“History shows that it does not matter who is in power… those who have not learned to do for themselves and have to depend solely on others never obtain any more rights or privileges in the end than they did in the beginning.” – Dr. Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro
Dr. Woodson’s words explain why the political and social realities of the African diaspora remain bleak despite whites across America, in states that do not harbor large populations of people of color, overwhelmingly voting “for the nigger” on November 4, 2008. Canvasser truth or political fable, Dr. Woodson’s words grounded me for understanding the acquisition of the Black First that seemed impossible — the Black POTUS — and alerted me to the strong American history flowing through my veins.
For me, the answer of “Black History [time period]” to the absence of positive reflections of the African diaspora in American political and social discourse has always led to more questions. The month to commemorate Black contributions to American law, politics, science, religion, education and the arts began in February 1926 as only a week, timed to sync with the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln (February 12th) and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (February 14th). ”Negro History Week” sought to use history and education as a tool of empowerment for African-Americans. Dr. Woodson founded the initiative to make up for the lack of coverage of African-American history and accomplishments in the founding of our nation. In 1976, the effort grew into a month-long celebration with these same goals.
With President Obama installed into the White House, I wonder if it will grow into a four-year awakening of racial consciousness. But as Dr. Woodson identified himself, who holds the power is irrelevant if people’s minds have not changed. How will evidence of mental shifts in racial temperament be made manifest? More kind smiles on the street? Symbolic rebuffs stemming from historical and personal clashes? An Obama, like an Oprah, is not enough to eliminate the racism that saturates this nation.
This February, I’ve questioned the direction and importance of Dr. Woodson’s monthlong commemoration.
I’ve seen too many game shows on television where simple questions drilled into nappy heads every February are met with pale discomfort and silence. (The peanut butter selected by choosy moms, along with other ever-present peanut products, currently being recalled in the U.S. for salmonella? It found its genesis in the work of George Washington Carver. You’ve just won $2,000. You’re welcome.) The annual commercialization of Dr. Martin Luther King around this time (this McDonalds commercial has been around since I was about five years old, with reinventions introduced every February) has dampened somewhat with the over-commercialization of the Obama family.
Instead of feeling inspiration from seeing these images flashed across the television screen, pasted on the billboards, paid for with cash/check/credit card/money order (and for people of color communities, our bright heroes and firstborn), I wonder if the commodification that spelled enslavement for hundreds of years before President Lincoln’s [in]famous pragmatism has truly ended. I grow sick of the typical arc of Black History education that followed me through public education since childhood: slavery, Middle Passage, Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation (”pragmatism”), Union victory, Reconstruction, Jim Crow [Dark Ages], Rosa Parks [Middle Ages], Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. [One Man Band Man], Civil Rights Acts, and… where’s our Golden Age?
Obama’s victory does not translate well into a Golden Age because it’s an open secret that people of color, including African-Americans, will suffer horribly during this economic blight, for example — and I’m understating on all counts. All of America would understand the multiracial character of the African diaspora, its origins, its contributions and its experiences without outmoded one-drop qualifications. Forecasts of the end of White America forget the foundation of this country centered white supremacy and its resilience, an institutional structure independent of population and quotas. When during this month do Black folk seek affirmation as a people and not rate our progress through a series of Black Firsts?
This is partly where the new direction of the NAACP comes into play. Towards the beginning of this month, new President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous announced that the organization would shift gears to take on a human rights focus. The new human rights agenda includes compiling a list of progressively-minded judges for appointment and election from the federal level to the local level, investigating deaths in police custody, increasing POC access to good education, and reducing the high percentage of unemployment in the African-American community.
In these causes I expect the NAACP will find more opportunities for coalition, aid and support from multiple communities, nurturing the hopes that brought the first Black President to office. Except there will be no more symbology: no more burials for the N-word, no more marches to be forgotten… and forgotten again. No more aiming for an elusive perfection that leads to our destruction at a time where Black folk desperately need to be human.
The human rights course signals a new direction in Black consciousness that will reward us for years to come, and it goes back to Dr. Woodson’s initial goals for incorporating Black history into the narrative of America. As he puts it, “the ambitious mis-educated Negro in the struggle for the little things allotted by others prevents any achievement of the people in matters more constructive.”
The interaction with Black history was meant to inspire a spirit of stewardship to heal pervasive ailments inhibiting the African diaspora, not to encourage pursuits of walls to break down and people to elevate to royal status. In the wake of Obama, the healing must continue.