Sunday, February 3, 2008
Combating the Naysayers: the Importance of Black History Month
by Dan Tres Omi
Omi's Note: this entry was originally posted on Feb. 7th, 2007, on my blog.
The thought of the inferiority of the Negro is drilled into him in almost every class he enters and in almost every book he studies. If he happens to leave school after he masters the fundamentals, before he finishes high school or reaches college, he will naturally escape some of this bias and may recover in time to be of service to his people. -- Carter G. Woodson, founder of Negro History Week
When you deal with the past, you're dealing with history, you're dealing with the actual origin of a thing. When you know the origin, you know the cause. If you don't know the origin, you don't know the cause. And if you don't know the cause, you don't know the reason, you're just cut off, you're left standing in mid-air. -- El Hajj Malik Shabazz
Once again, it's february. My schedule gets booked up, everyone and their mother wants me to speak (for free I have to mention), and everyone dusts off their daishiki's and remembers their MLK “I have a dream” speeches. It gives some people a few hours off during their work day to hear some gospel singing and a brief lecture by someone. At the end of the month, people forget my phone number and everything gets stuffed to the back of the closet. In the last couple of years, several of my contemporaries have gone on the offensive and have questioned the relevancy of Black History Month. While I agree that, like everything else in the this country, it has been commodified and sold happy meal style.
I remember while being in the Navy, I attended advanced fire training school in Norfolk, VA. One of the instructors was a black man who had a picture of Garrett Morgan in his classroom. He would begin his class with the story of Morgan and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in the early part of the 20th century. I found it to be a wonderful way to begin the class. He was able to educate all of us on Garretts procedures, his ability to lead, and quick response. When I returned to my ship, I was asked to qualify as an access man which is a step above and much less dangerous than a hose man. When I took that class, I ran into a sailor who happened to be white. He was reading a book about black inventors. He had the page folded on Garrett Morgan. I noticed he made several notes. This blew my mind. I mean I understood that he was a minority among his peers, but just that fact that he listened to that instructor and did the research (before the advent of the internet I might add). This taught me the idea of “opportunity:” when it is there, take it. Ever since that day way back in 1992, I decided that I would do the same. I would take each moment to educate folks on whatever it is they are doing or to educate myself on what they are doing (which is why I ask so many questions much to the chagrin of everyone else).
It is a shame that today in 2007, our children only know about Martin Luther King (a very white washed version at that) and El Hajj Malik Shabazz.
I know people who have read The Miseducation of the Negro but have no clue that the author of that important book was the co-founder of Negro History week. Many assume that it was white people who gave us the month of February as Black History Month. I often hear my contemporaries say the former. We must remember that it was Woodson's intention for us to continue to teach Black History throughout the year.
Another problem I have is when I hear parents demand that public schools teach Black History month. Now as a future educator, I agree with this but when i press these parents about what they know, I realized that they don't know much about Black History. They just know about the same two gentlemen I mentioned earlier. How can this be? We are the first teachers of our children. How can we complain about our children picking the white doll over the black doll if we are not ensuring racial pride in them?
These problems we have discussed and many others only magnify the reasons why we should celebrate Black History Month. Let's take it step further. Black History is something we should celebrate every day of our lives. Yes, even on Sunday. I find Black History Month to be more than reminding white folks about what our ancestors contributed to this country. It is about survival. I recall working with some Russian exchange students. They were delighted to learn that I knew about Alexander Pushkin, the father of Russian Literature. “Oh Danny,” they would say, “how amazing it is to find an American who knows about Pushkin.” I responded with, “he was a black man, why wouldn't I know about him?”