There is this joke among black people — remember first that humor about cultural diminishment ain’t funny and not all blacks know one another — that says Black History Month is in February because it’s the shortest month of the year.
My deep disdain for Black History Month started early, like right-out-of kindergarten-early, in the dingy, stinky classrooms of Jefferson Elementary School in Hamilton where teachers begrudgingly trotted out old, faded cut-outs of the old black faces of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington and, everybody’s favorite martyred Negro, Martin Luther King, Jr.
I knew at a young age this was a sham and a scam.
These colored folks never showed up any other time of the year while we were learning about revisionist white history (isn’t it all?) and I knew by second grade that since the white boy across the aisle from me, whose name I never knew because his love of eating paste and boogers creeped me out, could sit in the same classroom with me, I knew this segregation my grandparents talked about was over. I also secretly wanted to meet this dude Jim Crow to ask him why he’d been so hateful to all those black folks, but I was too embarrassed to ask any grown-ups who he was and if he was still alive.
Anyway, one thing I could never figure out back then was if we were all supposed to be allowed to go to school and church and stores and ride buses and airplanes together and vote when we wanted, then how come our music teacher made us sing “Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton/old times there are not forgotten/look away, look away, look away/Dixie Land” like it was the national anthem?
And this was year-round; my memory tells me it was the warm-up song in our music class which meant we sang it at the start of class before anything else. All it took was a casual question from me (“Why would I want to be in the land of cotton and where is that, exactly?”) to my mother, a musician, and that “Old Dixie” crap stopped immediately.
Since, I’ve been on high alert for the specific bungling of black history and the generalized ghettoization of lump-sum blackness that is Black History Month.
Careless teachers get it wrong; public school systems are on autopilot. But the most egregious examples of how stale and outright offensive Black History Month has become land squarely in the laps of network television programmers.
Suddenly, “black” shows are sponsored by major corporations whose commercials are magically turned sepia with exotic-looking Obama-black actors when, in March and thereafter, those versions of those commercials will be gone and it’ll be back to advertising’s version of the Jim Crow South’s WHITES ONLY water fountains and bathrooms.
Some network honchos think they’re being progressive when they mandate that their white TV stars do the talking in the “this minute in black history” moments between commercials. You know the ones? Maybe Ted Danson or Mark Harmon will give us a sincere, 40-second sound byte about the Tuskegee Airmen but not the Tuskegee Experiment because, God forbid, telling America in prime time about how the federal government experimented with syphilis on the brains of black men might make for nightmares.
And sometimes, if’n we’s lucky, massah will schedule commercials specifically about diabetes or hypertension in-between Blackish or Scandal during February.
It’s enough to make me wanna go get Obamacare if I didn’t already have it.
And just when I think I’ve quelled my distaste for Black History Month and all the ways it reminds me of how apathetic we blacks can sometimes be and how we’ve allowed America to continually minimize and exclude us still, I catch a glimpse of something as (usually) benign as PBS.
Shame on you, PBS.
I’ve long been a lover of Antiques Roadshow because I fashion myself a collector; some people might call me a hoarder, but I’m definitely a collector. I love liberating what I call Negrobilia — all manner of pickaninnies, mammies and slave images in posters or prints, as cookie jars, one-off sculptures, on signs, post cards and stamps — from antique malls, yard or estate sales.
Friends who know have lovingly anointed my apartment “The Colored Museum.”
So I watch this show to understand the value and valuation of art and to listen to expert instruction on what to look for and how to judge fakes, etc. I even tried to get tickets to a recent Cincinnati taping. I was going to lug my six 19th-century Currier and Ives framed prints of the “Niagara Falls Negro Brigade,” a series depicting bug-eyed, red-lipped, dark-skinned Negroes racing to douse a fire complete with offensive black diction in the captions, but I didn’t make the cut.
I’ve noticed the absence of black experts and black collectors in the show’s broadcasts; I watched a multi-hour marathon one weekend and counted one black collector and one black expert.
Just Feb. 9, though, PBS did us the great favor of cutting together an hour of all-black memorabilia — Ali’s signed training shoes from “The Rumble in the Jungle,” a post-mortem Abraham Lincoln parade sign, an Augusta Savage sculpture — featuring a plethora of black collectors and even black experts.
Oh, yeah, it’s February, I thought.
Sad and a little pissed, I couldn’t turn.
I was sadder still after a middle-aged, greasy-headed black woman, a licensed beautician, presented a first-edition textbook by Madame C.J. Walker. The expert had to tell her who Walker was and the significance of owning a rare book written specifically for black women at the turn of the century. A black beautician not knowing C.J.Walker is tantamount to me not knowing Toni Morrison.
I guess some of us do still need Black History Month.
But, must we all suffer segregation for 28 days, or can we finally do this, as a united nation, for 365?
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: [email protected]