Why is there still a need for Black History Month? Our panel of experts listed the continuing removal of black contributions from American history, America’s fear of black men, and the whitewashing of Detroit as just a few reasons.
Originally Published in Ambassador Magazine
Written by J. NadirOmowale
Photos by Andrew Potter
The January/February 2015 Ambassador Magazine Roundtable convened at a pivotal moment in American history – and in the history of Detroit. As we gathered to discuss the importance of African American History Month with an esteemed group of historians and scholars, race occupied the center of our national conversation.
The public erupted into spontaneous protest after a series of high-profile killings of African American men and boys by police, highlighting the longstanding American tradition of police violence against the black community. And instead of ushering in a post-racial era in America, racial tensions were intensified and will forever color the legacy of Barack Obama – the country’s first African American president. Hashtags and slogans like #BlackLivesMatter, #ICantBreathe and #WhitePrivilege peppered social media and the nation’s consciousness.
Closer to home, as a resurgent Detroit emerged from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history – forever the phoenix shaking off the ashes – questions and accusations surrounded the complexion of the city’s latest renaissance. Was there room in the whiter, more affluent “New Detroit” for the city’s majority population of working-class African Americans?
If there were two things learned in the boardroom at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, one was that history is about more than assorted dates and facts. Understanding the historical context of an event is often as important as the study of the event itself. The second was that, often, the histories that are excluded from our textbooks give a more accurate representation of what really happened.
Though it became Black History Month in 1976, Dr. Carter G. Woodson first initiated Negro History Week in 1926, at a time when African Americans had been effectively erased from American history books and from much of mainstream American society altogether. In the 63 years after emancipation, blacks had witnessed the end of the Civil War, limited political equality during Reconstruction, and a return in some quarters to de facto slavery through the implementation of Jim Crow segregation laws after 1876.
Still, an educated and thriving African American professional class persisted within the confines of segregated communities. Bustling black business districts flourished in Harlem, Tulsa, Nashville, Atlanta, Detroit and other cities across the nation. Woodson – the second African American to earn a Ph.D from Harvard University after W.E.B. Du Bois – began promoting the second week of February as Negro History Week in Washington, D.C.
“(Woodson) was responding to a moment when much of the nation, even professional historical organizations, said that black people had no valuable history, and they had made no contributions to the world,” explains Kidada Williams, associate professor of history at Wayne State University.
Professional historians, the people who actually wrote the histories of the nation and of the world, actively participated in this silencing of African Americans and their contributions to history. “They wrote the racist caricatures of happy slaves on the plantation, and the histories of Reconstruction that were right out of (D.W. Griffith’s silent film) Birth of a Nation,” Williams adds.
“I grew up in North Carolina in a segregated school,” says Juanita Moore, president and CEO at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. “Negro History Week was extremely important for us. It was a time when we learned so much about what black people had accomplished, and that we had made significant contributions to this country in almost every single area. It was a time of great pride – and a time that, as a person in elementary school – we felt like we were on top of the world, especially at that point when we were not allowed to attend white schools.”
Ken Harris, president and CEO at the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce, points out that this celebration – among other contributions by Woodson, Du Bois and their contemporaries – was critical to the growth of African American society.
“It’s in W.E.B. Du Bois’ Talented Tenth theory, that our most educated and prominent citizens give back to the community, and in Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s book The Mis-Education of the Negro, where we find this holistic philosophy of self and of self-realization. That although we were brought here, we have to recondition ourselves and re-educate ourselves. History is important. It’s our center, and in order for us to be whole, we have to know who we are.”
Yet the question is raised every year: Is there still a need for Black History Month?
“I would suggest rephrasing the question,” says Paul Rogers, vice president of public programs and exhibitions at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. “Is African American history integrated into American history as a whole? And until the answer to that question is ‘yes,’ then you’ve already answered the question of whether or not it’s necessary.”
“Part of the challenge in discussing this is due to the necessary absurdity of the month,” says Marsha Music, a writer, independent historian and a 2012 Kresge Artist Fellow in the literary arts. “As a practical matter, it is not physically possible to separate the history of African American people from the history of America itself. We are a woven part of this culture. We are the root of this culture.
