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.

This happens in all mainstream discussions of history as facts and figures are diluted so that they fit seamlessly into a narrative that is palatable to a large number of people. Meanwhile, it is a narrative that does the least to incite true debate or threaten the privilege and standing of those in control of it. The process is particularly dangerous when it comes to black history because little attention or respect is given to the historic contributions of black people in the first place. To further diminish those contributions by reducing them to mere platitudes is contemptible.


The worst part is that black people have been complicit in this process. How often do our scholars, invited to speak and make media appearances during Black History Month, allow the standard depictions of these historical figures to go unchallenged, perhaps to ensure that they will be asked to make more appearances in the future? How many T-shirts/mugs/pens/hats — plastered with the words and faces of our most celebrated heroes (along with a few conspiracy theories) — have been manufactured and sold for a quick buck on 125th Street in New York City's Harlem, with no further thought or discussion given to their true meaning?

At one point this may have been acceptable as a compromise to ensure the exposure of black accomplishments to the wider world. However, passively accepting outside definitions of blackness can no longer be an option. We can and should reclaim Black History Month and use it to reimagine, redefine and shape anew what we mean when we refer to ourselves as black.

We have to push to include those who have constantly been moved to the margins as a consequence of identity and archaic cultural beliefs. We have to work to be more inclusive of historical figures such as Bayard Rustin, the architect of the 1963 March on Washington, who is only recently becoming more well known as we begin to open up the historical "closet" where openly gay individuals have been forced to reside.


There must also be room within the narrative to discuss the contributions of women such as Jo Ann Robinson, who was instrumental in organizing and doing the legwork needed to make the Montgomery Bus Boycott a success. It's important that we dismantle the "black heterosexual superman" narrative that too often has dominated the telling of our history. And it must be done on our terms, because self-definition is vital in the building and maintaining of a vibrant culture of which we can all be proud.

This process shouldn't be confined to February, to be sure, but I see Black History Month in sort of the same vein as education: It should not take place exclusively inside the classroom, though those four walls can be used as a structure allowing for some of the most intensive and thorough investigations and sharing of ideas. But that happens only when we decide that it's time for us to reclaim ownership of Black History Month and, by extension, ourselves.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental health advocate. Follow him on Twitter.