News & Politics

Unselling Black History

Far too many Americans of all colors know absolutely nothing about the colossal significance of black history, and worse care nothing about it.
Recently a spirited group of black demonstrators staged a ruckus demonstration in front of a billboard on a busy South-Central Los Angeles street corner. However, there was a twist to this demonstration. Their target wasn't a racist, insensitive shopkeeper, or a derelict city or state agency. It was a billboard. The billboard read: Black History Month, but the word history was slashed out and "future" was written directly above it.

The billboards are part of a multi-million dollar Black History Month campaign by Nissan Motors. The message is that African-Americans have a proud and glorious history of struggle, sacrifice, and accomplishment, but that's the past, and now it's time for blacks to use their proud past to navigate the future. There's nothing wrong with that message. But Nissan could have spared itself the wrath of the black activists if it had simply plastered that message in big and bold words across the billboard.

But the billboard and the protests point to more troubling problems. Far too many Americans of all colors know absolutely nothing about the colossal significance of black history, and worse, they care nothing about it. When Carter G. Woodson, the pioneer black historian and educator, initiated what was then called Negro History Week nearly eight decades ago, the idea was to smash the racial isolation and stereotyping of blacks. In those days if blacks were mentioned at all in general history texts it was only in the section on slavery. Black history is much, much more than that. It has shaped and molded much of America's past, present, and, as Nissan clumsily tried to say with its billboard campaign, its future as well.

Many Americans still don't know that African-Americans played a major part in shaping America's institutions. Black inventors, explorers, scientists, architects and trade unionists helped construct the foundation of American industry. Black abolitionists, religious and civil rights leaders helped shape law, politics and religion in America. Black artists, writers and musicians gave America some of its most distinctive cultural art forms. The modern day civil rights movement not only broke down the legal barriers of segregation, it also opened the door of opportunity in government, business and at academic institutions for women, minorities, and many whites.

The dumping of black achievements into February reinforces that public ignorance. Politicians designate special days, issue proclamations, and sponsor tributes to notable blacks. TV executives squeeze most of their specials, documentaries and features on blacks into the month. Publishers quickly shove all their black titles into their catalogues. Bookstores haul out hefty displays of black books and place them in conspicuous public view. Black speakers hike their fees for the month and know that many universities and colleges will pay what they ask. Department stores, banks, S&Ls, alcohol, investment and utility companies bankroll ad campaigns in black newspapers, magazines, and on radio stations to hawk their products and services within African-American communities.

But packaging and selling black achievements is nothing new. For brief moments, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Panthers became hot sale items. So there is no reason to think that Black History Month could escape the same fate. But like all fad or sale items, when the novelty wears off the product is quickly and quietly shoved back into a corner and forgotten.

The way to end the racial separation and the commodity packaging of Black History Month is for publishers to revise all classroom texts that compartmentalize black achievements into a single chapter (for example, slavery or civil rights) and include them in all chapters. School administrators and teachers should make sure that black achievements are woven throughout the curriculum, from science and technology to the humanities. Public officials should commemorate black achievements in ceremonies throughout the entire year. Corporations should regularly feature black achievements in their advertising and promotional materials. And companies must not use Black History Month solely as a marketing opportunity to peddle their products or tout themselves as good guys in black communities, black newspapers, and magazines. They must regularly feature black achievements in all of their advertising and promotional materials.

Black history was never designed to be a mass-market commodity for blacks only. The systematic distortion, omission, ignorance of, and wholesale lack of respect for black contributions to American society will end only when the experience of blacks becomes accepted as integral to the whole of American society. Then, and only then, will black history become what it should have always been, American history.

Nissan may have muddled that point with its billboards, but the fact that it even put the billboards up in the first place and is willing to spend millions to acknowledge black history is a back-hand recognition of the importance of the black past and yes, future.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion Web site: He is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).