This article is part four of a series in celebration of a new, dynamic voice in Black America: the NUBIANO Exchange. Brace yourself for the NUBIANO experience.
by Tyran Kai Steward
It appears Morgan Freeman has been drinking the same Kool-Aid, err, Veuve Clicquot that Bill Cosby has been consuming, picking up where the famed comedian left off with remarks that are not only shortsighted but perfunctory as well.
In a 60 Minutes interview conducted by Mike Wallace, Freeman ruffled some feathers in the African-American community when he proffered that “the concept of a month dedicated to black history was ridiculous.”
“You’re going to relegate my history to a month?” Freeman asked Wallace in their discussion of black history month. After noting there is “no white history month,” Freeman declared, “I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history.”
Freeman went on to suggest that not only was the notion of a special month for black history hurting rather than helping efforts for racial equality, but also that the way to get rid of racism was to “stop talking about it.” Freeman stated to Wallace, “I am going to stop calling you a white man and ask you to stop calling me a black man. I know you as Mike Wallace. You know me as Morgan Freeman.”
On the surface, Freeman’s observations actually have some merit, although not necessarily based upon the conclusions that he has drawn. On the one hand, Freeman is right when he contends that black history is American history. It is impossible to survey American history by neither tracing the hairlines of the black experience in this country nor wrestling with the influence that black culture has had on America.
Consider that during a period of almost 350 years, the peculiar institution of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation were woven into the fabric of this country and, in many ways, has become the predicate for today’s America. It is then difficult to discuss any American enterprise or ideal without chronicling how blacks have indexed those actualities.
The very manner in which America insidiously and invidiously dealt with blacks during slavery and Jim Crow thereafter — both enchaining and denying them basic liberties and rights established under the Constitution of America; utilizing black slave labor to both establish a stable American economy that have sprung other industries, which continue to flourish today, and to build this country’s basic infrastructure; preventing blacks from learning how to read and write then using those inabilities against them when it came to voting privileges or the pursuance of an education; using tactics such as gerrymandering to avert black support of certain political factions; discriminating when it came to housing by using such practices as redlining and restrictive covenants; denying blacks entrance into certain venues and institutions as well as not allowing them to use facilities that were reserved for ‘whites only’; prohibiting blacks from the use of the equal protection clause while permitting laws that legally justified the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine; and lynching, hosing down and threatening black freedom fighters, amongst many other nefarious treatments — accounts for most of the history surveyed in this country.
Even more, the influence of black culture on America, and, logically, the identities of Americans, has been profound. A conversation on literature and poetry, while sure to include Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and T.S. Eliot, would be incomplete without a perusal of the work done by such notable artists as Langston Hughes, Phyllis Wheatley, Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Nikki Giovanni. It is impossible to talk about Ralph Waldo Emerson, a brilliant American essayist, without talking about James Baldwin. It is impractical to mention Henry David Thoreau, the prophet of passive resistance, without mentioning Martin Luther King, Jr.
Furthermore, a discussion of American music would not be thorough without discussing all the black established musical traditions from rag to jazz to blues to gospel to rock-and-roll to hip-hop. Likewise, in a cosmographical examination of fine art, it would be incredulous to not make mention of the contributions made by such great, African-American artists as Jacob Lawrence, Edmonia Lewis, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett and Charles H. Alston, amongst many notable others.
As well, blacks have impacted every field and focus, every subject and sphere, every theme and tradition found within the precincts of American life. Where would America be in the field of cardiology without either Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, who performed the first-ever, open-heart surgery, or Dr. Charles Drew, who made the preservation of blood plasma and blood banking possible? How advanced would America be without the 150 patented-inventions of Granville T. Woods, amongst them the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, which enabled messages to be sent from moving trains and railroad stations.
Could America talk about dominance in sporting competition without referring to Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan or have been able to display superiority in Hitler’s Germany without Jesse Owens during the 1936 Olympics? Would America have overcome the British without the assistance of black soldiers willing to die for their country such as Crispus Attucks or have been successful in many other military campaigns without the courageous and valiant efforts of groups like the Buffalo Soldiers and Tuskegee Airmen, respectively?
On the whole, blacks have tinted every cloth of American life and identity, whether it has been exemplified through the philosophical genius of W.E.B. DuBois, who superbly placed race into the context of social scientific study, by the oratorical brilliance and honesty of Malcolm X, who provided an abundance of astute expressions to the argot of black, rhetorical inspiration or inside the feminist verve of Audre Lourde, who expanded the basis of liberation politics for all women with her timely articulations of black women suffering in America.
