[From Community; a monthly newsjournal published by the Capital District (of New York State) Gay and Lesbian Community Council, Inc., February 1996, Vol. 24, No. 2, page 1]
by Bernard Tarver
In case it has escaped your attention, this is Black History Month. February -- the shortest month of the year -- has for more than 20 years now been set aside as the month when mainstream (read White) America recognizes the contributions of its Black citizens.
I don't know about the remaining eleven months, but turn on your television set this month and you'll see no shortage of 30 second featurettes on Black historical figures, done by local school children. If you watch during prime time, you will see more slickly produced ones sponsored by McDonald's, AT&T or Coca-Cola. With Madison-Avenue-like conciseness, you may actually believe you've learned something.
Now it wasn't always this way. Years ago, you couldn't even find this much information. I can recall when February meant getting either Washington's or Lincoln's birthday off (they always alternated) and exchanging cards on Valentine's Day, a custom I never really embraced. In fact, when I was in elementary school, way back in the '60's and '70's, there really was no such thing as Black History, not in school at any rate.
My American history texts made ample reference to the aforementioned presidents, as well as other great Europeans and their descendants; like Columbus, who supposedly discovered America (despite the presence of indigenous people); Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, countless Kings and Queens of England, France, Italy and Spain, religious figures, generals, dictators, inventors, captains of industry, you name it. Yet none of them were Black.
In fact, my Black classmates and I sat patiently waiting for the Civil War to break out before we read of any Black contribution to history. "Slaves were brought from Africa...." or some similar quote, was usually the way we were introduced to our heritage.
When we read about European royalty, my White classmates sat up with pride. As we read about slavery, my Black classmates and I, felt the unease of knowing our ancestors had been bought and sold and that we had no knowledge of our connection to specific tribes or regions of Africa.
After the slavery reference, Black people disappeared, only to pop up again in the 1950's with the Civil Rights movement. Since much of that was still being written at the time, you can imagine how scant the information was.
Having one's culture marginalized and pushed to the edges of our consciousness, can have a damning effect on the self-esteem of young children. It is often said that to know where you are going, you must know where you've been. Denied any sense that our people had a rich history too, many of my classmates questioned the value of their own lives. Unaware that the bones of the oldest known human being on the planet Earth were found on the continent of Africa, indicating that this is where civilization began; that we too had Kings, Queens, explorers and inventors in our past; and that African descendants have a 500 year experience in the Western hemisphere, many young Black children exist only in the present, unable to dream of the future.
As I've come to realize over the course of 36 years, there is a marked difference between writing the history of this country, and writing the history books. Much of this nation's past has been chronicled by those with selective memory; "revisionist history" long before the term was even popular.
So why should anyone other than Black people care about Black History Month? Look at what I wrote two paragraphs above. "To know where you are going, you must know where you've been." Couple that with, "He who fails to learn from history is doomed to repeat it." So many of the problems facing the country today, we've faced before. Unemployment, homelessness, inadequate health care and disease, are not new problems. Developing solutions that take into account the needs of everyone, black, white, brown and yellow, is a new challenge, and one requiring a greater depth of knowledge and sensitivity.
A perfect case in point is the AIDS epidemic. While treatment, education and outreach programs aimed at the White Gay male population have led to a discernible decrease in the spread of the disease among that population, AIDS is on the rise among Black Gay men, and Black women. Existing programs have been slow to address that specific segment of the population, either out of indifference or a basic lack of understanding on how to effectively reach these people.
Black history is American history, and to move forward as a nation, we need to recognize and value the contributions of all of our citizens. This month is not just a time for Black people to learn more about our own culture, but for others to learn as well, and in so doing, allow us all to build the bridges that will enable us to work toward common goals. Now I'm not so idealistic as to believe that we will all break out in a chorus of "We Are the World", but I do believe mutual respect among people of differing backgrounds is an attainable goal. But that can only come about through learning about each other's culture.
Now I'd be remiss if I didn't make one final point about Black History Month. I am critical of the Euro-centric nature of my early history books, but I'm no less critical of the selective research done by some of our Black historians. I thirsted for images of myself in those other books, and I continue to with these, but for a different reason. You see, some Black historians would have you believe that all the noteworthy people were heterosexual. Well now that just ain't so.
While it is difficult to find accurate references concerning the sexual orientation of Black achievers from the distant past, some things are known and have been carefully researched and chronicled.* Just a few worth mentioning: Benjamin Banneker, self-taught mathematician, astronomer and inventor who designed Washington, D.C.; Josephine Baker, the chorus girl who rose to fame in the Folies Bergere in Paris.; Rev. James Cleveland, world-renowned gospel singer; Langston Hughes, the great writer from the Harlem Renaissance; Alberta Hunter, one of the last of America's original blues/jazz stars; Audre Lorde, world-renowned writer of prose and poetry, and Bayard Rustin, chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and a aide to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Right in our community are two Black people who have made significant historical contributions, who also happen to be lesbian and gay; Barbara Smith, the founder and former publisher of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press; and Keith St. John, Albany's Second Ward Alderman, and the first Black openly gay elected official in the nation.
There's a lot you can learn in 29 days. But even more in 365.