It’s that time of year again, Black History Month. Dedicated to the ones who survived 2020, and the ones who didn’t. Let’s do it. With tentacles.
Art: Poster for Lovecraft Country (HBO)
Every February in the United States, the country sets aside 28 (or 29 in a leap year) days to celebrate, discuss and engage Black History. Innocuous enough. And yet Feb. 1st seems to signal the beginning of a 28-day long ritual of whining. How come they get their own month? What about White History Month? It’s a cornucopia of misconceptions and endless micro-aggressive racial faux-pas.
Unfortunately, this isn’t just from the usual sky boxes of white obliviousness; there are black people (looking at you Fauxteps and Stacy Dash) who wade into the stupid with reckless abandon. In a world where actual white nationalists and Nazi sympathizers have actually sacked the United States Capitol–like Atilla the Hun–the stupid remains extra thick, extra fragile, extra entitled and extra whiny.
So here are a few tips to better understand the month: because if you’re going to battle the stupid, you’ll need this mental armor.
This is an updated list from an annual post I’ve done for the last five years. You’d think everyone would have the pointers down by now right? Wrong. Because like evil in Mordor, the stupid yet stirs, and does not sleep.
Photos from HBO’s Lovecraft Country
Okay Sons of Adam…
You know the old saying about if you have to start off with “I’m not racist but…” right? Everything after that should just be silence. Basically the answer is, racism. And by racism I mean white supremacy, not the reverse racism unicorns people make up in their heads. That’s it. Pure and simple. Black History Month exists because White Supremacy Racism (I capped it) declared for a very long time that the only history that was worth knowing was white history–that is, the history of the “western” world, the more savory parts of Europe and (if you’re in the United States) white people in America. Don’t believe me? Listen to this guy:
I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men, to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures among them, no arts, no sciences…Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men–David Hume, Of National Characters, 1753, a footnote
See there? And that’s not your run-of-the-mill everyday slack-jawed Pepe the Frog, Egg Avatar, Russian Bot, QAnon Trump acolyte with 12 followers either. That’s David Hume, the great Scottish philosopher of the Enlightenment–you know, that age of reason and intellect that gave us nice things like natural rights, freedom, liberty, etc.? Also gave us the fruits of natural scientific racism. And it’s trickled down, by many others of his ilk (smart reasonable and pleasant white fellows–some very fine people on both sides, you know) to permeate our institutions, popular thinking and our understandings of history.
If you’ve never heard of black figures in US history like Benjamin Banneker or Elijah McCoy and Mary Church Terrell, but you’ve heard of white figures like Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers and Susan B. Anthony, there’s a reason for that–racism. If you’ve never heard of the Tulsa riot of 1921 until an HBO show about a fictional blue guy and another one with Shoggoths, there’s a reason for that. These black figures, and events, were not deemed important or as worthy as their white counterparts. So you can go through grades 1-12, even through college, and never manage to run across them unless you take *distinct* classes on African American studies, history, etc.
That’s why there’s a Black History Month, to honor and acknowledge those elements of history that were too long ignored or are given short thrift or just left the hell out. Got it? Good.
If there was a White History Month, THAT would be racist!
“Whitey on the Moon.”
Yes it would be. Just like White Identity Politics is inherently racist and White Nationalism is racist and folks who warn about White Genocide are racist. Yes, if you think “Diversity is White Genocide” you’re a racist. I mean think on what that is saying: “the existence of people different from me makes me think I’m going to be destroyed.” It don’t get no race-ier. Whiteness is inherently racist. Period. I know you’re like…but! but! but! Nope. Sorry. No buts.
Notice I said Whiteness is inherently racist and not white people. Because. They’re. Not. The. Same. Things.
One (white) is a category or group of people. The other (Whiteness) is an enacted behavior. And it’s enacted to enforce and maintain power and privilege. Whiteness therefore is inherently racist because racism is based on the concept of Whiteness. That ain’t an opinion. That’s scripture. Or, a good college course.
There’s a long history of white people getting together to celebrate Whiteness and coming up with things like the Ku Klux Klan or 1921 Tulsa or rolling tanks into Poland. When Black folk yelled “Black Power” in the 1960s, most you got out of that was an Angela Davis afro, James Brown doing splits and Soul Train. When people hear folk shouting “White Power!” it makes them nervous–for legitimate reasons. Don’t believe me? Go through the history of guys shouting “White Power!” and find me where it didn’t mean mortal danger to some non-white people who were marginalized and with much less collective societal and political power.
But more than being racist, a White History Month would be plain dumb. I mean, slack-jawed, mouth-breathing, monstrously dumb. As dumb as someone coming up with Men’s Rights or Straight Pride. As dumb as being offended at a Black Batwoman. I mean, could you imagine?