“African American History Month developed as a response to the absurdity of thinking that you could separate a section of the population from the country’s history. It is impossible, but because there is always a tendency in this country to invisiblize us, to make us unseen, it is necessary to highlight certain aspects of our contributions, and that will be necessary until our histories are truthfully portrayed as a part of the general culture.”
Valerie Mercer, curator of the General Motors Center for African American Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts, says she’s always suspicious every time someone raises the question.
“I always wonder why people are so threatened,” Mercer says. “There should be an expectation that something wonderful is going to happen. It’s an opportunity to learn more. Black History Month is not only for African Americans. A lot of our programs (at the DIA) draw people from diverse backgrounds, and that’s an important intention. We teach that African American history is American history.”
“For me, the troublesome aspect is that this falls into a pattern that typifies discussions about African American anything,” Rogers adds. “For instance, what’s going on in Ferguson, Mo. They ask, ‘Was the officer racist?’ and 90 percent of the time is spent discussing racism. Can’t we get past this juvenile question and move into the deeper issues?”
So what are the deeper issues? Rogers cites NPR’s December 2014 discussion “Civil Rights Attorney on How She Built Trust With Police” with civil rights attorney Constance Rice, who interviewed over 900 Los Angeles police officers in an 18-month period. She said for many of them it was like a therapy session, but several officers opened up about their fear of black men.
“We need to start there,” Rogers says. “What is making people scared of black men? If you look at the numbers, white people are not being attacked by black men around this country, so where is this fear coming from?”
“Part of what’s deeper is the history of that (fear),” Williams explains. “You can locate that in a very specific historical moment, and that would be emancipation. If there were such a great fear of black women and black men (before), would black women have been nursing the babies? Would you have had a black butler protecting you and cooking your food? But suddenly at the moment of emancipation, the question becomes ‘What are we going to do about the Negro problem?’”
Deborah Smith Pollard, associate professor of English literature at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and a radio host, suggests discussions like this as a way to improve sometimes-stale Black History Month programming.
“We should talk about the power of images,” she says. “Where did those images start? How do those images continue to be embedded? And how can we challenge ourselves to step outside of it? That has got to be part of this dialogue. Otherwise, you’re always going to have this tension.”
Satori Shakoor, creator, curator and producer of the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, agrees that the way African American history is presented needs to change.
“I think Black History Month is boring,” she says. “Period. It has not been re-envisioned. It’s an opportunity to create, but it’s divorced, like it’s a dead history. I call it ‘Black History Repeats Itself Month.’”
Shakoor says another pet peeve of hers is that we show photos depicting the flesh-torn backs of whipped slaves and horrifying photos of lynching and hangings, but there is no discussion of rape. There is no discussion about why there are light-skinned African Americans and curly headed European Americans who can grow dreadlocks as easily as any African.
“We don’t talk about how we are cousins and how we’re the same,” she says. “How are you going to separate (that history)? The job that has been done on all of our heads … I don’t think we’re well enough as a country to even have that conversation in this room.”
“Black History Month to me is liberation,” Harris explains. “We’re constantly trying to free ourselves from a country that has never accepted the Negro. When you come from that tense, we have been intrinsically ingrained to think that we are not who we truly are.
“And from a socioeconomic standpoint, I believe integration was the worst thing we could have done, in that the Asian community keeps their culture and supports their culture. The Arab American community circulates the dollar in their community. The Hispanic community supports and builds second- and third-generation economic processes. Black people are the only people who said, ‘We are the world, and freedom for everybody but ourselves.’”
Rogers retorts that African Americans have built strong insular economic communities, but they were the only ethnic group that had those economic centers destroyed. “Black people have done that over and over again, but most recently, if you look at every major city in the country – and I mean every major city, including Detroit – and you look at the freeways (created for white commuters) who fled the city for the suburbs, every last one of them destroyed a black neighborhood and economic center,” Rogers says. “It happened in every single city in the country from Oakland to Baltimore.”
The African American experience and the intersection of race and socioeconomics is a constant in the history of Detroit. Our experts expressed grave concerns about the way the city’s history is currently being portrayed.
“There is a current overarching narrative of Detroit that says white people in the beginning of the last century were productive and prosperous, hardworking pillars of the city,” Music says. “And then black people became the majority, burned the city down, and now white people are here to save it. That is the primary narrative of Detroit at this time.
