The Devaluation of Black History Month

Myrlie Evers-Williams, who was married to late civil rights leader Medgar Evers before he was slain by gunshot, is an unsung hero on civil rights and social issues. Photo Credit: Dennis J. Freeman

Op-Ed By Dennis J. Freeman

Black History Month used to mean something. To me, it still does. But there was a time when the celebration of the many wonderful contributions of African Americans in this land of the free was received with reverence and astute adoration. That’s not the way it is anymore. The month of February now has become everything else under the sun but a genuine tribute to a group of people who’s humanly sacrifices during the last two centuries helped made America the country it is today.

Black History Month is more of an anomaly now than it is about teaching folks about the heroic deeds of an Ida B. Wells. It has become more about the dull and drab Academy Awards than it is about the courageous Tuskegee Airmen. It has become more about the Super Bowl than it is about knowing the great Marlin Briscoe, the first black NFL quarterback in the modern era.

It centers more on candy sales and sexy lingerie on Valentine’s Day than it does on the likes of a Frederick Douglass or literary giant Langston Hughes.

Our shout-outs to people like Shirley Chisholm, the first woman to run for President, or to Fannie Lou Hamer, the undaunted Mississippi woman who fought and pushed for voting rights in the segregated and Jim Crow South, are now being drowned out by pro basketball’s biggest weekend and the relentless marketing drive of awards season.

It’s difficult to properly recognize the feats of others in the past when there’s a whole gamut of activities that has been put in place to steer you away into the present and the now. Teachers nowadays would rather discuss other subjects than to talk about what Harriet Tubman and abolitionists did to free the slaves.

Our kids are much more comfortable knowing the latest gossip about Rhianna and Lady Gaga, and toying around with Playstation 3 than learning about singing greats Billie Holliday or Marian Anderson. Heck, many of our kids (or adults) know very little or next to nothing about the majestic Paul Robeson or entertainer extraordinaire Sammy Davis Jr. They can’t fathom or understand the societal significance of Jimmy Winfield or Isaac Murphy, just two of the great black jockeys who led their racehorses to victories in the famed Kentucky Derby.

Golfer Charlie Sifford was the first African American to play the PGA. Photo Credit: Dennis J. Freeman

Serena and Venus Williams are serenaded all over the world, but they wouldn’t be where they are today without Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson paving the way before them. While people marvel about Tiger Woods’s game, it was Charlie Sifford and other black golfers like Maggie Hathaway who stood in the trenches against country club racism to knock down the threshold of bigotry in the sport of golf.

Whether it’s been in sports, entertainment, business, politics, social issues, the medical profession, education and civil rights, the incredible contributions of African Americans to this country and around the world is a limitless supply of high standard achievements.

A big reason why Black History Month has started to become obsolete or not as important to today’s generation of folks, lies chiefly on the shoulders of African Americans. To a large degree, African Americans have allowed other people to dictate to tell us who our heroes should be, how we should have our stories told. We have run from our history instead of running to it.

We have kept silent instead of speaking up out of fear we might look un-American for embracing our culture, our linage. Our heritage is a proud one. We have to do a better job of shutting off our television sets at home and give our children a book to read about the greatness of W.E. B. DuBois or Marcus Garvey.

Literary giant Sonia Sanchez being honored at the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance. Photo Credit: Dennis J. Freeman

My late father used say to me and my 10 siblings that charity begins at home. Having a firm grasp and understanding of what that phrase- it tells me that we, as African Americans, can’t afford to wait for our children to learn about the extent of the Freedom Riders’ contributions to the Civil Right Movement and the horror of the Orangeburg Massacre from the public school system they are in.

Our kids know a whole lot more about A.N.T. Farm than they do the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The onus is on us to teach our kids, our children about Black History Month. More importantly, it is up to us that these young people are informed and armed with a thorough knowledge of their own being. Our ancestors had the strength to make it past the oppressive state of slavery. They made it through the subservient period in this country where they toiled under free labor mandates at the hands of white-owned corporations like U. S. Steel.

They survived the bombings, police dogs, lynchings, water hoses and the assassinations of our revered leaders during the Civil Rights Movement. They got by the many treacherous and unconstitutional laws that regulated them to second-class citizens. We don’t have a right to sit down and be quiet about our history.

We can’t afford to go into a corner somewhere and pretend none of these atrocities ever happened as we go about living our everyday lives.

We have to preserve our history much the same way farmers grow and cultivate their vegetation: with a lot of TLC and passion. They say history has a habit of repeating itself. Black people don’t have to contend with the white sheets of the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Council anymore. We no longer are forced to live by racist rules of separate but equal.

But if African Americans become too comfortable in the now we will once again be at the mercy of others for our mere existence. I’m not interested in going to back of the bus.

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