Black History Month, Revisited

I wrote this piece a few years ago when I was a monthly columnist for a parenting-related site sponsored by a child advocacy organization. Disclaimer: I really enjoyed writing for that site, and my editor there was the best. However, this particular column was nixed because what they were looking for was more of a how-to for parents looking to celebrate Black History Month. As you’ll read, I had other ideas.As February approaches, this unpublished column came to mind. I decided to post it here–with a few minor stylistic edits because…well, I’m vain like that.

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Deesha Philyaw

“I always wanted a black friend!” A white woman I’d known for a short while gushed this to me six years ago, back when I was doing time in the ‘burbs. We had toddlers and first-time motherhood in common, and little else. The jury was still out as to whether I’d be her friend, much less her “black friend.” I imagined a full social calendar in the month of February—28 days of lectures on the care and feeding of my hair and how to cook soul food. I imagined her trotting me out at dinner parties, a little Africana knickknack to wow her friends. “She speaks so well!”

Not surprisingly, that budding friendship fizzled because it became apparent that this woman was more interested in what I represented than in me as an individual. She’s not an anomaly in that regard. It’s far easier to smile and wave at each other from disparate shores than it is to push up our sleeves and build bridges across the cultural and racial divide.

I was reminded of this “friend” last year when I came across the website for a newspaper based in the South. In observance of Black History Month, this newspaper offered black and white images of famous black people, which presumably could be downloaded, printed, and colored by schoolchildren. File under “Well, they tried.” Whitney Houston looked like Shirley Chisholm (without the glasses). Tina Turner looked like Cher with a really big mop-top on her head. Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, and Bobby Brown were damn-near identical, as if a police sketch artist had drawn them from a verbal description: “Um, black…male…big lips…a fade…and a mustache.” Judging by the individuals featured, one would think the only noteworthy black achievers were entertainers whose popularity peaked in the 1980s.

I doubt this is what Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black History Month had in mind. Dr. Woodson, the son of former slaves, worked as a coal miner as a child and did not attend high school until the age of twenty. He went on to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, and was troubled to find that American history books either presented black folks as socially, culturally, and intellectually inferior, or ignored us altogether. Dr. Woodson formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, and he founded the Journal of Negro History. He later established “Negro History Week” (forerunner to Black History Month) to bring national recognition to black people’s contributions to American history.

Just as my suburban “friend” sought a feel-good version of my blackness—without all that pesky talk about racism—so too are we more comfortable with Black History Month Lite. Michael Jackson and collard greens, and let’s call it a February. But culture does not exist in a social and political vacuum. Danzy Senna, author of the novel Caucasia, notes on the subject of biculturalism, “It seemed to me we spent so much time talking about kimchee and grits, we forgot to talk about power.” There is indeed power in the communal act of breaking bread. However, just as food is but one part of our daily lives, a once-a-year acknowledgment of the contributions of black Americans is the tip of the iceberg of a substantive appreciation for black culture and history.

Today, because of changing demographics in this country, many of us have more multi-cultural and multi-racial experiences than our grandparents and their parents ever had. In simplest terms, our paths regularly cross those of people whose cultural and racial backgrounds differ from ours. We are tempted toward self-congratulation when we notice the “little UN” that is our child’s preschool classroom. However, “multi-cultural” is merely descriptive; it says nothing about the quality of the relationships (or lack thereof) shared between people of different cultural backgrounds. By contrast, “cross-cultural” experiences are those which involve an exchange of cultures and ideas, a deeper sharing, and likely, a departure from our comfort zones.

So what does a cross-cultural observance of Black History Month look like? Specifically, how can we make this observance meaningful for our children? Countless websites offer ideas for celebrating Black History Month. I won’t list them here because they are easily Googled, and because while such events and activities are vital, they are but a means to an end. It’s not enough to celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness Month by reading biographies of famous breast cancer survivors. Celebration of these and other Months are about everyday people, about raising awareness and affecting change, not for a month, but for a lifetime.

In a cross-cultural observance of Black History Month, we ask questions. Are the achievements of black Americans woven inextricably into the curriculum at your child’s school? Or are the “usual suspects” of black history—Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks–trotted out in February, and not discussed again until the following February? Is “diversity” something that happens at a school-wide assembly the last Friday of every other month? We ask questions of those charged with educating our children, and we ask questions of ourselves. Is a commitment to cross-cultural living inextricably woven into the fabric of our lives, into the art and literature we consume, how we spend our money, where we choose to live, who we vote for, who we include in our intimate circle—not as “tokens”, but as our equals?

The study of black history and culture is not just for black people, and it’s not just for February: Black History Month is a reality check and a wake-up call. Eighty years after Dr. Carter G. Woodson established “Negro History Week,” economic and social injustice still reign in this country and abroad. The struggles of black Americans symbolize the battle for equality and justice waged by many worldwide. To observe Black History Month is to look beyond ourselves, but to look inwardly as well. Are we affecting positive change outside our comfort zones? As the African proverb challenges us, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

Many before me have observed that black history is American history. And this is a living history which cannot be adequately captured by well-worn biographies and copy-ready coloring pages. A living history which, when encountered, should compel us to self-reflection and action, all year round.

Deesha Philyaw is a freelance writer who has written for Essence Magazine, Wondertime Magazine (a Disney publication), and The Washington Post. Deesha holds a B.A. in economics from Yale University and a Master’s degree in teaching. In her pre-mommy, pre-writing life, she was a management consultant, briefly, and then an elementary school teacher. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Deesha currently lives in Pittsburgh with her two daughters.

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