As Ralph Ellison so eloquently put it in his 1970 book What America Would Be Like Without Blacks, “since the beginning of the nation, white Americans have suffered from a deep inner uncertainty as to who they really are. One of the ways that has been used to simplify the answer has been to seize upon the presence of black Americans and use them as a marker, a symbol of limits, a metaphor for the ‘outsider.’ Many whites could look at the social position of blacks and feel that color formed an easy and reliable gauge for determining to what extent one was or was not American. Perhaps that is why one of the first epithets that many European immigrants learned when they got off the boat was the term ‘nigger’ – it made them feel instantly American. But this is tricky magic. Despite his racial difference and social status, something indisputably American about Negroes not only raised doubts about the white man’s value system but aroused the troubling suspicion that whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black.”
So in exploring the prima facie evidence, Freeman was right in his assessment that black history is American history, given that you cannot talk about America or American history without registering the enormous presence and offerings of blacks. And while he did not necessarily state it, Freeman is probably disturbed—as many black Americans are today—by what can only be described as the McDonaldlization of black culture.
Quite frankly, black history has been diluted, commodified and vended right alongside the Big Mac, with all its special sauce, lettuce and cheese, pickles and onions on a sesame bun. It is impossible to explore every territory of black history in just one month. Nevertheless black history has been parceled within February and habitually presented as a narrative that only includes the names Martin, Frederick, George, Harriet and, now, Rosa. Meanwhile the other a, b, c and d through z’s—perchance, Aldridge, Bethune, Coltrane, Delaney and Zora—of the black past in America are often ignored.
However, grappling with the distresses of having black history marginalized is one of the very reasons why Freeman’s assertions are imprudent and negligent. Subtracting Black History Month will further America’s unmitigated gull to mitigate the multifarious significances of black history and to narrow the references to the wide-ranging sophistication of a great number of black individuals.
Even more, while black cultural, intellectual and social contributions have added immense flavor to the American bouillabaisse, America has ran from her racial past where it concerns blacks and has donated a distorted black saga to the chronicles of American history. To put it kindly, blacks have been left off the pages of American textual history and overlooked in dialogues that capture those olden times, causing the context in which race and racism are both appraised to be severely misrepresented.
To be certain, racism has largely been dismissed and not given an arena for the national discourse necessary to minimize its stain on American life because the social history of black America, which has often included clarion calls for justice, liberty and deference to black aesthetic traditions, has been unobserved and not negotiated. Accordingly, Freeman’s contention that America rid itself of racism by not talking about it travels an impractical fault line.
Not talking about racism means not talking about a vast part of American history, that section, which includes a history for blacks that has been repeatedly marked by racism. Consequently, racism will continue to be perpetuated while black history will continue to be neglected from American history. It is quite certain than that there is still a space needed for black history if it is to ever become incorporated into American history. By not talking about black history, America will never see the need to include it in the annals of American history as has been already evidenced by America’s treatment of the black cosmos.
The irony is that black history has been contiguous with American history however not given the same inspection or regard in the classroom, which not only helps to better explain the lack of awareness of the manifold contributions to American society by blacks, but a more ostensible reason why Freeman’s argument needs checking. In fact, Freeman only has to look to the classroom to see that more than black history month is needed.
When Carter G. Woodson first proposed the notion of Negro History Week in 1926 during the second week in February—coinciding it with the birthdays of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln—that later was extended to a month, he had hoped that the month would eventually be unnecessary as he felt that America would promote the integration of black history with the rest of American history. In fact, Woodson believed that if you could ever get Douglas to be as built-in to American studies as Lincoln was sure to be, there would be absolutely no need for Black History Month.
However, when you explore the American classroom, black history has not met the fate that Woodson desired. If truth be told, black history, while there have been some progresses, has not become a staple inside of American educational institutions. How then can the necessity of Black History Month be diminished? Better stated, how can an appreciation for black contributions to American history ever be reached, whereby a fusion of the intimately-related histories can take place, if black history is not deemed significant enough to make inroads inside the American schoolroom?
While U.S. History, which, at best, does not present anything more than a snapshot of black history, remains a requirement in most educational institutions across the Nation, black history is not shown the same consideration as it barely ‘makes it by’ in many schools as a soft elective. European history is also given more regard, often being the history elective that is most pushed, sadly, even in those school districts with profound concentrations of black students.
In addition, consider that when credible contentions have been made to have black history become a requirement, those contentions have been met with great challenge. For instance, in 2005, a decision by School Reform Commission of the Philadelphia Public School Board to make African-American History a requirement for graduation sparked passionate outcries. Some parents threatened to take their children out of the public school system and place them inside of parochial institutions.
Parents and critics complained that by mandating the study of black history, the histories of other cultures were being denied. In fact, opponents stated that other cultures deserved equal class time and that forcing to take black history courses could breed resentment rather than understanding. Other detractors argue that by taking a mandatory black history course, students will not have time for other electives.
While these arguments look as if they are reasonable, going beyond a cursory glance of them reveal how extremely specious they are and how they are actually couched in the very reality of racial amnesia that has caused black history to be intensely overlooked. First of all, studying black history in a country that blacks help to build should not be irresponsibly disregarded because of the supposed limitations it would place on learning non-compulsory, oft-times inconsequential subjects.
