Black History… Month?


Something I’ve been wanting to say for a long time… ever since I saw a Confederate flag flying at the same height as an American flag in a redneck’s front yard – in upstate New York. Amy

Black History… Month?

Here’s the mystery:
Why only one month for Black history?
Relegated to February, one month
to cover an entire race that rose from
being imprisoned on slave ships, dragged ashore in shackles
to making indelible marks on all of American society

Who suffered their families broken first by
slave owners and later by well-intentioned
but fatally flawed Welfare, driving dads away

Whose call and response field songs, codes for escape
shaped a new tradition of gospel in churches
Who created jazz in all its magnificent manifestations
Who literally built the White House (ironically named)
Who built the South and suffered under the Confederate flag
Whose voices and actions loom large in the tapestry of our nation

Voices.
The witness of Sojourner Truth (“Ain’t I a woman?”)
The poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, Rita Dove, Maya Angelou
The voices of Billie, Bessie, Ma Rainey, Leontyne Price, Marian Anderson
The brass of Louis, the class of Duke
The shy brilliance of Strayhorn, the in-your-face of Miles
The Harlem Renaissance, producing unfathomable beauty and power

Athleticism.
The perseverance of the Negro Leagues
The courage of Jackie Robinson, the sleekness of Jesse Owens
The contemporary finesse of Venus, Serena, Tai Babilonia, and yes, Tiger

Courage under fire.
The energy of Crispus Attucks, fighting British troops
The Buffalo Soldiers, the Tuskegee Airmen
There was never a war fought by America
that didn’t include Black troops

Philosophy and social justice.
The words of Frederick O. Douglass
The wisdom of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The burden shouldered by Coretta after his burial
The grassroots activism of Rosa Parks (no, she didn’t just decide
she was tired – it was a planned act of nonviolent protest)
The battered, brutalized child Emmett Till whose death
shone a light on lynchings all over the South
Listen, can you hear it? “Southern trees bear a strange fruit…”

Our ancestors, for we all came from that continent, regardless of
how far our tribes were scattered around the globe
reduced to one month, when Sylvia’s Beans go on sale at the market
and kids hear about George Washington Carver and peanut butter
and a few lines about Rosa, Martin, and how “Lincoln freed the slaves”
A little blurb about Bill Cosby on TV, Louis Armstrong singing “Hello, Dolly”
And that’s that

Black history is OUR history.
From slavery to freed citizens
From abolitionists to suffragettes
The struggle, oppression
and one triumphant moment on an election day
(Indonesian, my ass)
The music, the invention, the philosophy, the art, the daring

One month? Really?

© 2010 Amy Barlow Liberatore/Sharp Little Pencil

50 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. vivinfrance
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 21:13:17

    Amy, this is an important poem, powerful, emotive, seriously well-written. I do hope you will be able to publish it for a wider audience.

    Reply

    • Sharp Little Pencil
      Apr 06, 2011 @ 04:36:13

      Wow, Viv, thanks so much for that. As I told Christine, I took quite a while to write it – and it’s been simmering deep within me for some time. Publishing it would be great… I’m wondering what publication would appreciate this from the ‘little white girl’ perspective!!! A

      Reply

  2. christine
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 21:18:52

    I love your honest words. The United States (and I am only observing this from the outside) really prospered and is today where it is because of the free labour of the slave trade. All your points could be made into some great school curriculum studied all year long. Keep telling it, as it is.

    Reply

    • Sharp Little Pencil
      Apr 06, 2011 @ 04:34:48

      Thanks for this, Christine. I really took my time with this poem, and it’s brought some amazing responses, mostly in regard to schools and how backward our American educational system is. I’m a Kellogg Fellow and have been involved in public school advocacy for some years. And yeah, let’s all keep telling it as it is! Thx, Amy

      Reply

  3. RJ Clarken
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 21:54:24

    Bravo Amy!

    History should be inclusive – year round.

    Reply

    • Sharp Little Pencil
      Apr 08, 2011 @ 05:44:11

      Amen. And all cultures should be celebrated – and all sins of the past generations should be admitted. The United Church of Christ apologized to Hawaiians a few years back for sending missionaries and attempting to “Christianize” them all. My church realized their own sin and did a truth and reconciliation process.

      Wonder if that would ever happen in our nation’s capital? I doubt it!

      Reply

  4. Debbie
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 22:10:47

    Thank you for a moving history lesson and testament, Amy style.

    Reply

  5. booguloo
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 22:26:59

    In awe.

