Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
Days before the highly publicized beginning of Black History Month The Traveler was bombarded with promising and not so promising stories. Unable to avoid the journalistic bandwagon, I hopped on, hoping for the best.
To make things interesting for myself, I made a personal bet: I would give $5 to anyone who could recite to me the first three lines of MLK’s famous speech he gave atop the steps of the Lincoln memorial. If no one won the bet, I would indulge in a pack of Lucky Strikes.
The logic behind this was if I were going to ruin my lungs, I would do it in style. A thinking similar to B.H.M.: if you’re going to marginalize an entire group, hell, do it in style and make it a whole month every year.
“Jesus! He’s not going to attack B.H.M., is he?”
Yes I am.
As I was writing the story for the lifestyles section, I had to ask students questions that would give the story a good dose of “personal.” I went around asking, “Is Black History Month important to you?” It’s quoting gold. Who’s not gonna have a pleasant answer? I asked Senior Chris Easter from Phi Beta Sigma and actually found a great answer.
“Every month is Black History Month. It’s been happening forever,” said Easter. “The concept of B.H.M. is outdated. It gives the misinterpretation that black history only happens in February.”
And there it is.
Black history should be celebrated every month and every day. Active recognition and contemplation is needed for anyone to even begin to grasp the problems, accomplishments and challenges of blacks and everyone else. It’s not enough to offer it like a holiday to celebrate. Yes, the campus is having many speakers come and educate this coming month, but where are they the other 11 months of the year?
So who benefits from this holiday? If it’s a holiday, Hallmark usually has the drop on everyone else. But during this month, it’s prominent black leaders who charge extremely high rates for speaking engagements, as Professor Gordon Morgan said. Morgan teaches a class on “whiteness” here at the UA.
Morgan believes, for example, that in order to understand why the civil rights movement occurred one must study its cause – “Crackers.” Why blacks revolted against tyranny and persecution is not sufficient because all humans do that. What’s important is, what were the white’s reasons for slavery, brutality and fear.
It’s a case of studying cause and effect. But lessons that explain fears and stigmas are harder than tooting a horn on accomplishments made, in the name of progress, pride or unity.
“Even black students think that once they sing “We Shall Overcome, eat soul food and read MLK they’re OK until next year,” said Morgan. “Ethnically different people can attend events and feel guilt-free for another year.”
George Washington Carver is constantly paraded during B.H.M. why? The man did things with peanuts and was black. Big deal. The focus should not be that he accomplished making peanut butter but rather what challenges he faced to make that peanut butter, and how his contribution advanced humanity (besides Jiffy).
It’s not the words or the images that are important, it’s the message. MLK’s speech is important because of the message it conveys of hope and unity in this country. Conversely, his death shows the impact fear can have and the importance of carrying on a worthy cause.
I asked nearly ten people to recite the first three sentences of MLK’s speech because I was hoping to find at least one person who knew the message he was conveying. Most people began their attempt with, “I have a dream…” and most couldn’t get past, “…that one day.” Out of desperation I offered $3 to several people if they could just give me that famous and arguably, most important section.
Is B.H.M. completely devoid of use? Of course not. Has the message that Carter Woodson originally tried to make been badly obscured? Yes.
After I finish this article tonight, I’m going to sit on the steps of Walton Hall and smoke an unfiltered Lucky Strike. I’ll hope that someday we can “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
Salaam Aleikum my brothers.
Jeff Winkler is a journalism and philosophy major. His column appears each Wednesday in The Traveler.
[Original piece available here]