Friday, February 5, 2016

What does Black History mean to you?

It is now February, a time when churches, schools, libraries, boys and girls clubs, community centers, YMCAs, theaters, and other groups and organizations across the United States and Canada take advantage of a nationally recognized observance of Black/African-American history. In the United States, this observance started in 1976, almost a decade AFTER the civil rights movement ended. Canada followed suit in 1995, and an observation of Black History began at the urging of a Ghanaian in the UK in 1987. February is close to Martin Luther King Jr. Day (observed on the third Monday of January, which is usually close to his birthday - January 15th), but February is quite far from the official observance of African-American Music Appreciation Month (originally titled Black Music Month by President Ford), which is in June (which includes Juneteenth celebrations).

While Black History Month has caused strong criticism, many benefits have been birthed from its creation, including the obvious increase in awareness of important Black figures. And while Martin Luther King Jr. may get more accolades than his friend Bayard Rustin (who arguably is just as important or more important to Black History), such phenomena occurs throughout history (see Arnold Schoenberg getting credited for a serial system over Josef Mattias Hauer, or Antonio Meucci inventing the telephone, NOT Bell). Personally, when February comes, I do not immediately associate it with Black History Month until I start seeing announcements about celebrations. Perhaps because Black History for me is who I am, what I live, what I'm creating every day. However, February is a time when I contemplate what this tragic and beautiful history means to me.

In a recent conversation, someone questioned me as to why knowing the country of origin of my African ancestors is important to me. The question, admittedly, gave me pause. I responded in this vain: it is most likely impossible for me to find out this information. Instead, I can read and study and research the stories of slavery and how it manifested itself in the United States. Slave masters took Africans from their country, forced them to ride a slave ship in some of the most inhumane conditions that history has known. The survivors were treated like animals; beautified for the purpose of making a high profit, then taken to an alien domicile where they were forced to work for no pay, little food, no care, no mercy. They were stripped of their original names, not given any last names, stripped of their education, stripped of their original language, stripped of their dignity. Is there another people who has had this happen to them, where - through it all - they came out with education, family, religion, new culture, a mastery of language, an incredible arts tradition, wealth, property, fame, and now the highest political office in the USA?

Black History, to me, means encouragement. It is an empowerment. It reminds me that SUCCESS is where I come from, despite how Blacks may be portrayed or stereotyped or ridiculed or profiled. Happy Black History Month!

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