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Saturday, February 7, 2009

Errant Thoughts on Black History Month

Each February, like clockwork, my cousin Alan Green sounds a kind of digital horn to as many wired-in Seymours as he can gather around the Web to proclaim the beginning of our Black History Month guessing game. The rules are simple. He asks us questions about the Seymour family history stretching as far back as pre-Revolutionary slavery days and we send back answers. Often they’re the same questions (Q: “Which Seymour was the first African American in Connecticut to claim membership in the Sons of the American Revolution?” A: “Frederick William.”), though sometimes he or someone on the mailing list comes up with an unexpected curve that stumps everyone. I expect one of these to sail into my e-mail bag any day now.
However this ancestral gut check plays out, it’s become a welcome opportunity for all of us to shout out at each other from our work stations, college dormitories, home offices and Blackberries. Many of us live far away from each other. Some of us haven’t seen each other in years – or have never met at all. It has become the principal means for maintaining contact, not only with each other, but with all the sad and lonesome ghosts of our forebears who I imagine to be looking upon our jocular flurry of Q&As with something like bemused affection. I also imagine that the congenital streak of Yankee truculence embedded in the Seymour DNA also makes these ghosts wonder why we’re making such a big deal out of this junk.
As much as I love a good quiz show, I can understand such skepticism. I’m not so sure it’s confined, even hypothetically, to cranky ancestors. This year, more than ever, I’m sensing, at the very least, some fatigue among African Americans with the very notion of a Black History Month. Some might obliquely (or not) connect this discontent with last month’s inauguration in keeping with the yet-to-be-established-for-sure notion that Obama’s ascension means We Have Overcome. I think this isn’t quite right because a.) not that many black folks go that far with their euphoria when they sit down and think about it and b.) this ennui with Black History Month has been building for some time.
The most conspicuous example of this skepticism emerged two years ago on “The Daily Show” whose “resident black historian” Larry Willmore submitted to nonplussed anchor Jon Stewart as half-hearted an acknowledgement of Black History Month (hereafter intermittently shrunk to a space-saving acronym) as can be delivered on a fake news show. Willmore, who could stand a shot at his own fake news forum, gave voice to the nagging, suppressed imp within many of us. My own inner imp has wondered about the purpose of BHM long before Barack Obama took his SATs.
And I’m old enough to remember when February used to come around as “Negro History Month.” Being in an integrated public elementary school, I believed back then that I needed the month of February to distinguish myself and those who looked like me from the mainstream. (Look at what we did! Look at who we are!) Black wasn’t quite yet as Beautiful as it would become after I started high school, so February was pretty much all we had.
After the reawakening of Black Pride came to full fruition in the early 1970s, BHM was celebrated even more fervently at the same time that its very existence began to be questioned, beginning with, “Why February?” By this time, of course, a whole lot of people, black and white, started challenging the long-prevalent logic of celebrating African American history in the same month that the Great Emancipator was born. After Martin Luther King Jr.s Birthday was declared a holiday, one heard stirrings towards shifting BHM back a month. Hasn’t happened yet – and besides, who needed to bring Lincoln into the matter at all when W.E.B. DuBois’ birthday happened to fall on Feb. 22? Not that anyone makes a particularly big deal about DuBois when BHM rolls around like an in-law’s annual visit; still, it remains a convenient enough excuse.
My own discontent with BHM swirled around its particularity. “Shouldn’t every month be Black History Month?,” I would rhetorically ask those (mostly) whites and (some) blacks who noticed my diminishing enthusiasm for BHM. I still believe that just as I believe year-long conscientious attention should be paid to our shared, complex heritage. More to the point, allowing one month each year for the rest of America to pay close attention to us seemed just another excuse for the rest of America to ignore us for the remaining eleven. (“Twenty-eight days to make up for four-hundred years of oppression?,” Larry Willmore asked “I’d rather have casinos.” Which sounds as valid an option now as it was in 2007.)
But perhaps the most nagging itch came with the way public and private institutions persist in acknowledging BHM as a litany of -- and let the word be capitalized and italicized so all may bask in its all-encompassing glory – Achievements.
Not just, as the “Daily Show” mentions, Harriet Tubman and Tuskegee Airmen and “the guy who invented the peanut”, but a plethora of renegades, rugged individualists and (for want of a better word) “leaders” shoe-horned into a standardized model for Struggling Through & Getting Over. This iconography of Those Who Made It is stretched so wide that it even takes in those who put their bodies in harm’s way during the civil rights movement. Nothing irritates me more about this particular issue than the shorthand meted out by talking heads and lazy schoolteachers alike about Martin Luther King Jr.’s life work. It’s the world-view that insists on regarding King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize as an Ultimate Achievement; as if submitting to arrests, beatings, death threats, slander and, ultimately, cold-blooded murder were a career choice instead of a calling, a sacrifice, for God’s sake!
It’s so much easier in a world ruled by Tabloid Culture to deal not just with King, but with DuBois, Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Paul Robeson, Ida B. Wells, Jackie Robinson and their like as granite icons of triumph-over-adversity rather than as complex, nuanced human beings whose flaws and contradictions may offer as much educational value as their virtues and successes. (You don’t see too many commercial TV spots during BHM extolling such troubling presences in the American psyche as Nat Turner, Bessie Smith or Paul Robeson, do you?) Worse, the reductive enshrinement of Getting Over, Making It , etc. reinforces in African Americans that such values are the ONLY ones worth striving for. As someone could and should have said in the middle of the Obama Inaugural euphoria, Getting Over is only part of the deal. What matters even more is what you do when you Get There. Consider the examples of Condoleezza Rice, Clarence Thomas or (as it’s lately become depressingly apparent) David Patterson and ask yourself whether just Making It to the top is enough. If all BHM is about is extolling advancement (which, as noted earlier, used to be enough when there wasn’t anything else around) over honest and productive inquiry into the past, then maybe it, too, should be cast in granite and consigned to history’s basement.
And yet…I’m not sure I’m ready for that to happen. I still need some ongoing, clearly-marked acknowledgement and celebration of the beautiful, terrible passage that carried us all to this uncertain, yet potentially transfiguring time we live in now. One month isn’t enough, one year isn’t enough. But something like the recurring, interactive Seymour Family History game provides a useful, expansive model for honoring the past without neglecting further exploration of its shadowed corners, its derelict edges. It could be a template for showing that history not only begins at home, but also never stops adjusting, shifting, adding on…never stops, period.
Not that I even pretend to know everything there is to know about my family history, but I have always sensed, at least, that the Seymours have never been easily placated by simple bromides or easily explained behavior and neither should anyone else. Playing the game is another way of reminding each other that we’re still alive. When history is once again acknowledged as something that’s truly in the bloodstream and not on a marble plaque, Black History Month won’t be the only thing whose existence will once again be justified.

1 comment:

  1. Matthew Richardson is alive and well
    Minnesota Atheists
    USSPA 1971 / Mike Isbell. printer
    Most cherished: little bronze bell