African Americans Must Reclaim Black History Month

How did we allow it to devolve into a celebration of handpicked and anointed heroes, stripped of their historical relevance and made into hollow representations of themselves?

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I remember the first time I was called a nigger. It was during sixth-grade phys ed class, after a disappointing game of touch football. One of my white classmates took offense at my aggressive style of play, and I took offense to him shoving me in response. When I confronted him, verbally berating him with every curse word I knew, he retaliated by calling me a nigger.

My fists clenched on their own as the adrenaline coursed through my veins and my steps became quicker, all thoughts of peaceful conflict resolution tabled for the moment. The only thing that saved him from an epic beating that day was a girl from another class witnessing my pursuit and swiftly moving to restrain me, my fists and my emotions.

I recall another, less volatile, childhood memory that was instrumental to informing my ideas about race and racial identity. Conversations on myriad topics took place on the school bus I rode as a high school student, and race, as thorny as it may have been, was never excluded.

There was a set of white twin girls who seemed obsessed with looking and acting "black," as far as they understood the concept. They had no shame in asking the black students what would be required of them to achieve their goal. They asked me -- but with hesitancy, because they presumed I was biracial: "You're not all the way black, are you? You don't talk like it."

It's no accident that these memories come to me most vividly during Black History Month. Every year, as the first of February rolls around, it brings renewed discussions about the purpose, necessity (or lack thereof) and viability of Black History Month, conversations that are surely intensifying in the age of Obama.

Attacks come from all angles. Some opponents believe it condescending to have only one month when black history is the national focus, while being ignored the other 11 months of the year. Still others, uninformed of Black History Month's origins, recite tired jokes about using the shortest month of the year to celebrate black history, which must have been a deliberately racist move on the part of white people. My personal favorites, however, are those people who simply don't believe there is enough notable black history to warrant an entire month of discussion.

But I think I've come to understand the apprehensiveness toward Black History Month. It has nothing to do with the length of the month or the lack of interesting history to investigate; rather, it concerns the fact that -- as I did in the childhood stories I just shared -- African Americans have allowed white people to dictate the contours of blackness.

The celebration of our history and culture that Carter G. Woodson envisioned when he founded Negro History Week has been not only co-opted but completely hijacked by pressure from mainstream white America. Yearly, images of handpicked and anointed heroes are trotted out in classrooms and other public spaces, stripped of their historical relevance and deep abiding commitment to the construction of black culture, and made into hollow representations of themselves.

As a result, blackness is being defined and dictated to us by government and media -- institutions that have historically excluded voices of color -- instead of growing authentically from our bodies and minds.

The name and image of Martin Luther King Jr. is now used to sell automobiles. Malcolm X's legacy has been reduced to the context-less slogan, "By any means necessary." W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington have become known for little more than a debate that amounts to "bootstraps" vs. "the talented tenth," approaches to improving conditions for the black community, while the fullness of their legacies and nuances of their positions are lost. And as Danielle L. McGuire's book At the Dark End of the Street shows us, the narrative that we have come to accept about Rosa Parks being no more than a tired seamstress who refused to give up her seat on a bus because her feet hurt is disrespectful to her important work standing up for the human rights and dignity of black women.

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