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Canceling History in the Name of Racial Harmony

April 04, 1999|Erin J. Aubry | Erin J. Aubry is a staff writer for LA Weekly

When Inglewood High School's principal this year canceled the school's observances of Black History Month and Cinco de Mayo because of chronic black-Latino tensions on campus, a question some of us had silently asked for years was suddenly pressing: Who needs Black History Month, anyway? Granted, principal Lowell Winston ended Cinco de Mayo celebrations, too, but the blow against Black History Month struck deep and sent a clear message that what had been formulated as an early but enduring expression of the fierce pursuit of civil and human rights was politically expendable. Many proponents of multiculturalism--their numbers are growing at an alarming rate--probably regard the two observances as interchangeable. But without casting any aspersions at Cinco de Mayo, its status as a full-blown celebration would likely be impossible without the precedent of Black History Month.

On a gut level, it's understandable that Winston would cancel events that promised only to compound racial tensions at a campus infamously known since 1990 for its simmering interethnic hostilities, which were first ignited at a Cinco de Mayo assembly. Yet, it also felt a bit like the Grinch stealing Christmas, stripping the tree and making off with presents in the middle of the night because the Grinch himself had no use for the holiday. Black History Month is not as sacred or immutable as Christmas--in fact, it's rather arbitrary--but what it represents in the furiously shifting racial and political landscape of Los Angeles, and the racial landscape of the country at large, is worth preserving: black solvency. By that I mean not merely political solvency, but a larger sense of intragroup empathy, a general well-being expressed through sustained connectedness and cooperation that gives rise to political fortune, among many other things.

That there really is no such thing is not the point. The ideal, and encouraging aspirations to the ideal, is. Black History Month gives us a solvency by stringing together all the accomplished and admirable characters in our history like so many Christmas lights and wrapping them around the thorny center of our collective being. The lights may be selective information, may smack of self-congratulation, but so what? Black people could certainly do with more legitimate occasions for self-congratulation.

To be sure, Black History Month, like affirmative action, is not enough. The sum total of the month--the school handouts, the essay contests, the product placements of those cloying, gospel-inflected McDonald's commercials--may all only be a butterfly wing's flap in the right direction. But it is a direction in which we constantly need to be pointed, a life-giving sky that is miles and miles above our heads but we too often don't remember is there.

Yet, Black History Month is an exquisitely tortured idea. To commemorate black Americans is certainly just, but doing so also reinforces black people's position of being the dispossessed outsider: at best, the iconic (jazz, language, poetic endurance); at worst, the reviled Other (no explanation needed). The question of why black history isn't taught as part of American history should die in your throat as you realize that, like most other things African American, it was never meant to be mainstreamed.

When educator Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week, he was doubtless thinking about the need of black people to coalesce around each other, not only around their achievements, but also around their pain, which, though hardly something Woodson advertised, is implicit in the very fact that Negro History Week was needed to affirm blacks as something more than a series of omissions, distortions and, at best, blank pages in history books.

I had to force myself to think this whenever I thought Black History Month was a bit quaint and ultimately somewhat undignified: black worth as a charitable cause, a monthlong Jerry Lewis telethon. Suffering from the late-century incarnation of that insidious black disease known as double consciousness, I continually have to separate the goods from the packaging, the flesh-and-blood thing from the ever more sophisticated camera that records its image. To that end, the relevant question is how we view Black History Month today, particularly in the context of blacks living not so much with whites, but with Latinos and other immigrant groups of color. Yet, these changes in backdrop do not alter the fact that blacks are still disproportionately disenfranchised, still much in need of the affirmation afforded by Black History Month.

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