Black History Month is or should be a season for the recognition and celebration of the gains and accomplishments of African descendant peoples throughout the Diaspora. The times dictate that we cannot continue to be primarily concerned with the culture and contribution of Black people in America. In my opinion, it should also be a season for collective self- analysis and a time to evaluate our progress and review strategies to secure our collective empowerment. This willingness to conduct a critical examination of ourselves is more important today than it perhaps has ever been.
What began in 1926 as Negro History Week had evolved by 1976 to become Black History Month. The intervening 91 years between then and now tells an interesting story with respect to how our struggle, accomplishments and the celebration of each has evolved and devolved over the years. In 2017, the old adage which says “what one celebrates is indeed important, but how one celebrates it is at least equally as important” begs more loudly than ever to be understood.
In 1926 when the celebration of Negro History Week began, there was probably a greater degree of solidarity, consciousness and political awareness with respect to the main issues regarding the condition and welfare of “Black existence” than exists today.
Today, the illusion of real progress and examples of individual success, have substantially eroded the concept of Black solidarity and the political base that it once provided. Thus in a broader political context after 8 years of national leadership provided by the first African American President in the history of the country, and after 8 years of the Justice Department having been led by two successive African American Attorney Generals, it can be argued that our capacity to forge policies and practices for the empowerment of African descendant people is less today than it was in 1926. The stark lessons which framed the global condition of Black people at that time were sufficient to remind us of how the world viewed us and for us to fully understand the conditions of our universal existence.
This was the season when the” Klan” was comfortable parading unmasked down the streets of the nation’s capital. This was also the season when Plessy vs. Ferguson stood as the nonnegotiable law of the land detailing the rights and entitlements of Black Americans who longed to secure the status of citizens. This was a time when the prevalence of white lawlessness and the practice of celebratory lynching’s made the work of Ida B. Wells a mirror to project upon the world screen America’s true regard for Black life. It was also the season in which Marcus Garvey built what perhaps, even until this day, was the largest and most successful international organization for the liberation and empowerment of African People. Let us not forget, that Marcus Garvey because of his organizational success was targeted for imprisonment and political assassination long before there was the formal evolution of what in 1956, become the “Counter Intelligence Program”.
The Niagara Movement was formed in 1905 and the NAACP in 1910. Black Veterans returned from WW1 having secured a “whiff “of freedom and respect after fighting under the colors of France for world freedom. Black soldiers could not fight for world freedom under the colors of the American flag because the United States’ continued refusal to acknowledge the historic contribution that Black Americans had made to the wealth and successful development of this nation. Thus a place at the table for the human family was denied to Black soldiers- even in war.
Under funded Black Colleges and Universities, led by a cadre of Black educators who believed in themselves and their mission proved that they could “do more with less”. In so proving, they created a better public space and place for Black people from all parts of the known world. We must remember that this struggle took place when we did not have Black elected officials, in the North or in the South. There was no Civil Rights act of 64, and no Voters Right Act of 65. The equal protection of the law clause of the US Constitution rested securely in some secure place where it had been sequestered by the Courts of the United States. Reconstruction had ended over a half century earlier.
Discrimination, Jim Crow, segregation and marginalization were now the universal parameters framing Black life and Black existence. Any man woman or child who stood up to challenge the conventional notion that “Blacks had a place and they would be wise to stay in it”, could expect to be challenged by the unbridled wrath of the bigot- and any old bigot had that right. Out of this oppression we forged progress.
It was the energy, the intellectual and moral power of Black people and Black leaders from around the world, presenting demands from a platform of solidarity, buttressed by mutual respect and a profound sense of appreciation of our history and common oppression which destroyed the infrastructure that guaranteed our political exclusion at that time. It was that force of spirit that broke the shackles and pushed opened doors exposing what was to be “a new opportunity structure”. A new model for political and social engagement which purported to offer, at last, an opportunity to enter the chambers of power and decision making that we thought was now available.
Either the model was not real, or we did not play it well. Perhaps it was the cost of running for election, perhaps it was our elation in finally having Black folks in office and our failure to hold them accountable, but for some reason the model has failed. Before long it seemed as if much of our elected leadership became more loyal to “the party” than they were to the constituencies that they were elected to represent. At the present time, while having record numbers of Black elected officials, I argue that we find ourselves in a political place where we exist with radically diminished levels of political influence and a nonexistent agenda to secure collective Black political power. The global condition of Black people today suggests rather convincingly that we have not only lost our way, but also our power.
China is Africa’s “new hope”. The wars of the Middle East have infected the Continent of Africa. In America our Black Colleges and Universities are failing and accepting “accommodationist proposals” as remedies which insure their further marginalization. This occurs without resistance from Black leaders, Black educators, and alumni. Our jails and prisons overflow with our kin, while many of our public school systems serve as pipe lines to feed that” prison industrial complex”. At a time when we have more elected officials than ever before, too many of them have nothing of substance to say before anything major happens. Too many of them have nothing of substance to say when something major does happen and too many of them never have anything of substance to say under any circumstances- they only show up to smile and bow. Too many of us comfortably celebrate symbolism and dare not wrestle with substance. Here in South Carolina we see rejoicing over the removal of the confederate flag from the State House, and see it as a quid pro quo for the massacre and destruction of Black lives and families that was perpetrated in a sacred place. If that is the value of Black Life, then how much does Black Life really matter?
In the meantime, the Corridor of Shame continues to exist without a realistic legislative plan of remedy, and not a single plan to seriously address the glaring evidences of social injustice, historical inequality and the perpetually diminished opportunities for human development that do not exist for too many of our citizens is even discussed. Who is representing whom? How can some of “our leaders” have so much to say about “stuff” that destroys our “stuff” and so little to say about “stuff” that would strengthen our “stuff”?
My purpose here is not to have us blame another, or to argue about which end of our boat is sinking. My purpose is to say that our boat is sinking and that all of us can and must, do a better job of developing strategies for our present and future salvation. If those of us who consider ourselves fortunate and in some special way blessed, cannot do a better job of respecting the legacy and sacrifices of our ancestors, then what does Black History Month mean? If we cannot with all of our blessings prepare a legacy to strengthen generations” that are not yet born”, as others did for us- then what really is our worth? Finally, If we fall short in both respects, how will history distinguish us from the “happy house Negroes” of centuries past?
Let the barriers fall. Let the boundaries fade. Let the egos shrink and let the organizing and planning begin again.
I pray that we restructure a state of consciousness and self-respect that will elicit a national response, from Black leaders, to the idea that the name and civil rights expertise of Mrs. Coretta Scott King should not be referenced in a US Senate debate regarding the suitability of a US Senator to serve in the position of United States Attorney General, because her opinions are offensive to the reputation of the Senator in question. Once again, I think we are better than our silence suggests.