    Reply

  6. Judy Roney
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 22:32:04

    How impressive this tribute is, Amy. There is a huge confederate flag waving off the interstate here in Florida. I am so embarrassed and so are so many but there is nothing that can be done for the man who waves it (and not an American flag in sight). It’s his right to do so. I wonder what kind of person would fly a flag that would be offensive to some. People took him to court over the issue and still it waves.

    Reply

    • Sharp Little Pencil
      Apr 08, 2011 @ 05:33:35

      The South will rise again… I’ve heard it said over and over. But the first South rose on the backs of slaves. Which leads me to think that folks who fly Confederate flags may want the Black man and woman subjugated again? The skinheads and militias? Lord, I hope not. But the lack of real education in our schools leads to this type of thinking. Thanks for a thoughtful reply, Judy. Amy

      Reply

  7. pmwanken
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 23:11:04

    WELL SAID, Amy. Well said, INDEED.

    Reply

  8. andy sewina
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 23:31:28

    Well said!

    Reply

  9. M.A.S
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 23:49:58

    This is great. I feel like it’s a poetic essay. It reminds me of an interview on 60 minutes when Morgan Freeman denounced not only black history month, but the concept of black.
    Also, I really feel like I have to say this, though it should not be taken as a negative comment on your wonderful piece at all, it strikes me odd that you use the word “race” in the way that you do. The idea of race is only perpetuated by people having an idea about race.
    Please feel free to disregard all or part of anything I said, except this-
    Thank you for a wonderful poem.

    Reply

    • Sharp Little Pencil
      Apr 06, 2011 @ 04:59:59

      Michael, I pay attention to all comments, and your mention of the word “race” is actually right on target. Perhaps the words, “an entire people” would have been more accurate?

      I saw that interview with Morgan Freeman. Even though I bristled when he proclaimed himself “America’s Greatest Living Actor,” an accolade that surely should come from another colleague and not himself, it was an incredible look into his life. His restaurant/club in his old home town is a testament to a man who truly feels it’s important to build upon one’s hometown. He must have been something in his coming-up years!!

      Thanks for your insightful comments, and know this – I am never worried about being critiqued; in fact, I welcome it. That’s the only way to improve – that, and occasionally thumbing through the rejection letters!! Take care, and I’ll stop by your blog! Peace, Amy

      Reply

  10. Sherry Blue Sky
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 23:57:40

    So well said, Amy! Such a rich culture. I love reading all the names. Unbelievable how horribly people have suffered.

    Reply

    • Sharp Little Pencil
      Apr 06, 2011 @ 04:54:33

      They’re still suffering, as are so many marginalized groups in our country, especially in the cities. Racial profiling hurts Blacks, Arab-Americans, Hispanics – women are second-class citizens (oh, but I did vote today!), and the social studies curriculum is shameful. Civics is no longer really taught, nor is practical economics for the real world.

      Reply

  11. Roger Green
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 00:55:00

    well, because if it were 12 months, it would be diluted. oddly,this year, actually since obama, i’ve thought we have needed bhm even more!

    Reply

    • Sharp Little Pencil
      Apr 06, 2011 @ 04:52:45

      It is already diluted anyway. I was so frustrated with my daughter’s textbooks in middle and high school. Which bunch of white guys slaughtered which other bunch of white guys and the dates. How Lincoln single-handedly freed the slaves, and that was his only agenda for the Civil War… nothing about labor, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and unions; not a word about American culture and musician/artist/poet/writer/dancer contributions to our lives. A few paragraphs on women’s suffrage and bloomers. Absolutely shitty teaching.

      I’ll write a poem soon about a REAL teacher, Mrs. Hand (no relation to Mr. Hahnd, Spiccoli’s nemisis in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, LOL). She put it on the line. Also a music teacher, born in Jamaica, who had the “audacity” to ask the lily white audience at our school to stand for the Black National Anthem. All he asked was that people “please rise.” He was forced out of the school, even though many of us vociferously complained. But then, student’s opinions never matter, right? Amy

      Reply

  12. 1sojournal
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 01:26:17

    Oh Amy, you shine here. I didn’t want it to end. Thank you,

    Elizabeth

    Reply

  13. Mary
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 02:13:01

    Interesting poem, Amy. But I wonder about other groups — Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians (which would have to be broken down to many sub groups), women, gays, elderly, mentally or physically challenged, and on and on. Woud one month be enough for any group of people? My theory is why have a month for any…..but just embrace a general feeling of appreciation and acceptance for ALL.