Go back to the first question. Carter G. Woodson in the 1920s hailed Black History as a “weapon” to be wielded against the oppression of white supremacy and anti-black racism. If Black History Month exists because of past racism and marginalization by white society, and most of the history we learn is already about white people, exactly what purpose would a White History Month serve? To recall the several hundred years of white enslavement? (The answer to the “What About Irish Slaves?” mythology can be found here. Oh yes, it’s also steeped in racism. Of course.). To commemorate when white people got their freedom? To relive the dark days of Biff Crow, when black people forced whites to drink from “OFAY ONLY” water fountains? To celebrate Roseanne McParker’s brave stance on not giving up her seat to a black man on a bus? To talk about the White Civil Rights Movement that helped transform America and stop discrimination against white people? To remember the moment when Barry O’Bamasfield became the nation’s first white president?
I know the going trend is that a majority of white people think they’re now the truly oppressed; because, as the phrase goes, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality will always feel like oppression. But unless you’re some inter-dimensional traveler who’s fallen through a wormhole and come out the other end from some parallel/alternative America, don’t say this anymore. It’s embarrassing. It’s also racist.
How come they gave us the shortest month?
This question often comes from the Black side of the spectrum. Not stupid, just misinformed. The irony is, a little Black History is all one needs to understand the answer to that question:
National African-American History Month had its origins in 1915 when historian and author Dr. Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. This organization is now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (“ASALH”). Through this organization Dr. Woodson initiated the first Negro History Week in February 1926. Dr. Woodson selected the week in February that included the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two key figures in the history of African-Americans.
In 1975, President Ford issued a Message on the Observance of Black History Week urging all Americans to “recognize the important contribution made to our nation’s life and culture by black citizens.” In 1976 this commemoration of Black History in the United States was expanded by ASALH to Black History Month, also known as African-American History Month, and President Ford issued the first Message on the Observance of Black History Month.- Library of Congress
See? No one “gave us” the shortest month. Black people did it. Black people took agency and created a time to celebrate Black History. Nobody handed it to us. No one made it up for us. Pro-tip: you see something celebrating Blackness, guarantee somebody black was probably behind it. The world ain’t been handing out free “Celebrate Your Blackness” points in a minute.
So to recap: A BLACK PERSON CHOSE FEBRUARY FOR BLACK HISTORY MONTH. And he had serious BLACK REASONS for doing so. If you disagree with Woodson’s reasons, that’s fine. We can certainly discuss. But now you have a Black History answer to your question about Black History Month. Go run tell, tweet and preach that. And read more books. Books are cool.
Black History should be YEAR ROUND not just a month!
Also from the Black side of the spectrum. I hear your alarm family, but don’t think you have anything to worry about. Black History Month is not Christmas. There’s no Black History Month tree. It doesn’t even come with a set of nifty Swahili principles. It’s not working towards a climax where we all give each other presents, then the season is over and we pack up all the Black History into the attic till next time. The stores don’t stock up on Frederick Douglass dolls and then take them down on March 1st and put up Easter candy.
Historians of Black History and Black Studies scholars still have jobs the rest of the year. Books on Black History will remain stocked on the shelves. There’s no secret state police that will come through ordering you not to celebrate Black History outside of its designated time period. Throughout social media, black people will continue to send me tidbits of Black History–some of it good, some of it suspect. I don’t know of any black people who forget about Black History once the 28-days are over. Who are they? Where does this happen? The purpose of Black History Month is to place a spotlight on the history–not confine it. So Keep Calm. And keep celebrating Black History.
It’s not Black History, It’s AMERICAN History!
Okay, so not stupid exactly. I can’t argue with that. It certainly is. Zora Neale Hurston or Malcolm X didn’t exist in a vacuum, but in the larger context of American history. It’s important people see that, and not believe Black History exists suspended in some far-away unrelated place. After all, if you don’t understand Black History you really don’t understand American history–I mean, at all. Yet at the same time, celebrating Black History has varied interpretations. And it always has. For some, it’s mostly about what is more conventional African American history that deals with the history within the national boundaries of the United States (and the previous 13 colonies).
But there has been a long history of expanding beyond that. W.E.B. DuBois in his Souls of Black Folk begins his understanding of Black History in Africa, and proceeds from there. Carter G. Woodson and Mary Mcleod Bethune called for the same in extolling Black History, stating it was urgent that black people understand the history of everything from African kingdoms to Alexander Dumas to Crispus Attucks. African American researchers like Pauline Hopkins and the Jamaican-born JA Rogers early on examined Black History across space and time–from the ancient world to the United States to slave rebels in Haiti and beyond. Black History Month can thus at times be about slave maroons in Jamaica, jazz artists of the Harlem Renaissance, ancient pyramid building pharaohs or Black faces popping up in places you least expect.
