Sunday, February 27, 2011

Black History Month: Why We Still Need It

Bessie Coleman - the first Black female pilot and the first Black pilot with an international license
There's a nagging question that always lingers in February. Why do we need a Black History Month? Some folks are threatened by it, some folks feel that we need to eliminate the celebration of one culture and embrace the culture as a whole. Some feel Black History Month is outdated because it's the same retelling of stories, lacking the true depth and breadth of our history.

I addressed this 2 years ago when I asked "Is Black History Month still relevant?" but I want to add a new twist on it as we end February. Celebrating one's culture does not equal the degradation of another culture. In a perfect world, "does" would be "should" but unfortunately in some cases this isn't true. Yet we need to break something down so we can understand this.

In America, the dominant Eurocentric history was told in schools exclusively until at least 50 years ago. By 1960, African-Americans had long been told they were inferior people relegated to sidekick status. Native Americans were told that they were interlopers on their territory and treated like unwanted pests. Latino history was long forgotten and Asians were just getting over the horrors suffered to them during World War 2. 

There was a need for these groups to tell their stories. Black History Month had been in effect since the 1920's but it wasn't until 40 years later that Black people had the medium of television to show their struggle. Thanks to television and the tireless efforts of too many to name, they got laws passed to protect their citizenship such as voting and discrimination protection.

Garret A. Morgan - inventor of the gas mask and traffic light. 

But the next step was getting our voices heard in the curriculum. While this move was happening, other minority groups and liberal Whites were inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and had movements of their own to rebel against the system. The Black push through the door of equality brought more into the fold and suddenly, academia was forced to change as professors of color were hired and ethnic studies courses along with Black/Latino/Asian/GLBT History courses were added to colleges around the school over the next 40 years.

It's still a struggle today to make a more diverse story is told to our kids and when you have people like the Texas school board of education fighting this, this shows why we need a Black History Month.

While our history and the history of minority groups should be told more often, at least for one month, people get the chance to share in a culture besides eating a particular food or hearing music. They should hear stories they don't usually hear and understand that this too is a part of their America. At the same time, they should celebrate the America they and their ancestors grew up in.

Yes we have American holidays that we all celebrate but all ethnic groups (this includes the various shades of White) have their own unique traditions that are worth celebrating. Just because somebody wants to celebrate something or someone Black doesn't mean we ignore what's White or their overall value to the greater good.

Gen. Benjamin O Davis Jr. - the first Black Air Force general and commander of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. His father was the first Black general in the US. Army. In 1998, Davis Jr. was named the first Black four-star general in the Army.

Case in point, Michael Jackson. Before Thriller, We Are the World and global domination as a superstar, he was an icon to Black America as part of the Jackson 5. No matter how big he got, he never forgot the community he was a part of as he supported Black colleges, BET and those leaders who had his back from Day One. I know this because I saw it firsthand at my old paper when he passed how people remembered him.

Martin Luther King is a global hero of peace and equality. While he eventually transcended solely race issues to focus on other issues that affected people as a whole, he is also a Black icon because this is the community he came from. It is the community he never forgot and died trying to help. The same applies to Malcolm X. They are beloved by us because they served us, spoke to us and were our ambassadors to mainstream America.

It doesn't diminish them or give them a narrow perspective. It just shows they mean something special to the Black community. Just like my blog 2 weeks ago celebrating the White heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, those were men who should be Black icons as well as American heroes. Both titles are possible and both are essential to understanding the full measure of the person.

Beverly Johnson - the first Black model to grace the cover of Vogue Magazine (1974) and Elle Magazine (1975). This cover is almost singlehandedly ushered in the ideal that Black was beautiful to fashion designers.

Every ethnic group has multiple stories to tell and it is up to each of us to not let certain stories be repeated or cultural heroes only be remembered one way. America will soon be a predominately Latino nation and it's important to understand the various cultures while also knowing that we will see things differently. We are indeed a melting pot but what good is it being a Neapolitan pot of different flavors that only mix when warmed up?

So yes, we need Black History Month. We need to celebrate our culture because while we are a part of overall human race, we must embrace the uniqueness that make up that race. There are stories that must be told and there are people worth celebrating who would normally be overlooked.

PS. I addressed White History Month in that two-year old blog post. Let me make this clear. I fully support White people celebrating their history with the understanding that 1) said culture is celebrated often by the mainstream and 2) some people/things you celebrate may not be fondly remembered by members of other communities as well as your own.

As I stated earlier, culture should be praised and celebrated WITHOUT dissing or ignoring another culture's viewpoints. You can celebrate being French, English, German or any other Anglo/European culture along with your state or neighborhood pride. But let's be real, there IS a difference and elevating stories that aren't as well as known in the public sphere when others have been told for years leads to a better story.

This isn't about fairness, it's about understanding that 40 years of America trying to make up almost 200 years of ignorance shouldn't be a cause for disagreement but enlightenment. We all have much to learn from each other and some more than others. Let's come together not in bitterness but with open, willing hearts.

(Someone inspired me to add an uplifting song to this. Something to show that I'm all about unity and celebrating our diversities. This song was perfect. Sounds of Blackness inspired so many people of all races in their time and I hope you find some from this.)

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