Black History Month Shall Set You Free

In one of the Magic Johnson-owned Starbucks I frequent, I glanced at the specials chalkboard and noticed someone had rendered a smiling effigy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Beneath him read the tagline: "Share the Dream...over a Toffee Nut Latte!"

This served to remind me that Black History Month is upon us. And why I have come to despise it.

Don't get me wrong: Black History Month has value. White kids learn that black folks invented stoplights and peanut butter, and if it weren't for those token tidbits of information, the young honkems wouldn't respect any nonmusical, non-athletic Negroes at all. Sadly, they don't learn much about African Americans the rest of the school year. Public school curricula are slow to integrate history lessons because blacks don't insist upon it: Instead we settle for one month, the shortest month of the year, to espouse tales of a gloried past.

When Carter G. Woodson began observing Negro History Week in 1926, it was to offset the misinformation propagated in American history books. But since Negro History Week became Black History Month in 1976, American educators have seen no need to blend black history into a greater, more inclusive American narrative. I have school-aged children and can testify that black history is taught much the same way it was when I was in school: Harriet Tubman-style, with a few antiheroes tossed in for good measure -- like the original African Booty Scratcher, for instance. Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X are resigned to the footnotes, if they appear at all.

And that just doesn't cut it. An annual mini-series on black history won't provide black children with the tools to succeed in modern America, which is arguably more prejudiced, hateful and treacherous than the America our forbears knew. Sure, things have improved in some areas, but not enough in America has changed to merit a look at how bad things used to be. I'm still catchin' too much hell to tell -- buses, bathrooms and lunch counters be damned. I have a place to pee without getting beat up, but only by the grace of God.

Our responsibility to history requires us to be in a race to greatness, not in an annual lock-step march into mediocrity. Why should we settle for the false distinction of being kings and queens for just one month of the year, especially as black history has become the come-on for thousands of commercials and consumer products? Alcohol and tobacco advertisers use Afro-centric trinkets to push their smack on an unsophisticated community quick to buy anything for any reason. Certainly we'll open our pockets for anything claiming kinship with some forgone hegemony that, between "Million" marches and Moesha reruns, most of us couldn't possibly conceive of, much less emulate. That for one month a year the school system, beer companies and Al Roker decide to embrace black people is farcical. Television networks run patronizing PSAs featuring Alf, Eriq Lasalle or Will and Grace spouting little-know Negro factoids. Some find those informative, but I say if you need must-see TV to fill the gaps in your history lessons, then you're too far gone to know any better.

I agree that it's important to honor great men, but the Starbucks promotion and the hundreds of others like it are something less than honorable and delineate what the MLK holiday and Black History Month have both become: a bait-and-switch to create one feel-good moment, in hopes that you will forgive and forget the rest. America takes a day off, totally absolved and refreshed, and nothing changes. They get a vacation day and you get another dream deferred, murdered by assailants unknown, for you to mourn and benevolently forgive.

For me, Dr. King was real , a man more like me than not. He told dirty jokes at inappropriate times: He was a drinker and womanizer -- me too. He was imperfect, but rose above his imperfection to become a measure for lesser people. He didn't put his life on the line for the T-shirts, the parades or the "I Have a Dream" sound-bite used to sell soda, feminine hygiene products, hamburgers and airline tickets. Black Americans have gotten caught up in the pageantry of Black History Month, of Martin Luther King Day, and the myth of Rosa Parks without realizing an obligation to live the legacy. Black History Month has been cross-marketed and copyrighted to the point where pretty soon you'll be able to buy a McMartin burger with Malcolm X-tra cheese. I have little time for it, because every day at my home is Black History Month. Every family dinner is an opportunity to teach.

"I think," I told the young black barista at the Starbucks counter, "that is the most distasteful thing I have seen in some time."

"Well, you know," she said, "You can come in here, grab a Toffee, and discuss and debate the legacy of Dr. King." She continued. "This particular Starbucks does a lot of volunteer work, and we go out into the community with MLK T-shirts on..."

"With a conspicuous Starbucks logo on the back, I imagine?"

"Yeah...it's on the back."

I shook my head. "Oy vey."

"So can I get you a Toffee Nut?"

"No...I'll have a mocha."

"We don't charge for extra sprinkles, you know. Some coffee places do."

"Wow," I said. "Free at last."

jimi izrael (jimiizrael@hotmail.com) is a journalist and e-columnist living in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. His biweekly column, "What It Iz," appears every other Wednesday on Africana.com.

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