stripper/ass-shaking videos on BET with the "BET celebrates BHM" icon in the corner--a disgusting irony I wanted to slap someone for--I can't say I take Black History Month all that seriously in practice. The idea of it--that is, taking time to explain legitimate contributions to history by black people that have been overlooked to this point--is a good thing. One need not believe in a dastardly conspiracy to keep black achievements out of the history texts to say that the average history curriculum is sorely lacking across the board. And, given that there is a good deal of context left out of what little history books actually address it (The immediate future's narrative will probably look something like: Harriet Tubman-->Abraham Lincoln-->MLK-->Obama), American schools have a great deal to teach about the black experience in America. What we need is Black History, not Black Trivia.

The fact that I'm surprised seeing just two consecutive shows dealing with black people on television stations that cater to a large black population--one of which, might I add, is run by a Historically Black College--is indicative that we still have a problem. It isn't that we should mandate x amount of black or other shows, mind you, but that there nearly must be a reason for two shows in one night is. If you doubt this: imagine living in your own country where you automatically think something is strange if two shows on PBS feature people like you...

Positive role models, especially those in history that demonstrate intelligence, thrift, and/or run against the common perceptions and prejudices reflected in today's persistent black stereotypes are important for a people robbed of any dignified history. The precious few individuals that stand out in the general texts can be wiped away with the "exception" tag that gets thrown at successful blacks in spite of true and numerous stories of thriving and successful black towns made up of teachers, tradesmen, authors, and businessmen--briefly, and within certain limitations--well-before the Civil Rights movement. The mental picture of blacks in the semi-distant past is more often illiterate, uncivilized, and incapable of doing for him or herself without the assistance of white people, as if black people have just only recently been able to develop enough intelligence to subsist and live on our own. This, indeed, has become self-sustaining and self-propagating myth as generations of black children are taught to game the system and reject education.

So yes, in spite of its flaws, I support Black History Month--and I very much look forward to a day when I won't be able to tell it's February simply by seeing two channels' programming on my television.

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