Monday, February 2, 2009

Celebrating Black History Month All Day, Every Day

I used to hate February.

Specifically, Black History Month.

Oh before you get your panties all in a bunch, understand why I used to dread February 1. When I was a reporter for the Daily News in New York, I was one of only a handful of black folks toiling in the newsroom and the ONLY one writing entertainment, and when somebody/anybody bothered to remember Black History Month was coming (usually on January 31st, about three hours before deadline), it seemed it would always fall on my shoulders to write something/anything to celebrate the occasion (read: make the Daily News look like it gave a damn).

As if only black people could possibly write about it.

As if the history of black people deserved to be explored/feted/written about only once a year.

Oh, I’d write the story with attitude, but I’d do a bang-up job nonetheless—discovering all kinds of wonderful nuggets of African American history in New York. I remember once writing about the New York City Draft Riots of 1863; another time I penned a map of historic African American sites around New York, which, surprisingly, I found on the Daily News’ website here.
My favorite was a piece I began with the opening lines of Langston Hughes’ poem, “I, Too, Sing America.”

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--

I, too, am America.

That opening was my secret, subversive way of telling the editors at the paper and anyone reading my story that day that black history is American history—OUR history. History that deserves to be studied/pondered/appreciated outside of just the 28 days in February. Of course, I understood why Carter G. Woodson started the holiday, but I'd found that often times, particularly in my industry, Black History Month became a ready excuse to relegate black stories/black shows/black music/black books to one month, as if some special Black History Month switch gets turned on on Feb. 1 and off on Feb. 28—as if black people all get an annual “Black History Month” stipend to sop up all things Negro on those super special 28 days.

I’d checked my mailbox. There was never any Black History Month check.

These days, I’m not so wired about the month-long celebration. Probably because I’m in the position now where I can write about black folks as much as I want, without constraint, without need for permission, whenever. Because I want to. Because it’s important to me and mine. Because it’s so damn beautiful and haunting and telling. Even when it’s not February.

I kinda chuckled about this the other day when Lila, my little one, came to me waving a letter she’d gotten from her pen pal in Taiwan. Cheih-An sent a stack of pictures and writings about the Chinese New Year, which she explained in Mandarin is an extremely important celebration where she lives. “What,” Lila asked, “should I write back?”

“Why don’t you send her some letters and pictures about Black History Month?” I suggested.

“What’s Black History Month?” she asked innocently.

“It’s the time we set aside to celebrate famous African Americans and all the great things they’ve done for this country,” I said. “It’s the whole month of February that we do that.”

She looked a little perplexed—her mind was grinding. “But I want to tell her about Barack Obama and how he’s our new president. He won in January, not in February, so does that mean he’s not a part of Black History Month? Because I have pictures and I want to send them.”

I smiled.

“You can send them, baby. Even if it’s not February.”

Happy Black History Month, dear MyBrownBaby readers--not just today, but every day. Even when it's not February.

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  1. LOL! From the mouths of babes, all the time!
    And what a fantastic poem by Langston Hughes.

    Mama S.

  2. i love it! and my motley crew here, we love to do the library book thing all year long, but this month is a fab month of them showing off great history in our country that is often overlooked. some of it amazes me that it's not in our history books! anyway, love the poem too!

  3. Ditto on hating black history month. I do realize that there was a time when it was necessary, but I think we need to become a little more inclusive now. Have you seen the 365 Black McDonald's website I would love to hear what you think about that. I must admit as a former teacher, it was black history month all year round in my classroom, but I did kick it up a notch in February.

  4. Love it....all day everyday we need to celebrate our folks and encourage others to learn about our folks as much as we can. Black is beautiful!

  5. I have to agree, especially now is the time incorporate black history with American history. Sometimes I wonder if at this point we are doing more segregation than integration. What do you think?

  6. Felicia,

    I don't think that highlighting black history is tantamount to segregation; if you're segregating yourself, then you're telling everyone else who is not a part of your group that they are not welcome to be a part of your group. Black History Month invites ALL to explore the contributions of African Americans to the building and sustaining of America.

    However, I suggest that black history is AMERICAN history, and shouldn't be relegated to the month of February and left to the whim of folks who want to sell something to black people or pat themselves on the back for being "diverse." The Civil Rights Movement and the politics behind it are intriguing and worthy of study--not just by black folks, but ALL of us because it created a monumental sea change in the way America functions. Here in Georgia, my daughter learned about Hernando DeSoto in her class because he was the first to explore Georgia and "discover" the Mississippi River, but MLK, from Georgia, got pretty short shrift--the obligatory MLK "Had A Dream" lesson, with no context for what his anti-violence movement REALLY meant, how hard it was to win, and the incredible amount of suffering and bloodshed that went into that battle. When all of our kids learn about music history, I want them to learn about gospel and jazz and hip hop just as much as they do Beethoven and Bach. When they're being assigned reports on greats like Fitzgerald and Hemingway, I want the teacher to recognize that Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Walter Mosley, and Junot Diaz should be studied, too, because they are BRILLIANT writers who contributed greatly to the genre, not just to black people.

    This is TRUE integration. But until that happens in our school systems and our history lessons, we're stuck being relegated to the month of February. This is what needs to change.

  7. Denene, I really sink into your writing. It's the charming details and engaging way you tell a story. It's addictive.

  8. Great post! I'd LOVE to pick your brain sometime you being a mother, writer, and black woman I think I could learn a lot from you!

  9. This is a new take on Black History Month. It encourages all to use the month to get things accomplished and make steps towards the future. It is a new initiative I worked on for AT&T. Please stop by, become a fan, and use the site to motivate, inspire and empower others. Pass it on:

  10. Denene, I <3 your blog. I long ago stopped reading blogs on a regular basis because, honestly, I was reading way too many and not being as productive as I needed to. So I just cut them cold turkey unless they were related to the Brown Bookshelf.

    But your blog is refreshing and really speaks to where I am right now, this moment in my life - a mommy with a full plate and a lot on her mind. It's nice to hear others like me talking about what touches them.

    You've given me a new way to think about Black History Month...b/c prior to reading this entry, I was thinking exactly like you used to think when you were with the newspaper.

    Thank you!


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