Black people in the United States today are also increasingly part of broad Diaspora that stretches from Black Atlantic communities in the Caribbean and Latin America to West, Central, South and East Africa. Though as the Afro-Puerto Rican Arturo Schomburg, a founding father of Black History in early 1900s Harlem, reminds us–these connections ain’t nothing new. As Denmark Vesey, a slave from the Danish and English Caribbean who plotted a grand slave revolt in nineteenth-century Charleston reminds us, this certainly ain’t nothing new. As James Weldon Johnson, the child of an African American father and an Afro-Bahamian mother, who authored the Negro National Anthem (“Lift Every Voice and Sing”) reminds us, this ain’t nothing new. As Malcolm X, the child of a Grenadian immigrant mother and an African-American father who both devoutly followed a Jamaican immigrant (Marcus Garvey), well understood, this ain’t nothing new. As Constance Baker Motley, the daughter of Afro-Caribbean parents from Nevis, who argued successfully in key Civil Rights cases demonstrated, this ain’t nothing new. As the Trinidadian born Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), an activist with SNCC and one of the architects of Black Power, reminds us, this ain’t nothing new.
It turns out, Black History in the United States is complicated and part of the broader Diaspora–a transnational Black Atlantic. And it can include history beyond our borders that we deem relevant to Black identity and understanding. All of those stories have long been part of the narrative of Blackness in America. Not the only story. Not even the majority of the story. But part of it. Always have been. And will continue to be. Black History Month doesn’t have one monolithic voice and can mean many different things. The American born Carter G. Woodson certainly thought so, and his Journal of Negro History sought to catalog the history of the Black world–irrespective of borders and nation states.
Why do we just hear about Civil Rights and Slavery on Black History Month? Our history didn’t start with slavery!
Another one from the Black side of the spectrum. And again, not stupid. I certainly understand the sentiment. Go back to that comment by David Hume above. Through the years, the Black Atlantic has sought to respond to the degradation of black humanity by highlighting counter “achievements.” So if Europe touted Greece and Rome (never mind that ancient Romans or Greeks would have thought it spectacularly puzzling that some Anglos, Saxons and Gauls were claiming them as “racial” kin), Black people would tout “Aethiopia” and Egypt, and later look to Songhai or Mali or the like. As Carter G. Woodson wrote in 1922, “if you read the history of Africa, the history of your ancestors–people of whom you should feel proud–you will realize they have a history that is worth while.”
Some of this has been valid and important information that has helped effectively counter white-supremacist narratives. Certainly. Other times however it skirts the boundaries of the questionable or veers into the outright absurd, becoming a mockery of itself. Exhibit A: the Fauxteps. That approach has been, and remains, a mixed bag. Be wary of what you read and do your research. These radical notions of Black antiquity were infused into Black History Month, which for a very long time in the 20th century focused on “firsts” and Black “achievements.” Black History after all was supposed to instill pride.
In the 1970s, however, African American historians like Vincent Harding began questioning this approach. Harding argued that Black History had to move beyond “firsts.” Black History in the United States had to face its place not just within the American mosaic but the American paradox, the double-consciousness that W.E.B. DuBois spoke about. It had to be willing and able to explore its place within the dark side of American history, the one rooted in oppression and inequity. The one we see today in our 21st century nadir. The one that makes us have to shout BLACK LIVES MATTER. The one that investigates racial, class and gender oppression in ME TOO. The one that engulfed much of this summer.
So yes, that means Black History Month is also about slavery–that several hundred year process that laid the foundations for modern society, built American society and that pulls on us much stronger than far-flung African empires. It’s about Jim Crow. It’s about lynching. It’s about anti-black race riots and redlining. It’s about Recy Taylor. It’s about all those marginalized and forgotten voices (men and women, gay, trans, and straight–ALL) who weren’t great “kings and queens” or “firsts.” Black History has to deal with ALL of this vexing complexity. Or it remains incomplete, and perhaps hollow.
But guess what? In that history of oppression are also stories of resistance. Of Black men and women who were abolitionists, and who formed vigilance committees to protect against slave catchers, and who spoke out courageously against lynching, who stood up to injustice in the courts and in the streets, who shouted back against sexual violence, who volunteered to fight fascism in Spain and Ethiopia, who demanded and fought and triumphed. They were people like this. And these right here. And look at what they did! That’s Black History too. Embrace it.
Did you see that clip of Morgan Freeman on Black History Month being “ridiculous?”
Yes. And my answer? Morgan Freeman is ridiculous. Or rather, Morgan Freeman didn’t really know what he was talking about–though he certainly was passionate about it. To summarize his argument, Freeman claimed no other group (and he pointed to Mike Wallace being Jewish) has a month set aside for their history, which made him think Black History was being relegated and segregated out.
