Black history: A private quest

Posted: February 28, 2005

According to the history books, Black History Month began as Negro History Week in 1926. It became a widely recognized and celebrated month in 1976, when I was in first grade. Had it evolved all that much during that time? And what should we expect for the future of Black History Month?

My early experiences with Black History Month weren't good. I was the girl who was taught to speak English properly and to get good grades if I wanted to amount to something. For that, I was labeled the girl who "thought she was white." When the school's black history program committee called for volunteers, I always threw my hat in the ring. The other kids would make it dreadfully clear that I was not welcome.

It's ironic, and even a little humorous, that I was also the girl in class who knew the most black history and who would challenge teachers about the accuracy of the history books. I also could recount in detail what I had been taught about my family's black history. My great-great-grandfather David, who was half-Scotch-Irish and half-Cherokee, married a slave (hence my last name). A great-great-grandmother of mine, Jane Reynolds, was owned by a now-famous tobacco-farming family. My grandfather Ted Murphy was just the third black police officer on the Trenton police force.

Imagine the confusion of having so much knowledge, and so much pride and passion about my people, yet being ostracized and teased by my so-called peers because I wasn't, in their eyes, black enough. They wanted to get back to the singing and dancing.

Back then, I thought this would get better. I imagined that at some point during my teens, the black-on-black prejudice would give way to further acceptance of the unique human being I was. I also believed our Black History Month celebrations would mature in the same way.

It didn't happen. "Well, maybe in college," I thought. Nope.

I've finally come to terms with the fact that, for all intents and purposes, Black History Month isn't about history at all but about the public acknowledgment of the black "domain." In other words, the celebration is for the dominance of the genres that American culture has, in recent years, all but conceded to us: sports and entertainment. This leaves the chapters of the American or world history books that involve black people to be researched individually.

This isn't a terrible thing. In 1936, Hitler planned to unleash his Aryan athletes on the rest of the world. However, a highlight of the Games was when Jesse Owens, an African American, won four gold medals. I'm very proud of that and the fact that I learned this during Black History Month many moons ago. The fact that Hitler's Third Reich/Holocaust regime was very much modeled after Native American reservations and the enslavement and subsequent segregation of blacks, however, was something I had to discover on my own.

So I worry that what passes for a public black history celebration is all that most people, of any ethnicity, pay attention to about our legacy. I don't know what the standard is now for the public-school history curriculum. (I didn't respect teachers enough when I was in school to ask their opinion now that I'm an adult.) I worry that what kids are being taught is just as ineffectual as the drivel that I was taught as a child.

As a person who still loves to learn and who seeks interesting subjects to talk about over drinks with friends, I need a little more to focus on than the big game and the Oscars. Don't other people feel the same way?

Nobody has to believe what I believe, but I think the new determinants of American racism and prejudice have little to do with blacks "getting in" places, including the history books, but are more about how minorities are individually prepared to handle whatever setbacks and oddities are thrown our way when we do get "there."

I wonder, for instance, how the black employees at CondĀ Nast Publications handled having "African American cuisine" offered on the company cafeteria's latest "International Table" menu, as reported in the New York Daily News. I'm curious as to what will happen with an African American high school teacher in Chicago whose student (also black) recently disagreed with him, only to have the teacher respond: "Let's not get ghetto; this isn't Jerry Springer. Let's not get all Boquesha."

However, if the focus is now on the individual and not the plight of us all, are we still asking the tough questions?

What will black journalism students learn from the Jayson Blair debacle? What have black law students learned from the O.J. trial? What have black medical students learned from the Tuskegee syphilis experiments of the 20th century?

Whatever the lesson is, it most likely won't come to the forefront during Black History Month. Perhaps that's OK. Maybe it's like it is with pop music: If most songs are about having fun and being in love, it could mean we feel comfortable enough not to spend all our time trying to heal the ills of the world. In turn, if Black History Month celebrates our contributions to the entertainment of this society, maybe it means that we're comfortable enough to take a break from resolving race issues to focus on something fun. After all, we've already proved we can sing and dance.

Kellie Murphy writes from Mount Laurel.

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