Black History Month and the uses of the past

In the US, is black history merely a sad prelude to the present, or an ongoing nightmare of discrimination and violence?

martin luthur king speech
Commentators argue whether the 'I Have a Dream' speech is now so ingrained into the American story that black politics has made itself obsolete [AFP]

Berkeley, CA – Carter G Woodson, the Howard University professor, founder of The Journal of Negro History and author of The Miseducation of the Negro, first established “Negro History Week” in 1926. It was his hope that by celebrating black heritage rather than focussing on the history of slavery, the week would not only “build self-esteem among blacks, but would help eliminate prejudice among whites”.

Called the “Father of Black History”, Woodson was himself the son of former slaves and, after WEB DuBois, the second African American to earn a PhD from Harvard. Like many of his generation in the age of Jim Crow segregation and terror, Woodson believed that education was the best method for African Americans to improve their status and uplift their community.

But he was as concerned about the nature of the curriculum taught in all of the nation’s schools as he was about building schools to educate black children. In the racially hostile atmosphere of the 1920s United States (an era as well represented by the rise of the Second Ku Klux Klan and anti-immigration quotas as it was by the Harlem Renaissance and Jay Gatsby), Woodson insisted that education, especially historical education, simply reinforced the white supremacist stereotypes that kept African Americans in a socially, politically and intellectually inferior position.

“The fact is,” Woodson accused, “that this so-called history teaching in our schools and colleges is downright propaganda, an effort to praise one race and to decry the other to justify social repression and exploitation.” If knowledge is power, then Woodson sought a curriculum that would come to recognise the full humanity of African Americans and demand their civil rights. And to his credit, Black History Month stands as perhaps his most lasting legacy.

After nearly 90 years, the now expanded Black History Month continues to provide a platform for competing uses of the past in the US. The current divisions around the meaning of Black History Month no longer openly pit one race against another. Today we encounter a more complex axis of division that embodies competing narratives of the place of race in life in the US today. On the one hand, Black History Month presents us with positive images of achieved – and largely individuated – racial progress, whereas, on the other, we are offered insights into the social history of black people as collective agents in a struggle that continues to this day. So while both versions depict a history of overcoming struggle, it’s just that one favours the overcoming and the other the struggle. To honour this history and Professor Woodson’s legacy, let us look for a moment at what is at stake in this difference.

Framing history

What are we doing when we frame African American history as a progressive journey from enslavement to the White House, as a heroic narrative of struggle, unity and racial progress? Such a story is necessarily told through a sequence of national landmarks and “racial firsts”. A worthy parade of autobiographers, athletes, entertainers, politicians and scientists tick off as exemplary individuals, what in the Jim Crow era would have been called “Race Men and Race Women”. Black history becomes hagiography – marching from Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver and Booker T Washington, Rosa Parks to Sidney Poitier, Martin Luther King Jr to Barack Obama.

Colourblindness has since become the official racial ideology of US neo-liberalism.”

This version of the story, focusing not so much on black history as on individual black contributions to a fully integrated US culture, has many advantages. These black heroes powerfully challenged the racial assumptions of their eras which posited that black people were either not fully human, naturally inferior, un-American or all of the above. Because of how outrageous these older standards of racial thought are perceived to be today, this biographical version of black history is generally held to be uncontroversial. This then becomes the positive vision of racial uplift favoured by the nation as a whole, including many middle-class and affluent African Americans.

This narrative of racial progress lost its air of controversy in the decades after the fierce contestation of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s to 1970s, drawing its retroactive sustenance from King’s famous dream that all Americans will one day “not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”. By taking this quote out of context, King’s vision is of a colourblind society rather than an equitable one. Consciously developing since the Reagan era, colourblindness has since become the official racial ideology of US neo-liberalism. Obama’s place as the first black president cements this narrative, seeming to affirm the dream of the United States as a colourblind or post-racial nation.

Are we at MLK’s “Mountain Top”? Or is this merely the “End of History”? Either way you answer this, there seems to be a self-defeating logic for black politics. Could it be that because of the struggles of this heroic past, including the creation and celebration of Black History Month, we no longer need to celebrate Black History Month?  

Read more Al Jazeera opinion editorials on Black History Month:

One answer to this question comes from the opportunistic voices of marketing, advertising and electoral demographics. Though the Republicans would have us believe that race no longer matters in American life (and that to bring it up is to be deliberately divisive), advertisers and political vote-getters clearly know otherwise. And so we see not so many Black History Month car sales (we get that for the MLK weekend), but rather a more lofty pitch selling higher prestige and less tangible products.

Take, for example, JP Morgan Chase’s recent partnership with the King Center in Atlanta to launch a website “preserving the inspiration and sharing the passion of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr”. This public relations enterprise belies the fact that Chase was one of the lending institutions that profited greatly from pushing subprime mortgages on African Americans, Latinos and other economically vulnerable US citizens. And Chase continues to profit from the ongoing foreclosures of more than 3.5 million in the US. According to a November 2011 report from the Center for Responsible Lending, “one quarter of all Latino and African-American borrowers have lost their home to foreclosure or are seriously delinquent, compared to just under 12 per cent for white borrowers”.

