A decade or so ago, when I was freelancing as a stringer for a San Francisco-based newspaper, I wrote a series of articles in honor
of Black History Month.
I think I did about four articles in total, one a week.
I can’t remember all of them now, but one was on the Last Poets – the poetical
forefathers of rap, who arose out of New York’s Black Arts scene in the ‘60s and went
on to influence hip-hop’s first generation of emcees. The group had gone
through several personnel changes over the years, but they were not only still
among the living, they were still performing live.
Anyway, at the end of the
series, I spoke to my editor on the phone.
“Thanks for doing the series,” she
said. “If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t have had anything for Black History
I still remember that conversation because its implied
inference was clear: The paper had no plans on covering African-American
culture on a regular, ongoing basis and thus had little use for an African-American writer interested in covering those topics regularly.
A couple of years ago, I noted with interest the coverage
afforded BHM by another SF newspaper – who I had once been a regular contributor
to – before its editorial stewardship changed and its freelance budget was slashed. Its approach was somewhat clichéd, if not predictable: each day throughout
the month, they profiled a notable figure in black history.
Besides the fact
that management had white members of their staff do the write-ups, what was more
problematic was the fact that every single person they profiled was dead. The
unspoken message was that black history was no longer being made and
furthermore, that the services of African-American writers were not needed to
note the contributions blacks had made to American history.
This year, as the month of February neared, I posed the
question at an Oakland Local editorial meeting: “Are we doing anything for Black History Month?”
OL’s editorial brain trust – a regular multicultural melting
pot – came up with some interesting responses, which I’ll paraphrase: black
history should be a daily, if not monthly, occurrence and thus shouldn’t
warrant any special coverage. Besides, there is no way to cover BHM without
sliding into media tokenism; every year, the same people get recognized: Dr.
King, Rosa Parks, maybe Crispus Attucks if we’re lucky.
Also, OL people said,
there’s a generation gap now. Black history attracted national interest in the
immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and during
the ‘70s, when “Roots” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” – both
landmark, if not groundbreaking, programs – aired, but didn’t seem so important
from a national perspective in 2011.
Plus, acknowledging black history was
maybe more important for older African Americans, who had lived through Jim
Crow laws and separate-yet-equal societal standards, than it was for younger
folks, who have Obama, Lil’ Wayne and Jaden Smith as role models.
we’re on the subject, what about Asian history or women’s history? Shouldn’t
we be addressing those topics year-round, too, rather than singling them out for
These were all valid, well-reasoned, points. Still, one need look no further than the now-infamous
remarks by Republican Congresswoman (and possible 2012 Presidential candidate)
Michele Bachmann to illustrate why recognizing Black History Month is important.
Speaking to an anti-tax group in Iowa , Bachmann insisted, “it didn’t matter, the color of their
skin” in a comment about immigrants coming to America – something the
approximately four million African descendants shackled and subjected to
forced servitude, savage beatings, rape and/or watching their family members
being sold down the river might have disputed, back in 1860.
“Once you got here, we were all the same,” Bachmann
continued, apparently unclear on the concept of historical discrimination
against not only blacks, but Latinos, Asians, Jews and the Irish.
The writers of the Constitution, Bachmann insisted, “worked
tirelessly until slavery was no more” – a curious statement, considering that
not only did Thomas Jefferson and George Washington own slaves, but slavery
wasn’t abolished until long after all of the founding fathers were dead.
Furthermore, as CNN’s Anderson Cooper noted, the Constitution itself states
that slaves were considered “three-fifths of a person.”
Is the Tea Party reinventing history?
Interestingly, as a Congressional candidate in 2006,
Bachmann dissed multiculturalism. And in 2008, she told MSNBC’s Chris
Matthews that Barack Obama “may have anti-American views.” She’s also blamed America’s
economic collapse on “minorities and communities of color.”
The unfortunate fact is there are hundreds of thousands, if
not millions, of Americans who not only think like Bachmann, but believe every untruthful
word she says. Regardless of your stand on Tea Party politics, I think we can
all agree that reinventing history, ignoring key aspects of it or simply
making up your own “facts” is just plain wrong.
Bachmann might be a worse-case scenario, but she’s also a
huge argument in favor of BHM, which counteracts highly-erroneous accounts of
American history, which at best amount to historical revisionism and at worst,
revel in willful ignorance.
In fact, the abolition of slavery is directly linked to the
creation of Black History Month. The 13th Amendment was passed on Jan. 31, 1865
– which is one of the reasons why February was chosen to celebrate freedom from oppression and the
accomplishments of black Americans.
So, let’s look at BHM objectively, shall we?
On the plus
side, it recognizes not only the moral virtue implicit in the 13th
Amendment’s passage, but the historical, cultural and societal contributions
of black folks in America, counteracting historical revisionists such as
On the con side, BHM often doesn’t go far enough – we’ve yet to see a
Criterion Collection edition of “Mandingo” released.
And while Ms.
Parks’ valiant story is often retold, I can’t recall offhand ever seeing a
biopic of other African-American heroines like Sojourner Truth, Harriet
Tubman or Madame CJ Walker.
Furthermore, there’s an inherent conceit, if not
hypocrisy, in a company like Budweiser sponsoring the “Great Kings of Africa”
series – an equally offensive act as Elizabeth Taylor portraying Cleopatra, Yul
Brynner playing the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses or the Kemetic architect Imhotep
being depicted as an evil, undead villain in the more recent “Mummy” movies.
