The Meaning of Black History Month, For Now

A Facebook acquaintance asked on his page, “is (Black History Month) still necessary or has it reached the point where we no longer need to recognize the month of February as such?” Apparently, he overheard some discussion about the topic and queried his FB friends for their comments.

I got in the first few posts, basically saying “is this a rhetorical question? Until the average American can easily rattle off the names of Black scientists, sculptors, entrepreneurs, educators, philosophers, writers, inventors, architects – besides the actors, musicians and sports stars that most people tend to know – as easily as he or she can name people of other ethnic groups or peoples, yes, we still need it.

Now true enough, most Americans, especially teens, suck at history in general. I know I did. Outside of pop culture and football, most could barely name anyone of any race who’s done anything of significance in any of those categories. See any of Leno’s “Jay Walking” bits on his late-night show as proof of my point!

The point is, most people don’t understand that what people did years ago set in motion the events that affect where we are now.  I’ve grown to appreciate history. Learning it is vitally important as we set in motion events that will impact future generations.

Today is Rosa Parks 100th Birthday. Her name is one of a handful that most people toss around during Black History Month. But other than refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated bus because her feet were supposedly tired, what more do we understand about her and her impact in history?

The seamstress’s arrest on Dec. 1, 1955 set off a renewed wave of activity in Montgomery’s Black community. The resulting Montgomery Bus Boycott ignited the modern American Civil Rights Movement. And the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. — the young pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, rode the boycott to national prominence, becoming the Movement’s official spokesperson.

Educator friends say that Mrs. Parks’ rich story and the Movement’s facts are not presented in any standard way in American text books and classrooms.

First of all, her feet weren’t tired. “I didn’t tell anyone my feet were hurting,” a new book quotes her as saying. “It was just popular, I suppose because they wanted to give some excuse other than the fact that I didn’t want to be pushed around.” Rather Mrs. Parks’ heart and mind were tired.

Like many Blacks in that city and across the South, she was tired of systemic racism that denied her basic human decency, civil rights as a citizen, and safety as a Black woman because of demented attitudes about White superiority/ Black inferiority. Before Mrs. Parks, other Black women had been arrested in Montgomery for refusing to move to the back of segregated buses. But she was a willing, well-trained activist with moral standing, hand-picked by Montgomery’s Movement leaders to make a test case against segregated buses specifically, and public facilities generally.

Charles Blow of the New York Times wrote an excellent piece this weekend about the new book, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” by Brooklyn College professor Jeanne Theoharis. It delves past the surface into the substance of this icon’s life, what she meant to the Movement, to the nation.

But what does Rosa Parks mean to us personally?  What lessons does her refusal to obey an unjust law, her militancy for fairness and equal opportunity, mean to today’s students? Do they even understand what she was struggling against, and fighting for? Do high schoolers know that the “romanticized, children’s-book story of a meek seamstress with aching feet who just happened into history in a moment of uncalculated resistance is pure mythology,” according to Blow’s article?

Well, to be positive about it, the newer generation must be learning something. They are the ones who overwhelmingly voted to send the first outwardly Black president back to the White House. But I suspect that most of the nation’s students aren’t taught these kinds of nuances that Blow and the book mention.

I’m most concerned that maybe a generation or two of young African Americans, here in Birmingham and probably across the country, feel little emotional or socio-political connection to Parks or to the Movement she sacrificed to advance. This is not good.

If the current generations fail to make the vital connection, then they won’t understand their collective responsibility to secure what their progenitors fought and died to achieve, for them and the generation coming up behind them. It’s important to us all because their progress is America’s progress. Our country’s future success depends on well-educated, self actualized black and brown students and citizens, who comprise larger and larger proportions of the American population.

Black History Month is really American History. It’s just locked into a particular time of the year where African Americans get special recognition. When educator Carter G. Woodson worked to combat debilitating notions that Blacks contributed nothing of intellectual, social or artistic significance to this country or to world civilization for that matter, he started Black History Week (and later the month). It was important then.

Until Black history is woven seamlessly into American history in every month, this special month will remain important.

As Birmingham begin to commemorate the 1963 Birmingham Civil Rights Movement, it’s important that we hear from all the voices that were involved, to better understand the contexts that drove Mrs. Parks and our own history. Our good, noble, bad, and ugly aspects have worked to make us who we are. Our job now is to learn from the bad and move forward in spirit, truth and love. We’ll be all the richer for it, in February and throughout the year.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks Vicki. I was at an event recently where the speaker described Rosa Parks as old and tired. She was younger than I am. I guess it is easier to digest that she was tired rather than an activist trained in civil disobedience.

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