With their new website, Chase reminds us of “the dream” while working to turn attention away from the historical King, a committed radical who denounced the US government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”. A King who, at the end of his life, spearheaded the Poor People’s Campaign for the chronically impoverished, a movement that provides one of the many models for Occupy Wall Street today.

But when Chase, McDonald’s or the Democratic Party call up the image of MLK Jr, do they really think that we are seeing race and racism overcome, or has the “I Have a Dream” speech sunk so deeply into the American story that black politics has made itself obsolete? Black Republicans such as Herman Cain would have you believe this, as would those who promote a vision of Black History Month that is exclusively focused on heroes and heroines of the past at the expense of the struggles of the present.

Countering the dominant narrative

This then leads us to the second story of Black History Month, which counters this dominant story of progress towards colourblindness by arguing the opposite, that indeed little has changed in the lives of black people over the past century, and that much is going backward. Rather than celebrate black progress, it points out the continuity of white supremacy, state violence, exploitation and disenfranchisement of black Americans. Where we live in the East Bay, this vision is kept alive by a depressingly steady stream of police shootings and gang violence targeting young black men. This violence is addressed by a vibrant local political culture within African American communities directed against such violence, stretching from the Black Panther Party to Occupy Oakland.

This version of Black History Month recognises that as human beings we create our own history, but not according to conditions of our own choosing, and that, in WEB DuBois’ eloquent phrase from Souls of Black Folk: “Education among all kinds of men always has had and always will have an element of danger and revolution, of dissatisfaction and discontent.”  That is, the study of the past is not always mollifying, that it is not always a fountain of inspiration but a source of outrage, and that if the present is indeed brighter and more hopeful than the past, it is because all men and women have taken part in and borne witness to this struggle, not just a few exemplary leaders.

For this narrative, Black History Month is no less of an opportunity, but one to highlight a different set of heroes and turning points: Tubman and Douglass still make the list – not as autobiographers, but as conspirators and radical abolitionists. But on the official list of saints we find Malcolm X and Ida B Wells, Paul Robeson and Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis and Shirley Chisholm, Bob Marley, Nina Simone and Chuck D. This version of Black History Month is as in love with the failed revolutionary as the other version is with the humble engineer, swapping gloved fists for peanuts and traffic lights. But this is not to suggest that these competing visions of black history are somehow just lists of multicultural versus mainstream heroes. Something much deeper is at stake here.

This second version of the Black History Month narrative is more confrontational, more collectively oriented, and more focused on the political urgency of the present. Whereas the first narrative encourages us to stop thinking about race, the second calls us to ask: How could there still be more black men in prison than in college, if Obama marks the end of racism? How could the days of plantations and ghettos be over when, according to the Pew Research Center, the average white family today possesses 20 times the wealth of the average black family?

The question remains of who Black History Month is actually for and what is at stake in our continued observance.”

While the fight for economic justice continues, so too does the effort to write a sustained feminist politics into the long African American freedom struggle. Black History Month may add a list of “Great Women” to its roster, but often does not invoke those who presented challenges to gender hierarchy. Even more obscured from the Black History roll call are LGBT activists who find themselves erased in favour of a simpler, more “positive” black image. Lawyer Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, writer Audre Lorde, and filmmaker Marlon Riggs each stood at the crossroads of anti-sexist, anti-racist and anti-homophobic politics, complicating and enriching our very definitions of “black” in Black History Month.

In this way, we need to think of Black History Month as an opportunity to reassess our faith in historical progress itself and renew a commitment to social justice in all its forms.

The question remains of who Black History Month is actually for and what is at stake in our continued observance. Is the past merely a sad prelude to today’s hopeful and raceless dream, or is it a nightmare of discrimination and violence that we remain unable to awake from?

Black History Month needs to retain its optimistic faith in a future beyond the bounds of white supremacy, and its emphasis upon promoting African American racial pride remains as important as ever. But so too does it need to stay true to Dr Woodson’s larger project of educating all Americans about the truth of this country’s past – a truth that must include the history of slavery and sexual violence, convict leasing and lynching, segregation and hyper-incarceration.

Black History Month remains perhaps the most prominent of the often-frivolous national declaration days, months or years (like National Cheese Lovers’ Day or International Talk Like a Pirate Day). True diversity, in all its complexity and messiness, matters enough in the United States to still care about something like Black History Month, and we would be remiss to take it for granted.

Leigh Raiford is Associate Professor of African American Studies at University of California, Berkeley. She is author of Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle; and co-editor with Renee Romano of The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory.

Michael Cohen, PhD, teaches African American Studies and American Studies at University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on the history and culture of radical social movements in the US.