First, Morgan Freeman would be well-served if someone hipped him to the previous few points mentioned above. Second, claiming no other group has a recognized month…? Errr… May is Jewish American Heritage Month. Sept-Oct is Hispanic-American Heritage Month. May is also Asia-Pacific American Heritage Month. November is Native-American Heritage Month. March is Irish American Heritage Month and Women’s History Month. April is Arab-American Heritage Month. June is Caribbean-American Heritage Month. October is LGBTQ History Month. October is also Polish-American Heritage Month, German-American Heritage Month and Italian-American Heritage Month–a European-based history month trifecta!
And those are just the federal, state, or locally recognized months. There’s been for instance a push for Persian-American month around the Persian New Year (Nowruz), July is usually considered French-American Heritage Month (as it contains Bastille Day) and Scottish (Tartan) Heritage Week in April has been celebrated with parades in places like New York. So umm…yeah. Before you get so hot-and-bothered about something, hop on the Google.
And hey, you know why all those various months celebrating ethnic, national or marginalized groups exist? Guess. No really. Guess why? Because of Black History Month. All were inspired, directly or indirectly, by what Carter G. Woodson set forth to do in the early 1900s, and for similar reasons. You’re. Welcome. Everyone.
It should be pointed out, Morgan Freeman also claimed that if people stopped talking about racism it would go away. That’s worked out well, hasn’t it? I wonder if we stop talking about Morgan Freeman, if he will also magically disappear? Moral of the story, don’t get your Black History from Morgan Freeman. Great actor, terrible on holidays.
I’m not Black, why is Black History Month Important?
Because. That’s my answer. It’s important just because. You think you understand the American Revolution? You don’t if you have never heard of Crispus Attucks, the paradox of his martyrdom and why he was whitewashed out of history. You don’t understand it at all if you don’t know about Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation and the role black people, both slave and free, played within–and why it’s even alluded to in the Declaration of Independence.
That’s the thing. Black History doesn’t exist suspended in the air somewhere hovering about outside of the broader historical narrative. It’s not a set of trivia questions. Black people did not sit on the sidelines as spectators while history occurred. Black people were part of that history. They influenced it. They played roles. They were actors and agents. You don’t understand Black folk history, then you don’t understand history–period. Particularly the history of the United States. In fact, maybe if more Americans understood that history, they’d listen to Black people more on things like, say, the rise of fascism in institutions or terrible foreign policy decisions.
Here’s a good example that fits the SFF theme of this blog. The Marvel series Truth: Red, White & Black by Robert Morales and drawn by Kyle Baker retells the story of the super-serum program that created Captain America, using Black History (most notably the infamous Tuskegee Experiments) as a backdrop. The inclusion of this history sparked both shock and awe among the geek-o-sphere, many of who were introduced to this real-life story (now interwoven with their favorite super-hero) for the first time. As critic Adilifu Nama points out, the story “admonished the reader to incorporate the experiences and histories of black folk that paint a different picture of the cost and quest for freedom and democracy in America.”
History is one of those things that fantasy and SF writers and others in speculative fiction can’t escape. Anyone engaged in speculative creating, knows that just the act of world building can require endless historical research. You can’t do fantasy in your medieval pre-industrial setting unless you have some history (whether that’s Eurocentric Westeros, African-centered Nyumbani or more diverse conjured up realms). Your steampunk America is pure fantasy if it doesn’t deal with slavery or Jim Crow or colonization.
Even our futurist creations are often based on imagined histories that mimic and reflect those of our past. Movies like The Matrix make little sense outside the context of race in America. Want to understand the meaning behind that BI-66ER Unit in The Second Renaissance that helped spark the war with the machines? You better know your Dred Scott Case & certain characters from your Richard Wright novels. Sure needed to know some Black History to understand this adaptation of Watchmen on HBO. Lovecraft Country had fans running to Google up history weekly! So Black History is important, because it fits into that larger human history that we draw upon in our creations. It’s important, just because.
And if you want to understand our current political moment, better read some Octavia Butler.
That’s all I got for this year. This doesn’t cover everything. And I’m pretty certain that before the month ends new mind-boggling bits of WTF-erry will pop up regarding Black History Month. My advice? Understand that most of those people really don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re just saying words, based on an absolute understanding of nothing. The rest are being intentionally malicious, because they thrive on anti-blackness. Confront them. Drag them. Shut em’ down. If not for yourself, for the other folks watching. Do it for the culture. But mostly this month, engage and learn. Remember that Black History Month was born out of a long history of struggle. And that struggle still has a lot to teach us about the strategies we’ll need for the present and the struggles yet to come.