In America., Blacks remain a demographic minority
Part of the problem is that, despite the broad cultural
contributions of African peoples to American society, black people remain a
demographic minority. This is especially true in media circles and the
It goes without saying that the few black-owned outlets
which do exist, such as TVOne and BET, have far less innovative programming
than PBS. But if it makes sense for PBS to commission “Eyes on the Prize” for its
BHM programming, why can’t BET do something similar, on a monthly, rather than
Another problem is the way black history is taught in
schools. It recently came to light that a large number of elementary school
textbooks had hundreds of factual errors, among them the myth that black slaves
fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
When black history
is covered in schools, it tends to lightly skim the subject without going into
detail, nor identifying any real topics for critical thinking. Indeed, it
wasn’t until I got to college that I was able to learn anything of substance about
Plessy v. Ferguson, the Black
Panthers, Shaka Zulu or Goree Island.
As for the generation gap, I blame the de-literacization of
our society more than anything else. For someone like Frederick Douglass, a man
who was born a slave, literacy represented the greatest freedom available at
that time, if not freedom itself. Douglass was savagely beaten for daring to
have books. Yet he went on to become a free man, the first black American
author of note and a symbol of the abolitionist movement.
Sampling music carries a legacy
This is a point which should not be lost on the hip-hop
generation. Indeed, we can look to rap music itself as one of the factors
keeping black history alive and relevant. The practice of sampling, for one
thing, has introduced the works of older musicians to younger listeners. I myself
found out about Isaac Hayes through Public Enemy, though the generation after
me might know him not as the author of “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic”
(aka “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”), but as the voice of Chef on “South
Furthermore, rap songs such as Run-DMC’s
“Proud to Be Black,” the Jungle Brothers’ “Acknowledge Your Own History,” and
Boogie Down Productions’ “You Must Learn” and “Why is That?” established the
concept of edutainment through songs, which drew directly from history for
Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First” struck a chord for feminism, which
still echoes today. In addition to groundbreaking singles, rap albums like Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” “X-Clan’s To the East,” “Blackwards” and “Guru’s Jazzmatazz, Vol. I” all referenced black history as an integral part of America’s cultural canon.
Even Too $hort, a rapper not immediately recognized for
positivity, had his best-selling single ever with a remake of Donny Hathaway’s
“The Ghetto” – a song which addressed inner-city conditions in a real,
non-condescending way. Another rap song, which seems particularly relevant during BHM
is the Coup’s “Not Yet Free,” a reminder that there’s still quite a ways to go
before the intent of the 13th Amendment can be fully upheld.
If we don’t recognize
history, that history will eventually be lost
What it comes down to is this: If we don’t recognize
history, that history will eventually be lost. That’s why the need to note Black History Month
seems crucial, if not critical, in a city like Oakland,
a place where so much black history has happened over the years.
Oakland is the birthplace
of the Black Panthers. It’s the town where Too $hort, Hieroglyphics, Goapele,
Keyshia Cole, D’Wayne Wiggins and Hammer all started their still-ongoing musical
It’s home to literary genius Ishmael Reed as well as community
activist and Port Commissioner Margaret Gordon, cycling organizer Jenna Burton
and comedians Marc Curry and W. Kamau Bell. We have black cowboys, black
longshoremen and (at least for now) a black police chief. And, did you know
that the P-Funk “Earth Tour” live album was recorded in Oakland?
Black history is integral to Oaktown
Black history is an integral part of Oakland’s
history; the reason there are so many amazing barbecue joints, for instance, is
because so many black people migrated from the south in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and
brought their culinary traditions with them. There’s also the musical and
cultural history of Seventh St.
in West Oakland, which at one time was known as “the Harlem
of the West,” or of Sweet’s Ballroom, which hosted jazz greats such as Count Basie
in the ‘30s.
Then there’s the dance history. The “robot” dance was
created at Fremont High
School in 1969, for example and in 1990, Oakland
rap group Digital Underground came up with the “Humpty Dance,” which presented
millions of people with a “chance to do the hump.” New dance styles are still
being created to this day, like the “Turfin’” phenomenon, which began at Youth
UpRising in East Oakland.
Oakland has a legacy of Black empowerment as well
I tend to focus on arts and culture, but Oakland
has made significant changes in society and the political arena, too. The
Panthers created the nation’s first free breakfast program and were instrumental in advancing the concepts of speaking truth to power and what is now known as restorative justice.
During his 1969 trial, for instance, Bobby Seale told a judge “you begin to oink in the faces of the masses of the people of this country,” one of many outbursts for which he was subsequently manacled and gagged. Yet after completing a sentence for contempt of court, Seale ran for mayor of Oakland in 1972, narrowly losing the campaign, yet establishing a political power base, which ultimately resulted in the election of city’s first African-American mayor, Lionel Wilson, in 1976.
In 2001, our own
Congresswoman Barbara Lee was the only politician who dared to openly oppose
the Iraq war
after Sept. 11. And let us not forget the Longshoreman’s Union, who stood in
solidarity when two dockworkers were killed by police during a 1934
strike – and have remained united against police violence and racism ever
since, protesting, among other things, Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, South Africa’s apartheid regime and most recently, the Johannes Mehserle verdict.
It’s for all these reasons that we should honor Black
History Month, particularly Oakland’s
contributions to black history.
Who are African-Americans whose history you wish to honor and think shoud be remembered at this time? Share in comments, please.