The only time I can remember lessons about black history seriously being taught in school is when ABC televised “Roots” in the late 1970s. Originally, we were only going to talk about slavery and the miniseries, but then a big-mouthed kid called a black kid “Toby.” It was only after the loudmouth got his ass kicked that the real discussion started, and we didn’t just talk about TV. We talked about black and white relationships, mixed families, lynchings, music, hair, sports, presidents, crime and ultimately America.
Before that, my teachers taught about Black History Month with such a lack of energy that I was shocked that they managed to stay awake themselves. It was nothing more than Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., and even then King’s legacy was taught only as a supplement to the Kennedy administration’s accomplishments.
After spending some time in the library, I opened my mind and learned more than black history. I learned American history, and in it I saw men like Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Ralph Abernathy and the Black Panthers.
Through personal experience, I already knew about busing, but I was shocked to find out that Jackie Robinson was from Pasadena. Equally shocking was the fact that my teachers had no idea about the motivations and the struggles endured by most of these people who fought to end labels of color.
And although a large portion of the world does recognize those struggles, the message has been missed completely by some. As long as we label things with race, i.e. “black film,” “black activist,” “black boxer,” etc., we embrace racism and hold onto a “separate but equal” ideology.
That’s why it’s time to get rid of Black History Month. It separates us and advances the idea that somehow black history is not American history. And nothing could be further from the truth.
Black History Month, which had its origins as “Negro History Week,” began in the roaring ’20s, a time when the majority of Americans were living carefree lives blind to the Depression that was less than 10 years away, and black Americans were still viewed as ignorant and dirty.
Originally started in February by Harvard scholar Carter G. Woodson, because Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays were in that month, Woodson said he wanted “the world to see the Negro as a participant rather than as a lay figure in history.”
Woodson also longed for a day when the celebration would not be necessary because people would be equal.
That day came after the institutionalized Civil Rights Movement, which gave way to the much more personal Black Experience, and in the Black Experience there were no more questions. Afros and songs like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” became beacons of identity that provided answers.
During the Korean War, my mother and other African-American women in Germany with their husbands were approached by people who asked to see their “tails.” They weren’t talking about their behinds, or even trying to insult them. They literally thought that black people had tails like a dog or a cat. Many people in Germany had apparently never seen a person of color.
In America, people were not quite as uneducated, but they were just as ignorant.
Some time after my family moved to Altadena in 1969, a woman who lived across the street from us began yelling to my older brother, Derek.
“Oh, boy. Could you come here?”
When there was no response, she came across the street and said to my mother, “I wanted your son to do some work for me.”
Never one to hold back, my mother gave her a quick education.
“He’s busy and he has a name, and it’s not boy.”
That’s why we needed Black History Month, not just to celebrate identity, but to educate people and advance equality. Today a black man does not have to carry the term boy, just as a black actor does not have to play Stepin Fetchit to get work.
“I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history,” Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman said late last year, calling the month “ridiculous.”
You can look around you and see the fruits of Black History Months past every day in Pasadena —in our schools, police stations, halls of governments and newsrooms.
“Racism will only go away when we stop talking about it,” Freeman said.
My mouth is closed.