Donney Rose: The Forever Value of Black History Month and of Black History

Hello and happy February 2020. I recognize we are twenty days into the month and therefore this greeting may be grossly overdue, but in the midst of all the news consuming our world, I figured it would be of value to reintroduce us to where we are in the continuum of time. If you have been following the North Star’s posts and/or have any semblance of cultural awareness whatsoever, you know that we are two-thirds into Black History Month 2020, aka the annual recognition of substantive contributions of Black Americans highlighted the second month of each calendar year. Every February, scores of cultural torch bearers, writers, historians and the like assume the responsibility of informing/reminding Black people and America in general of the immeasurable value Black culture has gifted this country. This year my genius wife, Leslie, has embarked on a month-long writing series centered on the retelling of Black lives that ended too soon, making daily posts titled #BlackHistoryReimagined. A couple of years ago I was writing daily shout outs to unsung heroes of everyday Blackness. These literary offerings that originated within my own household are but mere blips on the radar in the ecosystem of historical and cultural nods to Blackness. The need for collective awareness, cultural admission and historical relevance with respect to the Black narrative in America is a continual one. Why? Because the distinctive qualities of the Black American narrative are regularly threatened by chosen and forced acts of assimilation.

Here’s a quick anecdote: When I was in second grade, I assumed the persona of George Washington Carver in my elementary school’s Black History play. As I stood on the auditorium stage in an itchy blue sweater and impeccably shiny dress shoes, I embodied the scientific brilliance of our accomplished ancestor to an audience of baby-toothed peers and their parents. Prior to researching the achievements of Mr. Carver, I was completely unaware of who he was and what he was responsible for. I just knew that I liked peanut butter and jelly, and with my newfound information about his work with peanuts I figured him to be at least an alright guy. This presentation took place in the mid-80s in a period where Huxtable-esque upward mobility in the Black community was a primary aspiration. But because many Black Americans had not assumed a position of cultural “arrival”, there seemed to still be a very public curiosity amongst us about who we once were and how that knowledge of self would inform our future.

By the time I was a teenager in the early 90s I had a front row seat to the corporatizing and mainstreaming of hip hop culture. It is important to point this out as this era simultaneously ushered in an emerging centering of Black culture. Hip hop in the mid-90s was enamored with opulence and the facade of American acceptance. The “poor righteous teachers” of the genre in the late 80s and early 90s had faded into obscurity and were replaced by Versace-wearing, diamond-encrusted Rolex rockin’ cultural icons. It was no longer cool to wax poetic about cultural pride and history, and though this era is not singularly responsible for what appears to be a more asterisk/italicized version of Black History Month, it does serve as somewhat of a paradigm shift particularly for young white Americans who no longer had the ‘burden’ of becoming educated on Black history. And with (the perception of) an increased socioeconomic status and ‘normalization’ into mainstream American culture, Black history began to become a footnote for a growing subset of Black culture that was not very interested in focusing on the struggle story, as the static noise of “remember where we came from” was becoming too much of a disruption to bottles popping.

We moved into the 21st century still on an aspirational rocket ship to middle class sensibilities, and by the time we reached the end of its first decade, we elected a Black man into the White House. But before Barack Obama could be sworn in, a video of the police killing of Oscar Grant went viral. And on the eve of the Obama administration’s second term we learned the name Trayvon Martin. And as the 2010s began to resemble the racial unrest of the 1960s, the culture started to more actively dig into historical archives to provide context for traumas we were experiencing. We found ourselves declaring that #BlackLivesMatter at a time that, by our estimation, should have been understood. Here we were a growing collective of entrepreneurs, PhD’s, entertainers, athletes, political leaders and every other identified metric of American exceptionalism, still having to remind America that our struggle for an equitable humanity was no newer than our achievements or contributions.

So where does this abbreviated timeline leave us in the dawn of the new decade? What are the stories about us that are valuable enough for us to keep telling? Where are we on the spectrum of actualized humanity in this country? Is the disenfranchisement of the majority of us still a bullhorn necessary to jolt America’s selective amnesia? Are the contributions and sacrifices of our ancestors now to be regarded as a given for America or are we to continue to celebrate these triumphs as the miracles they are? I personally never want us to get to a place where Black history is the elevator music in a noise polluted concert of the American story. Black history is the triumphant blare of achievement, the measured cadence of misery, the electric rhythm of progress and all the innovative ways liberation has fought through silence to make a joyful noise.

Right now it is still Black History Month. Still a period of invaluable importance. Let us never view it otherwise.