Black History Month, the most superficial time of the year. The 28 days during which media run profiles on obscure inventors of African descent and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the next 28 days we’ll talk a great deal about the lack of diversity we’ve been fostering all year long and even hear from a notable black intellectual or two.
Has anyone seen Cornell West lately? He’s needed in the green room.
Yes, sir, it’s the time of year we remember the contributions of (roughly 10-12) black Americans and pat ourselves on the back over our unique and great nation. This is of course optional. Arizona, we’re looking at you.
Of course, no contribution to the evolution of America’s national identity is as important as singing and dancing. That’s why today, Spotify is celebrating black people (those sage magicians who imbue the Beibers of this world with their swagger, then thankfully disappear during award season) with their Black History Salute playlist.
This consists of … Thriller, by Michael Jackson. Okay, sure. It is one of the greatest pop songs of all time. It even occurred before the nation was forced to remove the beloved pop star from the baby-sitting registry. Solid choice. What else?
Well, there’s Man in the Mirror, Wanna Be Startin’ Something, Black or White and … more Michael Jackson. In fact it is all Michael Jackson.
Certainly the contributions of the King of Pop are worthy of their own playlist. You can teach an undergraduate course on Michael and Quincy Jones. But Michael Jackson, by the time of his death, had become so co-opted that today a white man has been cast to play him in a feature film. (To appropriate and justified outrage.)
See, Arizona: you don’t have to actually put any thought into it. Just ask Spotify.
But perhaps I’m being too harsh on the music service. Their heart is probably in the right place, after all. And who knows exactly what one is supposed to do during Black History Month anyway. School systems wrestle with this difficult question every year.
The conundrum is quintessentially American. Black people have not just been erased from narratives about America but also erased from narratives about black people.
Gods of Egypt an upcoming fantasy film starring Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (aka Jamie Lannister) and Gerard Butler as Egyptian gods is just the latest middle finger from the all-white film industry. In case this is not obvious to everyone, let’s say it plain: Egypt is in Africa. Gerard Butler and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau are Scottish and Danish respectively. This sort of blatant, racist distortion happens routinely. (Ridley Scott recently cast Sigourney Weaver, John Torturro and Ben Mendelshonn as Egyptian royalty in the film Exodus: Gods and Kings.)
So what are people to do for the 28 days African-Americans are meant to be reintroduced to the national narrative? Our answers so far: rerun Glory, Roots, Radio, Remember the Titans and I suppose 42 will now be added to that list. (It’s a pretty good little movie actually.)
Some people will read The Autobiography of Malcom X, though I suspect those readers will primarily be black themselves. Network television will run informational spots about people like Madam CJ Walker, Harriet Tubman, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and other historical figures whose accomplishments, while great, have become as distant and irrelevant as the heroics of Bass Reeves.
And that’s not a knock on them. Their accomplishments, like most accomplishments in history are the shoulders we stand on. They are irrelevant because they are isolated from the larger, accepted and legitimized narrative about America. Simply put: “Black History” is treated as a special case, as removed from the “real” America as the history of Nile River Delta people and their gods.
The misrepresentations of our history are a time-honored and deeply shameful tradition that continues today.
It is therefore easily distorted into something far removed from reality. It becomes useless because it is reduced to isolated tidbits of trivia; it becomes trivia because it is a lie and instead of learning from the mistakes and victories of all the players in the story we must spend our time unpacking the lie, fighting bitterly to simple gain purchase on trustworthy footing.
This confusion makes it easy to twist the vast, diverse and astounding universe of American music into a playlist of Michael Jackson and call it the Black History Salute. It is a breeze to turn the most accomplished lawman in American history from a freed slave to a white man with a noble savage as a sidekick; or to reduce the painful, difficult past of us all to a few trivial inventions of the past.
There is no such thing as “Black History.” There is only American History and in it there are Native Americans, black Americans, white Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans and thousands of combinations of us all. Slavery, invention, civil war, revolutionary war, flu epidemic, western expansion; these things are everyone’s history and if we have any hope whatsoever it will only be in the ruthlessly honest telling of these histories and everyone’s true part in it.
Every. Single. Day.