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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Black History: Not a Holiday

Marching for freedom
Marching for freedom

The month of February marks the observance of Black History Month, originally intended to be “Negro History Week,” initiated by scholar Carter G. Woodson, author of The Miseducation of the Negro, in 1926 upon discovering the failure of common history texts to illuminate the numerous accomplishments made by black historical figures.

Typically during the month of February schools, television, and radio “celebrate black history” and are accordingly flooded with images and forums all covering a variety of topics under the gigantic field of black history, often focusing on only a handful of prominent African American figures: Martin Luther King, Booker T. Washington, and Harriet Tubman,

At our own campus, the Trotter Center has planned a weekly video series throughout the month highlighting the brutal murder of 14 year old Emmett Till-often footnoted as mobilizing the Civil Rights Movement-and the slaying of 3 civil rights workers volunteering for a mass voter registration drive in Mississippi. The Black Student Center has also taken an active role organizing potlucks, open mics, and discussion forums throughout February.

“What black history month should reflect is the struggle of black people to resist that oppression and to define themselves and govern their lives based on their own world view separate and apart from those who have dominated and smothered their very existence,” stated Africana Studies professor Tony Vandermeer.

On the surface Black History Month would seem a time for America to remember and reflect over their own, at times, hideously shameless history: the viciousness of slavery; the backlash during the reconstruction era; countless lynchings; racist Jim Crow laws plaguing the American south; white resistance to desegregation; freedom marches; freedom rides; protest after protest all in the name of democracy and the freedom America promises its citizens but refused to give. It is doubtful that the United States would exist as it is today if it weren’t for the exploited labor of its black population throughout its short history.

Thus Black History Month should appear a triumph signaling that American society has come a long way since Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. But something very deep lurks behind the surface of Black History Month.

What is it? A whole host of critics.

To begin with, Black History Month sits with a plethora of meaningless celebrations because it shares February with a whole host of other “Month” type carousing. American Heart Month, International Self-Esteem Boost Month, Children’s Dental Health Month, Library Lovers Month, National Bird Feeding Month, and everyone’s favorite, Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month are other reasons why people rejoice in February-though these celebrations are less commonly known.

Why highlight this? In order to demonstrate one of the many places that Black History Month criticism stems from.

“Black History Month has become a ready made excuse to ignore African American history for the other 11 months of the year,” states Akilah Monifa in an article titled “Time to Abolish the Farce of Black History Month” in the Black History Bulletin, Jan-June 2002. Monifa continues, “It’s little more than a bone throw to us, not amends enough.”

Many critics perceive Black History Month to be nothing more than a superficial compensatory gesture by the same government who oppressed them in the past and continues to oppress them today. For the same reason, these same critics are not moved by Martin Luther King Day, which is observed in January. In other words, Black History Month is “the black version of white created and designed cultural, political and economic icons,” says Vandermeer.

Vandermeer continues “It is quite absurd when the very institutions that have denied and exploited your humanity are the ones who use their corporate logos and ‘brand’ names to project or associate with Black History Month, in order to get or commodify us for their products. So what’s really changed?”

Many African American youth see incongruities that lay wide open with America’s observation of Black History Month. “Black History Month has become an empty ritual,” stated David Thurnston, a high school senior living in Washington State.

“The economic and political elite of this society have the power to project that DMX and people like 50 Cents as having more worthy things to say than Dr. King,” charges Vandermeer. For that reason, many viewers of VH1 raised their eyebrows upon seeing a commercial tribute to Black History Month honoring Jennifer Lopez and Jim Carey.

The historical struggles move further and further away from our memories into dust, when the higher media and “the powers that be” circumvent history and history’s countless figures that fought to bring justice into American life by highlighting and overemphasizing the lives of Hollywood stars as the epitome of black history.

“They won’t touch the issues of reparations as a logical extension of the civil rights and black power/black liberation movements from the point of view of self-determination for African Americans and the equal distribution of resource in this society. This is what Dr. King and Malcolm, Assata, Ella Baker and other freedom fighters advocated,” expresses Vandermeer.

Black History Month “does little to foster understanding of present racial conditions in America,” states Patrick Welsh in his article “A Failing Grade on Race” also in the Jan-June 2002 issue of Black History Bulletin.

“Our evolving story should be told-it cannot just be bottled up and packaged in the shortest month of the year, or any other month for that matter,” adds Monifa.

Vandermeer summarizes that “it seems at best Black History Month is designed to pacify us into thinking we have come a long way, and that the American dream is a block away.”

“That’s the problem,” states Monifa. “We’re kidding ourselves if we think that by designating February as Black History Month we’re really doing anything to honor African Americans or to combat racial prejudice in this country. For it is this prejudice that continues to divide us.”

While the rituals and common practice of Black History Month are vital in establishing multiculturalism, critical scholars urge people to also honor black history beyond Black History Month. This includes maintaining the necessity of black history as an integral and permanent part of the common curriculum, among other subjects, and not emphasized alone during the month of February only to be erroneously ignored once the month has passed.