February is Black History Month in the United States and Canada. (In the UK it’s October.) As the month draws to a close, I wanted to reflect a bit on its meanings, with particularly reference to it as the second Black History Month of Obama’s presidency, and to the nature of Black History Month as seen from my current home, in Canberra, Australia.
Obama’s Proclamation on “National African American History Month” makes for very interesting reading, if read closely. Consider the opening sentence: “In the centuries since African Americans first arrived on our shores, they have known the bitterness of slavery and oppression, the hope of progress, and the triumph of the American Dream.” It constructs a powerful ideological trajectory, moving from slavery and oppression, through hope, to triumph. It tells the story of a victorious struggle. This is a deeply ideological view – suggesting with this culminating “triumph” that the struggle against oppression is over and it likes that victory to the “American Dream.”
This narrative trajectory is recapitulated, in greater detail, in the second paragraph of the proclamation, which recasts the struggle with particular reference to the theme of this year’s Black History Month, “The History of Black Economic Empowerment” – which “calls upon us to honor the African Americans who overcame injustice and inequality to achieve financial independence and the security of self empowerment that comes with it.”
While the focus here is on the economic achievements of individual African Americans – another ideologically-charged construction, this focus on the individual – the proclamation does raise the spectre of a different way of thinking about things, when it notes that “[structural] inequalities — from disparities in education and health care to the vicious cycle of poverty — still pose enormous hurdles for black communities across America.”
But after this one mention, nothing in the proclamation suggests any kind of real response to these “structural inequalities.” Instead, the first measure touted in the proclamation for improving the lot of African Americans is more credit for small businesses.
This is the American Dream in its uncut form – raising yourself up individually through economic achievement within the prevailing system. This has clearly worked wonders so far. There is a black president, yes indeed, but African American males are still incarcerated 8 times more than white males (10.4% in 2002) – this in the country with the highest rates of incarceration in the world; employed blacks earn only 65% of what whites earn and and a quarter of all African American families live in poverty; the life expectancy of black men is more than 5 years lower than that of white men; and the infant mortality rate for African Americans is 2.3 times higher than for whites – and the overall infant mortality rate is startling high, higher than in Cuba, comparable to that of Croatia, Lithuania and Taiwan, and far behind other industrialized nations such as Sweden, France, Japan and Germany [see eg here and here].
An Associated Press article which appeared at the beginning of the month asked if it were “Time to end Black History Month” – particularly in light of Obama’s election, which it was suggested demonstrated the integration of African Americans into the mainstream of American society. [The article is available here as posted on msnbc.com.]
While the Obama election clearly reflects some kind of progress in race relations in the United States, it may be a bit early to talk about ending Black History Month. And not only because of those “structural inequalities” and the disturbing statistics cited above. During the course of February on the UC San Diego campus, first a party was held mocking Black History Month, then a couple of weeks later a noose was hung in the university library – in a clear reference to lynching – apparently as a response to outrage over the party [see here and here].
I’ve spent most of the Obama presidency in Australia, and at least from here, it has seemed remarkably free of any sense of race or racial issues, at least overtly. One has to wonder, however, if the intransigence of Republicans in Congress towards all of Obama’s policy initiatives would have been quite so pronounced if they had come from a white president rather than a black one. I wonder if there isn’t a predisposition – on the right and on the left – to see Obama’s actions and positions as somewhat more radical than they actually are – because they come from a black man – and therefore for more conservative politicians, and Republicans, to resist them more strongly.
Aaron McGruder’s groundbreaking daily comic strip, The Boondocks – featuring the views and activities of Huey Freeman, a young “radical black power socialist” – had much of interest to say about Black History Month during its publication. McGruder was particularly scathing about the endless recycling of the same old stories about George Washington Carver and Martin Luther King, Jr., as if the history of African Americans was limited to just a few widely known – and suspiciously safe – exemplary figures.
Check out A Right to Be Hostile: The First Big Book of the Boondocks. Or you can read all the Boondocks strips online here.
In the Boondocks TV show, McGruder tried to imagine how Martin Luther King Jr. would react to the contemporary state of African American society if he were to come back now. It was not positive:
And now, a little musical interlude – one of my favorite songs by Stevie Wonder, which surprisingly received no radio airplay when the album it’s on, “Songs in the Key of Life,” was first released…
[UPDATE: And check out my post and playlist for this year’s Black History Month: A Soundtrack for Black History Month-How Fares the Dream.]
- Black History Month on biography.com – website of the Biography cable channel
- Wikipedia entry on Black History Month – scanty – and the more useful entries on African American History and Slavery in the United States
- Books for Black History Month at Powells.com
- Black History Month on Surfing the Net with Kids
- Black History Month gifts (seriously – ugh) on zazzle.com