By: Melanie C. Jones
February 26, 2016
February 2016 is the Blackest Black History Month we have seen in a long time as Black popular and sacred cultures clap back at the terrors of our time.
The origins of Black History Month trace back to Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson and Howard-bred minister Jesse E. Moorland’s “Negro History Week,” which was first marked by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASALH) in 1926 as an effort to organize events and learning activities to honor the rich and vibrant legacy of achievements of peoples of African descent. With ripe activist energies emerging from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and the early Black Power Movement of the 1960s, young students of Kent State University were eager to propose a month-long observation that would hold up the often under told story of Black triumph as a counter-narrative to the all too popular saga of the mistreatment of Black people as subhuman in America. By 1976, in conjunction with the U.S. Bicentennial, February was officially recognized as Black History Month by the U.S. government and churches, schools, social clubs, civic organizations, professional societies, state and city governments, etc., which spawned a progressive series of recognizing and sharing stories of people of African descent across the nation.
The central premise of Black History Month in America is to affirm that the history of Black people did not begin in 1619 with the first Africans who were brought to Jamestown or in 1640 with the first documented enslaved African in Virginia, John Punch. Our story did not begin in chains. Our diverse, religious orientations did not originate with slaveholding Christianity. Our roots are not simply grounded in a foothold of oppression. And where there has been domination, our ancestors have exercised revolutionary acts of resistance through inventions, socio-political protests, African-derived religiosity, creative and artistic expressions, and strategies of survival.
In recent times, controversial dialogue has emerged whereby celebrities like Stacey Dash1 have asserted there is no need for a Black History Month and that Black people in America should look to American history as a framing for our story. Perhaps Dash and others are blind to the reality that the history of America is a terrible tragedy of conquest cradled in continuing dehumanizing assaults against Black humanity. Moreover, the Age of Obama has signaled another nadir in the Black struggle to be American as we have witnessed, almost daily, America’s domestically violent attacks against Black bodies from Ferguson to New York to Baltimore to Chicago to Charleston to Flint and elsewhere. When I flip through the pages of America’s chronicles, I contend the terrorization of Black bodies is America’s holy grail.
Black History Month is necessary to force America to confront its ugly truths, but also to resurrect, what Cornel West calls, Black “subversive joy”2 and revel in the belief that #BlackLivesMatter and enslavement, segregation, mass incarceration, police brutality, and poisoning our water will NOT have the last word!
Black History Month seeks to re-member our heritage. In the Spirit of Sankofa, we are charged to go back and get it and fetch for the stories that illuminate the underside of an American quest for freedom and independence. For there is a Birth of this Nation that champions rebels with a cause like Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Marcus Garvey, Harriet Tubman, Assata Shakur, and countless revolutionaries in Zion.
Black History Month helps us to call out the lies, debunk the myths of respectability, and refuse to succumb to monolithic and one-dimensional portrayals of Black people. As we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X, we can never forget freedom fighters like Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Angela Davis, Prathia Hall and others whose names are often missing from history books. It is a season to celebrate trailblazing firsts, seconds, thirds, fourths…millennials.
Black History Month gives us (at minimum) 28-29 days, in the words of James Brown, to Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud! February is the time of year to celebrate the genius of Black folk creating a new world and shining like the sun-kissed people that we are through artistry and aesthetics. It is the ultimate dance of redemption to claim pride in a people who continue to flourish despite all odds. Though the struggle for liberation is far from over, we must position our bodies to move to the drum of freedom and twirl, twerk, and throw our hips in a circle to this steady beat. As womanist ethicist Emilie Townes maintains, “Burned out, bitter people don’t help bring justice very often…”3
And yes, February 2016 is the Blackest Black History Month we have seen in a long time as Black popular and sacred cultures clap back at the terrors of our time. You don’t believe me?!?! Just, let me call the roll… From Beyoncé’s Formation and SuperBowl 50 performance with Bruno Mars and Coldplay to Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance to PBS’ airing The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution to GirlTrek’s #BlackGirlHealing campaign to activate 1 million Black women as changemakers in their lives and communities through walking to Channing Dungey becoming first Black woman to run Disney/ABC Television (the network that also airs Shondaland TGIT!) to Religious scholar Monica Coleman becoming first African American female full professor at Claremont School of Theology to Black-Ish’s most recent show on police brutality to Black Love in the White House… POTUS: “Hey Michelle, Girl, you look so good!” Black is Beautiful and the color of the breaking of a new dawn in America.
In the words of Ivorian playwright Bernard Binlin Dadié, “I thank you, God for creating me Black!”