When A Black History Month “Fact” Goes Wrong

February 19, 2014  |  

So what exactly makes something a Black History Month fact?

When historian Carter G. Woodson and the Rev. Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in 1915, and would later start Negro History Week in 1926, the idea was to not only commemorate the overlooked and unspoken accomplishments and contributions of black folks to society, but also fill in the blanks to an often one-sided and Eurocentric version of history. However, yesterday, as I drove along in my car listening to the the local urban radio station give one of its “Moments in Black History,” I realized just how far away we have gotten from either concept.

What I mean is that over some generic melancholic song (think of the end of The Jeffersons, which features Ja’net Dubois humming the original theme song), an announcer starts giving his spiel about why some NBA basketball player is deserving of his moment in black history. Who was he? Hell if I know. I’m not really into basketball, so if it isn’t the top players or even one of the players I hear guys talking about in passing – or even one of the guys who is married or in a relationship with a Basketball Wife or K. Michelle – I won’t have a clue who you are talking about. No biggie. Some of our community’s greatest icons and contributors were unrecognized or even sucked in other professions. What is important here are his achievements for the betterment of the community or society.

I mean, did he invent some medical device in the off-season, which saved lots of lives? Or in between free throws, did he manage to mentor to 200 black kids from the ‘hood and help them get into college? Does he even champion the cause of the downtrodden million dollar slaves?


His claim to fame is that he is a Temple University graduate, which sort of (kind of) makes him local to Philadelphia, and that he is black. Oh, and now he plays in the NBA – with a bunch of other black people. No disrespect to the dude, whose name I can’t remember right now, but his average of five points per game is not really a “moment” in black history.

Nor are the posters on subways and on buses of all the black people who own a McDonald’s restaurant, not just during February, but all 365 days of the year. While that is interesting corporate information, it is not a black history fact. Nor is fried chicken and watermelon, which some schools and corporate entities have been putting on their menus in honor of BHM. Fried chicken is my favorite, but come on now, chicken is not even a human being, therefore, it’s not a black history fact. Neither is the half-off on perms at the Family Dollar. Great deal–not a fact. Nor are the Tupac-trivia questions on Instagram. While it is interesting to know that he was being considered for John Singleton’s Baby Boy, and Pac is an icon, Jody is not a great moment in black history. Nor is the single black coworker at your corporate job a black history fact. So on behalf of all six of them in the entire company, can you please stop walking by their cubicle, fact-finding about episode six of Eyes on The Prize that you happened to catch on PBS last night.

Truth is, even as black folks have been a fixture in this country since our ancestors built it for free, our history, especially presented on our accord and defined by us, is still relatively new and a mystery to most – even our own people. Therefore, I could understand the lack of girth and depth beyond a handful of figures. As Chris Rock once put it, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the answer to all your black history observational needs. And I can almost understand those folks who are desperately trying to project some cultural diversity outside of Black History Month’s MVP (or most valuable prominent) like King, or the man behind the cotton gin or George Washington Carver and his many wonderful uses of peanuts – even if it is a second string, non-Basketball Wife-dating, bench warmer in the league.

But it is still kind of depressing to see us go through another Black History Month with so little aim and focus. Instead of using the month to share information, facts and host discussions, which could help us to organize and move the community forward both politically and socially, we’ve turned the commemoration into one of those framed-collages you get from off the stands, flea market and/or swap meets. That’s right, Black History Month is now the living, breathing version of The Black History Last Supper picture, which features President Barack Obama seated prominently in the center of a Leonardo da Vinci-esque mural with other unrelated notables like MLK, Malcolm X, Denzel Washington, Tupac, Michael Jordan, Shirley from What’s Happening!!, Colin Powell, Marcus Garvey, T-Pain, Angela Davis, Merlin Santana, and Beyoncé as the disciples.

And it is depressing because this is not what Woodson and Rev. Moorland had in mind. In fact, when Negro History Week was created, both historians and cultural leaders made sure to add themes to our observations, in order to recognize pivotal events or topics that should be highlighted during the year’s celebration. In case you are wondering, The Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which was also founded by Woodson and still oversees the official commemoration of Black History Month, has listed Civil Rights in America as the BHM theme for 2014. According to the organization’s executive summary for Black History Month 2014, the theme was chosen to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, more specifically:

Through the years, people of African descent have formed organizations and movements to promote equal rights. The Colored Convention Movement, the Afro­American League, the Niagara Movement, the National Council of Negro Women, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference carried the banner of equality when allies were few. In the modern era, integrated organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League, and the Congress of Racial Equality fought for and protected equal rights. The names of America’s greatest advocates of social justice—Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fanny Lou Hamer — are associated with the struggle for civil rights.

Within this struggle for civil rights, many of the important leaders have been men and women whose rights as women and as members of the gay and lesbian community were subordinated to the general cause. Pauli Murray, Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, and many others litigated, organized, and wrote on behalf of civil rights, believing fully in the path towards equal rights for all. Their struggles accentuate the universality of the movement for equality in America, and form a central part of the 2014 National African American History theme.”

While not as s*xy or exciting as watching your average NBA player dunk and take a shot from beyond the three-point line, those struggles for equality still mean something. And they are worthy of serious discussion. And yet, for all the talk about Black History Month, our corporations, educational institutions and even black cultural networks only seem to be caught up in the frivolity of our commemoration. And all of this could explain why year after year, we read numerous essays about how ineffective and uninspiring Black History Month has become. Perhaps if we actually followed the original intent and focused on sharing knowledge related to its actual themes,  maybe it would be more beneficial to those who need it most.

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