EVERY YEAR WHEN THE MONTH OF FEBRUARY approaches, I'm overcome with a feeling of dread. February is hailed as Black History Month, a national observance that is celebrated neither at the school in which I am the principal nor in my own home. This may come as a surprise to the even casual observer, since I am black. In my humble estimation Black History Month is a thriving monument to tokenism which, ironically, has been wholeheartedly embraced and endorsed by the black community.
For at least 28 days we are bombarded by the media with reminders of great black Americans. Teachers across America dust off last year's lesson plans and speak of African kings and queens. Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech is played repeatedly and there are festivities where people wear traditional African garb and may even speak a few words of Swahili.
So, you might ask, what is wrong with this?
Black contribution to American history is so rich and varied that attempting to confine the discussion and investigation to four weeks a year tends to trivialize the momentous impact that blacks have had on American society.
There is also a tendency to somehow feel that "black" history is separate from "American" history. "Black" history is American history-they are not mutually exclusive. The struggles of black people in America strike at the core of our country's past and its development. One cannot, for instance, hope to thoroughly study the factors leading to the Civil War or Reconstruction without investigating the issue of slavery and the emancipation of those slaves. American music and dance has little significance without the recognition of black influences. Spirituals, jazz and the blues are a vital and important part of American culture. To speak of the experience of black people in America (as some are inclined to do during the month of February) as independent of the American social, political and economic forces at work in our country is a misreading of history at best and a flagrant attempt to rewrite it at worst.
Of course very few people will be courageous enough during February to say that it's irrelevant whether or not Cleopatra and Jesus were black, since their experiences have not the slightest kinship with those of black Americans.
It is not very difficult to understand why the distant (usually African) past is used as a way to give blacks a sense of cultural identity. In the final analysis, however, it's a hollow attempt to fill a vacuum that was created by the institution of slavery. It is widely acknowledged that one of the more insidious aspects of American slavery was that Africans of different cultures and languages were stripped of their cultural base and were forced to learn the enslaver's tongue to survive. Unlike the German, Italian and Jewish immigrants who came to this country with their own languages, religions and customs, Africans of different backgrounds were compelled to eschew their own roots in order to survive on American soil.
Instead of African kings and queens who never set foot in America, it is the black people who survived the infamous "middle passage" and endured slavery who should be heralded as "kings" and "queens" for their courage and perseverance. After slavery, there were scores of blacks who endured beatings, lynchings and daily degradations indigenous to the system of discrimination in both the North and the South; yet these paragons of endurance are seldom lauded. It's as if the words "slavery" and "segregation are to be mentioned only fleetingly during February. We should look to our own grandfathers and grandmothers to find examples of real heroism. Unfortunately, the significance of these black men and women as well as the traditional black icons -Dr. King, Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson, et al. -are lost in a month in which people are studied in isolation instead of within the historical context that produced them.
Black parents must try to instill in children a sense of their own history. This should include a sense of family-the accomplishments of parents, grandparents and ancestors has more relevance than some historical figure whose only connection to the child is skin color. We in the schools are often expected to fill the gaps that parents have neglected in their child's development; but for every child a knowledge of identity and self-worth must come from home to be meaningful and long-lasting. For the black child, a month-long emphasis on black culture will never fill that void.
There will be those, I'm sure, who will say that I should feel pleased that black people are recognized one month out of the year, knowing the difficulty black Americans have historically encountered validating their accomplishments. But being black does not entitle one to more or less recognition based solely on heritage. In a multicultural society, there is a need to celebrate our cultural differences as well as our commonalities as human beings. No one group has a monopoly on this need.
One month out of every year, Americans are "given permission" to commemorate the achievements of black people. This rather condescending view fails to acknowledge that a people and a country's past should be nurtured and revered; instead, at this time, the past of black Americans is handled in an expedient and cavalier fashion denigrating the very people it seeks to honor.
February is here again, and I'll be approached by a black student or parent inquiring as to what the school is doing to celebrate Black History Month. My answer, as always, will be that my teachers and I celebrate the contributions of all Americans every month of the school year.