SPEAKING OF BLACK HISTORY, I'M GLAD IT'S over. Again. Black History Month, that is. February is always a confused and exhausting time, a month through which I suffer a nagging low-grade tension headache about what people are going to say or not say about African-Americans and achievement this year. A noble idea, this paying tribute to us, but also one grown so inherently and patently patronizing I invariably wind up feeling like I belong in a museum behind glass or in a Happy Meal box as the special-themed giveaway toy. (For a limited time only! Collect all 30 million!) Then there are all the solemn television and cable-movie premieres about the lives of Rosa Parks and A. Phillip Randolph and Marcus Garvey and scores of other black folks whose giant steps get perennially reduced to small-screen signifiers of black pride. I have nothing against pride, but at some point it becomes but an inert gas glowing for its own sake, a far cry from the combustible and forward-thrusting force that was Parks and Randolph and Garvey and a lot of others like them. We tend to busy ourselves bolstering black pride throughout February because to really examine black history, as I noted earlier in a different way, can be unsettling. Why, for starters, does black history tend to peter out after 1968? How and where did the much-serenaded fight for freedom end, or how does it go on? It doesn't help that the evidence has been mounting over the last 20 years or so that black progress has stalled more than it's moved ahead, overall; the legacy of us even being in this country is still forming. I know we need reassurance amid all the uncertainty -- a loud, public reiteration that Brown v. Board of Educationactually meant something -- which is what we've decided Black History Month is all about.
I wouldn't mind an open feelgoodfest quite so much if it were just limited to blacks, but it's not; whites love to feel good about Black History Month, too. They love to assert America's triumph in achieving equality. They love to feel magnanimous about the ample air time we get. They love the unlimited opportunities for "African-American," the ultimate dignifier, to roll trippingly off the tongue. They love most of all that they only have to do this four weeks out of the year. But let's face it, we all want to prettify black history because denial, or at least a softer focus, serves a lot of our best interests. Yet the very phrase black history is still a challenge, a rude question to those who maintain there is only American history, or that we live in a rare country where race finally doesn't matter.
Glib as it's gotten, black historyis still politely dissident in the way Carter G. Woodson, who started the whole thing with Negro History Week early last century, intended it to be, and it's for that reason I'm not stumping for the end of Black History Month. I'm simply asking for some postmodern adjustments. Alongside the engraved encomia to King and Parks and Bunche, there could be days of Oprahdedicated to the soul-searching confessions of black history's besmirchers; guests could include everybody from Omar Bradley to David Horowitz to Clarence Thomas to David Duke to Suge Knight. Nor would the viewing audience and a whole host of lesser sinners be off the hook. We would all have to own up to the grievous mistakes we've made, the neglect we've instituted and accepted without a murmur, the P's and Q's we've consciously dropped in the name of blackspeak and holy American cool, and restored in the holier name of 9 to 5. Black History Month would become a national emotional purge in which celebration and condemnation would stand together and complement, not contradict, each other, and the strange stuff of truth would, at long last, set us free.