Reflections on Black History Month

“Reflections on Black History Month”
Mari N. Crabtree

I have made the study of African American history and culture the heart of my professional life. It was coming to the revelation that, as Ralph Ellison put it, “The nation could not survive being deprived of [the African American] presence because, by the irony implicit in the dynamics of American democracy, they symbolize both its most stringent testing and the possibility of its greatest human freedom” that first drew me to Black Studies as an undergraduate. This revelation has been a guiding light for me ever since. And precisely because it has been a guiding light, I share the ambivalence about Black History Month articulated by the African American Studies Program’s motto: “Not Just in February.”

At the root of that motto is the sense that, although some attention to the black experience may be better than none, something so critical to the history and culture of the United States as the African American experience warrants attention well beyond the shortest month of the year. After all, the black experience cannot be safely compartmentalized away from the history of the United States or, for that matter, neatly disentangled from the rise of global white supremacy. We, as a nation, so often compartmentalize and disentangle. What Carter G. Woodson established as Negro History Week to recognize the significance of African American achievements in the face of unrelenting white supremacy has often been used as an excuse to ignore African American history for the rest of the year. We marginalize and erase to comfort ourselves, to deny reality, to shirk responsibility for our past and present, but we do so at our own peril. For deluding ourselves with such false comfort invites more than just distortion—as bad as that is—but, worse, mutual destruction.

My ambivalence towards Black History Month also stems from a tendency to celebrate heroes and “firsts” during February while removing these “heroes” from the movements they led and the broader social, cultural, and political contexts out of which they arose. On the one hand, this tendency reinforces the misperception that to study history one simply memorizes a series of events and studies the lives of “important” people—I assure you, that is not what I spent seven years in a PhD program doing. On the other hand, celebrating “firsts” often does not force a deeper engagement with ideas, with the question of justice, with the meaning of liberation. So often even the best-intentioned Black History Month celebrations oversimplify the past, reducing movements to milestones and martyrs, as though a speech or a law or a singular act or a chosen leader could resolve centuries-long struggles for justice, as though “progress,” whatever that means, is inevitable.

Ta-Nehisi Coates said as much in his memoir, Between the World and Me, when he wrote that his grandparents “rebell[ed] against the history books that spoke of black people only as sentimental ‘firsts’—first black five-star general, first black congressman, first black mayor—always presented in the bemused manner of a category of Trivial Pursuit.” Celebrations of Black History Month often pull fragments from the black experience to create easily digested, pre-packaged trivia—shards of experience to commit to memory rather than understand in connection to broader historical debates. Denuded of context and therefore their connection to broader historical trajectories, these shards lose the full force of their meaning, or, worse, they become excuses for distorting their meaning.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that Black History Month has no place for celebration. (I am also not saying that the African American experience can or should be reduced to struggle and hardship—we must always remember joy and laughter, love and ingenuity.) I simply ask that we scrutinize what we are celebrating and we reflect upon the stakes of uncritically celebrating heroes and firsts.

We might take a page from Russell Rickford, whose article titled “King 2.0 and the Management of Dissent” exposes the Martin Luther King, Jr. we have come to know during Black History Month as an imposter. Rickford reminds us that the way we remember (and so often distort) historical icons tells us as much about the present and its politics as it does about the past. The imposter King, who so many Americans have embraced, serves to stifle the struggle for justice while reassuring the nation that the Civil Rights Movement resolved the “race issue.” This imposter King is defanged of his radicalism, stripped of his anti-war and anti-poverty stances. His confrontational and disruptive tactics are erased, as is the vitriol directed at him in life and death. The imposter, by design, urges us to abandon the struggle for justice because his ascent to the status of a “safe” national hero implies that the need to dissent and protest is over. But, as Rickford points out, in our times the urgency of taking up the mantle of the black freedom struggle is as pressing as ever, which is all the more reason to take a hard look at the tendency to uncritically celebrate. The struggle has not ended. And, if anything, Black History Month should inspire further action and harden our resolve to dismantle systems of oppression…not just in February either.

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