    Reply

    • Sharp Little Pencil
      Apr 06, 2011 @ 03:33:06

      Dear Mary, I see your point! I was focusing on Black History Month and the token hypocrisy with which it is treated. We don’t have a Gay History Month, and Elderly History Month officially endorsed and taught in our schools as part of the regular curriculum, but we do have curricula dealing with this topic. I thought I would focus on Black History Month as an example of why ALL Americans should be celebrated, so I guess I might have fallen short… We are in definite agreement on this, though. We are all part of humanity; it’s simply that racists tend to deny our African/Middle Eastern roots as a species. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment! Amy

      Reply

  14. lunawitch15
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 03:41:18

    Again you have astounded me with the depth of your words! thank you!

    Reply

  15. Mr. Walker
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 04:23:47

    Amy, I could not agree more. It would be nice if everyone was treated equally, but that is not so, and our strength comes from our diversity. As a teacher, I have no problem having my students look at both the ugliness and the beauty of our history. You have added something to that here, and have invoked some wonderful contributions to our history and culture by Black Americans, very inclusive. I particularly liked your like about Strayhorn and Davis.

    Reply

    • Sharp Little Pencil
      Apr 06, 2011 @ 04:40:30

      Somehow I knew you were acquainted with the “lush life…”! I know you’re a teacher, and it must be particularly hard with NCLB, teaching to the test rather than coming from a place in your heart. I mean, every teacher I knew in school had a different emphasis, and many schools with almost completely African-American student populations have a hard time keeping kids interested in which white guy had a duel with which other white guy. Same goes for Native Americans, and so many other populations.

      In the end, we are all Americans, but we mostly came from somewhere else, and shake that family tree hard enough – it all goes back to the Tigris-Euphrates, and that’s called the Middle East but to me is still part of Africa. Jesus was darker than our president. Thanks so much, Mr. Walker! Amy

      Reply

      • Mr. Walker
        Apr 07, 2011 @ 05:14:28

        It is hard with NCLB. Under Bush, it was a federal mandate without funding. Nowadays, we have even less funding because of the recession/depression. And the feds were telling all the states that already had all their own varying criteria what to do. Again, our diversity is a double-edged sword; it is our strength and our weakness. There is definitely pressure to teach to the test. As we’re in the midst of standardized testing, I may address that more on my blog.

        Every teacher does have their own emphasis. I’ve learned that I can bring my love of poetry and writing into the classroom. You have to do something to personalize it. And my enthusiasm for teaching history. Kids get that I respect them, that I think they can handle more truth than most other adults give them credit for. And they have a finely tuned sense of fairness, which makes them so receptive to learning about unfair situations.

        I agree; we are all Americans. There is just one human race. And yet we have to be respectful of other ethnicities. That’s the paradox; we are the same and yet we are different. I wish we could focus more on what we share in common, rather then pointing out or arguing over differences. And yet those differences can be a source of strength, and we need to honor and affirm them.

        Your poem speaks to many things that I am proud of as an American. That is part of our history. It would be nice if a Black History Month was not necessary, but I think it still is. There is too much fear, racism, and hatred in the world. And we need positive role models to teach our children about, as well as acknowledging our mistakes. It’s hard to reconcile Thomas Jefferson, a founding father, with the fact that he owned slaves. And yet we must. We have to accept him as a man of his time, and as the hero we want him to be.

      • Sharp Little Pencil
        Apr 07, 2011 @ 21:57:50

        I sent you an email re: above. But want all readers to know my intent was not to eliminate Black History studies, just that one month is a sad substitute for including Blacks, as well as women’s rights, Native Americans (and the atrocities visited on them from the moment Columbus hit the shore and enslaved those he could find, Thanksgiving being a myth that makes white folks feel all warm and fuzzy about what was basically a theft and genocide), and others. Not to “whitewash” or replace cultural studies, but rather to enhance our entire Social Studies curriculum nationwide to be more inclusive, in terms of gender, ethnicity, and all the other fabrics that truly make up our flag.

  16. Roger Green
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 06:14:31

    Ultimately, there was a Black History Month, started in 1926 as Negro History week; and Women’s History Month (March) and Hispanic History Month (which oddly straddles Sept and Oct) because, and it sounds harsh, white men did such a lousy job of writing the history.

    Reply

    • Sharp Little Pencil
      Apr 08, 2011 @ 05:29:02

      Wow, I didn’t know that. What’s up with splitting Hispanic history over two months? It does seem harsh, but as they say, history is written by the winners, and the power in this country is not just held by white males – it’s rich, often second- or third-generation wealthy (think GWB), spoiled, powerful white men.

      Reply

  17. pamela
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 08:42:39

    Amy, this is powerful and full of so much truth, I agree with you, why one month when we should embrace this all year, all the time and every moment.
    A wonderful poem, thanks for sharing this.