Teaching black history as a mandatory subject acknowledges the history of black America that has not been given regard. It also provides Americans with a knowledge that better helps them understand a critical context of their society and their own lived experiences in a racially diverse America that proclaims to be behind that diversity and multiculturalism as well. Yet, by desiring that black studies remain as an elective, black history continues to be treated as trivial, secondary and of no particular essentiality.
Take into account that even inside the usually liberal American academy, black history has not been assigned the level of importance it deserves. For emphasis, how many Ph.D. programs are available in black history across the country? Save a few with the most notable program in the country, perhaps, being at Harvard University, there are not many institutions that offer more than a certificate-based curriculum that certifies that black history was a part of the overall program engaged. Is the black experience in this country not sizeable enough to warrant a concentrated study of its history that can draw upon doctoral considerations? Whereas there has been steady progress, black history continues to not necessitate the demand for a Ph.D. program.
Secondly, and more to the case that states the dissension that some opponents feel could arise over black history being taught where other cultural histories are not is the certainty that blacks did not elect to come to America to extend their traditions into the archives of American history as other cultures were able to do. Instead, they were stripped of their customs and forced to come here and become a part of an America that was unfriendly, hostile and denigrating to them. In other words, blacks were forced to forge into new identities as Americans as they were separated from their erstwhile ways of life as Africans.
As Karin Bivins, who heads up the education sector for the Philadelphia NAACP so fluently articulated, “None of those people came here as slaves except for African Americans. None of them toiled for 249 years. The Asians came over here because they wanted to. The Hispanics, too. They didn’t come over here in chains in the bottom deck of a ship.”
Still, the criticisms are endless. In response to Bivins, Chester Finn, who is a member of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington and a frequent critic of how social studies are taught in American schools, charged back that he did not buy the argument. “That means this is all part of a reparations mentality, that we owe something special [to African Americans] because of slavery, segregation, whatever. I understand that mentality, but I don't accept it.”
But not accepting that argument is part of the problem, a problem that is highlighted by the lackadaisical ‘whatever’ that Finn expresses. America does owe something to African-Americans. America has to show that slavery and segregation will not continue to be treated as ancillary issues that did not have an overwhelming impact on an entire race of people. America has to also show that it is willing to repair those improprieties that she has committed by presenting the history of blacks in this country, a history that is the chief axis on which all of American history pivots.
For this reason, to deny the legitimacy of black history in this country and its importance in the classroom, when more often than not everything that is black in America has been typically responsible for the development of this country and the way in which this country has fostered various social ideas, is to stymie the opportunity for and future possibility of Americans seeing the value in everything that black America has done to create America.
And with this rejection of black history being taught in the classroom, Americans cannot ever hope to become fundamentally connected to the gifts and experiences of blacks in this country in such a way that relegating black history to one month becomes nothing more than a token venture. On the flipside, until black history month gets beyond its status as a mere gesture that holds no vital consequence or place in the American consciousness, black history will never become woven into the natural fiber of American history in the manner that Freeman envisions.
As a result, Black History Month will be necessary as long as the American marginalization of black history continues if only to journey the hopes of one day compelling America to realize as Ellison realized that “whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black.” And his blackness cannot be hidden, cannot be unspoken away as Freeman inaccurately asserted; make no mistake about it, not speaking America’s blackness is not speaking America’s sins of racism. In its place, not speaking black history and America’s blackness is essentially allowing racism to covertly operate, since the distinctions upon which it is drawn are treated as though they do not exist.
In the concluding examination, no amount of color-blindness will change the reality of racism or the disregard for black history. The proof lies in the fact that America has thrived on pretending that black America and black history are not visible. But every moment that black America can get to demonstrate its relevancy—even if it is through the means of an ambiguous celebration such as Black History Month—is crucial to one day integrating black history and American history into an authentic framework for future historians and generations of Americans to weigh.
And while Freeman’s remarks, for all intents and purposes, were not remotely in the same vein as Cosby’s pernicious philippic against poor black America, they still were problematic and needed to be addressed. Otherwise, if not properly addressed, Freeman’s observations would actually be operating against the very ideal he wants to see in that it would let white America off the hook for both recognizing the preciousness of what black history has meant to American history and the necessity of eventually making black history more than the McDonaldlized commodity it is currently served as during the month of February.
Additionally, Freeman needs to only look at the American classroom and determine whether or not a month dedicated to black history is paramount. While there is no ‘white history month,’ there is a history taught in American classrooms that favorably and extensively presents the history of white America. Until that same American classroom becomes favorable to presenting an extensive black history, not just as a mere elective—because the presence of blacks were never an elective in this country—more than Black History month will be needed.
In the end, only a thorough exploration of black history in the American schoolroom, one that includes all of its accoutrements, particulars and preeminent parties, can liberate us from having ‘one short month’ and a visible place in America that, to this point, has been denied.