I was born in the year 1970, not that far removed from a time in America where racial segregation was actively practiced. I knew people that had known first hand what it was like to be forced to sit in the back of the bus or to drink from colored only water fountains. I have never suffered the indignity of segregation. I was was lucky enough to be born in a family that loved me and saw to it that I got a good education. It was embedded in me as a little boy the importance of an education and the value of hard work and perseverance. Despite the positive reinforcements in my life there was also this undercurrent of ideas that persisted in the back of my mind growing up. The idea of somehow being “less than” or of being the “other”. The source of these ideas in my opinion were popular culture and to a lesser degree the celebration of Black History Week(later month).
Popular culture and entertainment’s impact on the self esteem of young black boys of the 1970’s can not be overstated. From movies to TV to magazines to comic books to the news to soap operas ; the dominant image displayed is that of the powerful white male. White men were the superhero’s that saved people, the captains that explored the galaxy in starships, and the presidents that led the nation. White women were upheld as the standard of beauty used to sell everything from make up to laundry detergent. When black men were portrayed on TV and movies it was more often as pimps, hustlers or otherwise poor people of character and means. So a black kid growing up back then didn’t have many positive role models to look up to compared to a white kid. A little white boy could be Superman because Superman is white. It sounds trivial but subtle reinforcements like that can have consequences on a child’s self esteem, especially when the image of what looks like you is typically portrayed in a negative light.
Ironically the celebration of Black History Month can impact ones self esteem. I say ironically because I believe that overwhelmingly it helps more that it harms. Black History Month was created by Carter G Woodson in 1926. Back then it was called Negro History Week and in 1976 it was expanded to include the entire month of February. For me celebrating black history month meant that the mini series Roots were played on TV, we got extra classes on famous black people and we heard a lot about Dr. Martin Luther King and his speeches. You heard about the slaves and the Civil Rights Movement. All of these things were good and needed to be taught but it was always taught apart from traditional American history. When studying the foundation of the United States you hear the familiar tropes Plymouth Rock, Columbus and manifest destiny. You hear about white men of impeccable character intellect and fortitude bringing the gift of liberty and civilization to a new land. On the question of slavery you hear about a benevolent president in Abraham Lincoln that freed the lowly and helpless slaves from bondage. What you don’t hear are the stories of brave African Americans and their impact on the founding of the nation. These stories are usually reserved for Black history Month. In a sense you get the impression that black history isn’t exactly American history. It almost feels like a concession given to blacks; here’s a month when we will talk about your history but the rest of the year its back to business as usual. I guess to me it feels that if you have to regulate black contributions to just a month it cheapens it somehow.
I realize that these thoughts are not justified. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become to really appreciate the rich tapestry that is American History. History is not just one sanitized version of events but a fluid and complicated narrative with many points of view. Every time Black History Month rolls around I get the same conflicted feelings. It’s great that there is a designated time to acknowledge Black achievement but I wonder if the nation would be better served if we stop thinking of it as Black History and just history.