“Because black people are the underpinnings of the progress that was made in Detroit during the last century, I think it’s very important that we do not allow ourselves to be written out of the history and out of the imagery of the city. … Detroit was a very vibrant city during the mid-century of African American majority here. And if we’re not careful, we’ll look back on the city of Detroit in another century and say, ‘Wow. Isn’t that interesting? Did you know that black people used to live there?’”
Kidada Williams says this is one reason why she shifted her Wayne State course for the fall semester to focus more on the study of black Detroit. She made the decision after attending a program at Wayne State that focused on ethnic Detroit.
“It certainly was ethnic Detroit, but it was a focus on Jewish history, German history, et cetera, which is fine, but there was no engagement with black Detroit. And what little they had was wrong. It was representations of Motown artists as being from Detroit when they weren’t even born in the city,” Williams explains. “This erasure is going on. It’s ongoing, and it’s intense. And that’s not saying you can’t look at ethnic Detroit or you can’t look at Detroit’s larger history, but when you consciously or unconsciously erase black people from the history of the city, that’s when I have a problem.
“But I’m not going to go around begging people to engage black Detroit’s history,” she adds. “I’m going to get in there and do my part.”
Important History to Discover
Each of our panelists suggested historical subjects that deserve wider attention and recognition.
• Mansa Musa (Musa I) was the 10th Mansa (or emperor) of the Mali Empire in Africa. “As an economics major and Ph.D candidate in African American Studies at Michigan State University, I connect the dots from capitalism to Mansa Musa, who during his day was the richest man in the world. He was a black African. I think it’s important to trace that history and tell our children who they are. They are queens. They’re a noble group of people,” Harris says.
• The historic acts of ordinary people. “As we witness what, I hope, will be a movement of protest after the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the focus needs to be less on individual activists or the most prominent activists and more on ordinary people who were involved in the civil rights movement,” Williams says. “It’s the ordinary activists who do the work, who knock on doors, who picket, who petition people … and even further back to those ordinary people who resisted slavery. Those people who ran away from their masters during the Civil War. Had they stayed put, Lincoln wouldn’t have felt any pressure to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.”
• Charity Hicks – Detroit activist and policy director for the East Michigan Environmental Action Council who was most recently active in preventing water shutoffs in the city. Hicks died in July 2014 after being struck by a hit-and-run driver while she was in Manhattan for a speaking engagement, but the impact she made in the local environmental movement and in Detroit’s communities will resonate for years to come.
• The impact of the destruction of neighborhoods caused by the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. “That destruction has resonated throughout the generations,” Music says. “(Running the freeway through Hastings Street) destroyed our first repository of generational wealth because of the predominance of black businesses there. The Davison Freeway, which was the first urban freeway in the United States, the Jefferies Freeway, the Lodge Freeway – each destroyed certain neighborhoods and cut them off from one another. I believe they have contributed to some of the underlying difficulties that those neighborhoods have experienced ever since.”
• Joe Von Battle. “Joe Von Battle was my father, but he was a seminal figure in the development of Detroit music,” Music says. “He was the first person to record the voice of Aretha Franklin, and he recorded all of Rev. C.L. Franklin’s 75 albums. He was kind of eclipsed in prominence by Berry Gordy as styles changed from gospel and the blues, but he is a well-known figure in other countries and to people who study the history of the music.”
• The importance of gospel music to the world’s music – “There’s something in Aretha Franklin’s voice that we hear, the full-throated delivery of the style. We hear it on American Idol and in so many places,” Smith Pollard says. “And Detroit was really important in the development of gospel music.”
• Sarah Vaughan. The jazz vocalist’s technique rivaled that of opera singers, but her roots in jazz and gospel took her to another level. “The greatest singer of the 20th century,” Rogers says.
• Dudley Randall. “Mr. Randall founded Broadside Press right here in Detroit, and he was able to publish Nikki Giovanni, Haki Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez, and Gwendolyn Brooks – our first black Pulitzer Prize-winning author, (who left) a major publishing house to come to Broadside Press,” says Smith Pollard. That’s a major thing.”
• Albert Turner. “Albert Turner was a pillar of the civil rights movement, working along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Music says. ‘But he is an unsung hero. His humility was such that when asked if he wanted to speak at MLK’s funeral, he opted to lead the mule team.”