    Pamela

    Reply

    • Sharp Little Pencil
      Apr 08, 2011 @ 05:27:01

      Thanks, Pamela. That goes for all ethnicities and genders – and gender orientations, without making a big deal out of it. I mean, I don’t spend all day “being straight,” and I’m sure Oscar Wilde and George Gershwin and Gertrude Stein didn’t spend all day “being gay,” either!!

      Reply

  18. David King
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 13:15:28

    Without fully appreciating all the ramifications, your point seems well made to me.

    Reply

  19. Carl
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 19:10:05

    I loved reading this, Amy, and the preceding comments as well. Thanks, all, for engaging.
    I’m in agreement that what we need is not a month set aside from each year in order to study the different categories that we place people into, but a more clear headed approach to our own history and a more honest presentation of it to our children and, I dare say, ourselves.
    Of course, when so much of the political and social power in our history was in the hands of the dueling white guys, its easy to focus on them. The real question is whether the only history worth teaching to our children is the history of political and social clout. I love what you said about the value of cultural history (music, art, literature, dance). Not only is culture the real substance of human life as it’s lived out, it’s also what makes history interesting!
    On the poem itself: I see its excellence in its offspring. Look at the conversation you’ve started! I agree that I would love to see this more widely published. Really excellent. Thanks, as always.

    Reply

    • Sharp Little Pencil
      Apr 08, 2011 @ 05:11:02

      Carl, as always, a thoughful, insightful comment. Yes, I do believe the entire curriculum needs to be overhauled. Just as the “face” of America is changing, the need to review the focus of education needs a serious revamp. There is room in Social Studies (which has its referendum in the name of the course) for the arts, for real culture. Our textbooks are outdated! If students don’t learn the truth in school, plus critical thinking and common sense, they are doomed to a life of “would you like fries with that?”

      The dumbing-down of American has only one advantage: To keep the rich in power and push down the lower classes. I appreciate your fervent reply and again, will think about how and where this poem might find a home in another venue, seeing as it’s already been published online. One regret is that I didn’t mention Cornell West… THanks, and peace to you and yours, Amy

      Reply

  20. Altonian
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 19:55:36

    I am not qualified to take part in the comment debate this article has prompted, I am a ‘limey’ who is now a crazy Finn, but I will say that it is a most impressive, passionately argued and thoroughly necessary piece of conscience pricking. I agree with some of the other commenters, It should receive a wide circulation. Congratulations on a noble effort.

    Reply

    • Sharp Little Pencil
      Apr 08, 2011 @ 04:55:34

      Leigh, I am touched by your comment. I will indeed submit this somewhere or put it in a self-produced chapbook about American politics. It will probably be titled, “Rantings of a Menopausal Graying Leftie”!!

      Reply

  21. ladynimue
    Apr 07, 2011 @ 12:26:19

    I ma not much aware of the history of Blacks but all I know is that freedom needs to be cherished and celebrated daily .. It s a blessing and the people who laid their life for it are worth worshipped daily.. Any race that changed the course from bad to good must be given the due respect and appreciation for the smae !

    Reply

    • Sharp Little Pencil
      Apr 07, 2011 @ 22:06:00

      I feel all ethnicities and genders should be celebrated. It simply irritates me that America decided that one month was adequate to squeeze in everything done by Black folks, and the rest of the year it’s white guys this and white guys that and dates of wars.

      Reply

  22. Sheila Deeth
    Apr 07, 2011 @ 19:16:55

    Beautifully done. Trouble is those who didn’t live in those times relegate them to “history” and forget those who did live through them are still here, still trying to set the “future” right.

    Reply

    • Sharp Little Pencil
      Apr 07, 2011 @ 22:22:59

      Oh, man, Sheila, you are telling the truth here. All sides of the racial debate are engaged in differences rather than commonalities. And while we “little people” argue over black and white, the fat cats are snickering as they count the color that really counts… their GREEN.

      Reply

  23. contemplativemoorings
    Apr 09, 2011 @ 06:45:39

    “Black history is OUR history”–that’s something I’ve also wanted to say for a long time…just didn’t know how to say it…
    This is really a great piece :-)

    Reply

  24. Dick
    Apr 09, 2011 @ 07:57:42

    What a fine and passionate rant, Amy! You cover the waterfront here. Fierce polemic that really hits the spot.

    Reply

  25. uponthewingsofnight
    Sep 28, 2012 @ 05:09:03

    This one really hits home with me. One of my favorite poets is Langston Hughes, one of the masters from the Harlem Renaissance. Great work, Amy! Brett

    Reply

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