By Matthew Patton
Black History Month is now upon us. There will be posters and flyers galore. There will be special programming on any number of TV stations backdropped with a rousing image of Martin Luther King Jr peering off into that eternal blue sky, dreaming visions of the real American ideal, with a recording of his now historic “I Have A Dream” speech playing wistfully in the background.
It’s going to make me puke.
Seriously. Speaking as an African-American male in this not-so-post-racial-society, I can’t help but look at Black History Month as an extremely outdated concept, one that has devolved into an endless rehashing of landmark events and borderline “hero worship” of specific individuals. I don’t often attempt to speak for the dead, but I can’t imagine that this is what Carter G. Woodson, the African-American historian and journalist that essentially founded the concept of black history in this country, had in mind when he authored the celebration of “Negro History Week” back in 1926.
This week, which was expanded to cover the entire month of February and officially recognized by the U.S. government in 1976, was devised by Woodson as a cultural survival tool within the greater context of America, and society as a whole. He went on to elaborate at Negro History Week’s launch, saying: “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.”
While I would dare say he made some statements that were ignorant to the traditions specific to Native Americans, his stance is clear: we can’t let our accomplishments disappear from the consciousness of the society we live in. And that line of thought has all but disappeared from Black History Month in favor of a more streamlined overview of certain historical figures, the “hero worship” model I referred to earlier.
Why is it that the stories/lessons contained in Black History Month invariably revolve around Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, etc.? Why is it so rare for anyone to go deeper into the annals of this country (or the world, for that matter) when it comes to the contributions of Black people to society? For example, on a worldly note; why is it that so few people know about the Moors, a group of North Africans traveled from Morocco all the way to Spain? People should know who they were, considering that it was their advances in math, astronomy and agriculture that had a direct influence in pushing Europe out of the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance.
It was the Moors that brought the concept of universal education to Spain, which then spread throughout the rest of Europe. Keep in mind, that before their arrival, 99% of the European population were illiterate, including a few kings. At that time, Europe only had two universities, one in Paris and one in Oxford. Neither of those were built until after scholars from Europe visited many of the 17 campuses in a Moorish Spain. Public libraries didn’t exist in Europe for generations, while Moorish Spain had more than 70. Do you see what I’m getting at here? Can you see how such a massive shift in disseminating information (and making it available) to the public could have such a large impact on a region like Europe? And that’s only a little bit. This doesn’t even address the lack of overall knowledge that’s closer to home in America in terms of the contributions of its African-American citizens.
Why do things like this get overlooked/left out when it comes to Black History Month? Why has the entire month of February been condensed and smashed down to repeat the same awe-inspiring stories of a handful of individuals? I have my theories on that, but that’s another column altogether. The biggest point to all this is that the original purpose of Negro History Week/Black History Month has been lost for a long time, both in spirit and application. No one seems to be learning anything new. What’s worse, no one really seems to care. Black History Month, as we have known it, has become pretty useless. I really don’t see a need for its current iteration to be here.