For many years, even as I wrote deep analyses about African (Black) history, I was troubled by the fact that as a people we only seem to appreciate our African ancestry for all of 28 days each year. Quite cynically I viewed the February new-found interest in Black issues by the steady stream of glitzy advertising, television documentaries, dramas and African fashion statements as just a tad hypocritical and self-serving. Still, I never doubted that Black History was and is important -" only that it should be celebrated and venerated more often.
At the start of a new century and with the countless new technologies in play Black History might become irrelevant to a tech savvy, selfish generation with a glutton's appetite for instantaneous gratification. And as an older, more Afrocentric generation passes on there will be a void in the traditional methods of passing on Black history. With the ebbing of Black scholastic institutional memory there will be little interest by the "now generation" in Black and African history. So if only for the briefest of times in the shortest month of the year Black History must be celebrated.
In specific terms Black History, an event founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1926, is all about documenting and chronicling the impressive contributions of African Americans to the United States even when Blacks lived and suffered under the stultifying yoke of Jim Crow and segregation across all political, social and economic lines. Its also a time to reconnect with the African Antecedent that is sometimes so neglected and forgotten in the hustle and bustle of modern life.
Black History is also important because there are many forces today, right now in America, which wants to reset the clock and go backwards in time to those racist days when Black people were white property and considered little more than beasts of burden. There are others still who want to revise American history to sanitize and clean the odious practice slavery and America's unsavory history. They want us to ignore the fact that more than 10 of the Founding Fathers were slave-owners and at least one of them fathered a child with his "Black female property." That is American and Black history as shameful as it looks and sounds.
Then there still others who point to the election of America's first Black president as somehow erasing the evils of racism that is still very much a part of American society today, as proof positive that "America has come of age." And while I contend that American society has certainly evolved along the question of race relations, specifically race relations between Blacks and whites, I question whether this country has matured enough to not hold its nose when there is a candid, honest and open discussion on race, racism and slavery.
All of this has made Black History month even more relevant today. It is relevant and indeed central to any discussion of America being, or more correctly becoming, one nation. Black history, its good, its bad and its ugly, is connected to the coming of the first white Europeans to America as it is connected to the very bloody and genocidal history of white European settlers and their relations with Native Americans.
Moreover, Black History is a time, especially now that mundane things like history are shoved aside by other interests, to reflect and highlight what is an ongoing forward historical march of a people long denied their rightful place in history. It is about setting the historical records straight. For example, there is still a lack of respect for Blacks as evidenced by the disparaging and contemptuous remarks by white people when referencing President Barack Obama. This points to the inescapable fact that many whites in America are still not comfortable with "a Black man talking back to them." For them Barack Obama is an "uppity Black n-word who needs to stay in his place."
Black History is also an opportunity to force a race dialogue into the open. For centuries America has avoided and ducked any objective, honest and open discussion on race preferring to point to a few token events as evidence of a gradually becoming color-blind America. Still, the central issue that mars the ultimate fulfillment of America's great potential is racism -" specifically the way that white America still treats Black America. Indeed, while Blacks have undoubtedly made tremendous forward strides in every field of endeavor, they are still fettered and held back by the enduring and stifling legacy of racism.
From demeaning cartoons that depicted President Barack Obama as a chimpanzee, to the caustic racism of white talk show hosts and television personalities, to the ignorant race-tinged jabbering of elected officials and the instutionalized racism of corporate America, Black struggles for equality in the 21st century has taken on a new sense of urgency. It is not enough to say that one historical election and a few token "firsts" have washed away the sins of racism and bigotry.
The racist leopard has merely changed its spots. Where once the symbol of racism was white people idiotically dressing up in white sheets, they now wear Armani suits. Modern racism is more subtle, more sophisticated, more systemic and less open and loud. But it is there in the kinds of limited opportunities for Black kids in ghettoized urban squalor; it is there in the kinds of cheap, obesity-driven foods that poor Black people must buy that spawn juvenile diabetes in Black children disproportionately higher than in white kids.
Black History must not only be a discussion of Black contributions, achievements and struggles -" it must be a discussion of Black contemporary history and the role that enduring racism and bigotry still plays in preventing Blacks from reaching their true potential. Indeed, the central task for Blacks in the 21st century is to confront all forms of racism and force it into the open. It is the millstone around the necks of both Black and white people that has to be removed once and for all.