The Unbearable Darkness Of Black History Month
As Black History Months go, the 2012 version was pretty dark. Despite the mild winter in North America, there were early hints that this year’s celebration of African heritage would be served cold.
One clue was the mid-January meteoric but short-lived rise of US presidential candidate Newt Gingrich whose momentum was partly fueled by barely coded racism: referring to Barack Obama the “Food Stamp President.” Never mind the fact that only 22 percent of food stamp recipients are black versus 34 percent who are white or the fact that the greatest increase in the program itself was under President George W Bush (and before him, George Bush Sr). None of these facts mattered to former history prof Gingrich as the success of his race-baiting served up a sobering reminder that “post-race” was still largely a sports-related phenomena, Jeremy Lin notwithstanding.
When BHM did start, it was on a tragic note. The February 1 suicide of Soul Train creator and television pioneer Don Cornelius shocked afrosomething zoomers everywhere — particularly as a picture emerged of a troubled 75-year old legend whose despair, marital violence and health problems, belied the avuncular, bell-bottomed persona who brought black America into the living rooms of white America the same year Shaft was theatrically released.
As an older generation of African-Americans mourned the passing of Cornelius, a younger one caught cold chills as the US Supreme Court agreed to re-open affirmative action regarding college admissions. The case stemmed from the University of Texas where a white student named Abigail Fischer challenged a program designed to increase campus diversity. The case threatens to bring an end of race-based admissions in academia despite being previously approved by the high court in a 2003 judgement. While college enrollment among minorities continue to rise, research shows the percentage of black and hispanic kids still trail far behind white and Asian students.
An event on February 11 would be widely regarded as the nadir of Black History Month: the sudden death of music icon Whitney Houston. Found dead in a bathtub on the eve of the Grammys, the loss of the 48 year old pop diva was far more stunning to black America than that of any members of the doomed 27 Club. Houston, after all, was the most awarded female artist of all time (according to the Guiness Book Of World Records) and remains one of the top selling cross-over artists. Like Etta James who died three weeks earlier, Houston battled alcohol and drugs but was set to make a long-awaited comeback.
A tough month ended with comic disbelief: the humourless realization that it’s perfectly acceptable for Oscar host Billy Crystal to perform in blackface for the upteenth time — with a dash of good old fashioned race humour to boot. Underscoring the cultural myopia was the fact that it was essentially “breaking news” that actor Viola Davis decided to wear her hair “natural” and the irony of her Oscar nomination was her portrayal of a black maid in The Help (shades of Driving Miss Daisy). As implied by Chris Rock in his introduction to the Oscars animation category, Hollywood is still has a serious malfunction when it comes to race:
“If you’re a fat woman you can play a skinny princess. If you’re a short wimpy guy, you can play a tall gladiator. If you’re a white man you can play an Arabian prince. And if you’re a black man, you can play a donkey, or a zebra. You can’t play white, my God!”
Maybe it’s time to cut our losses and end Black History Month once and for all. That’s precisely the angle of a controversial documentary that debuted this month, inspired by Morgan Freeman famously calling Black History Month “ridiculous” and noting there is no “white history month.” African-American filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman set out to explore whether the “shortest and what seems like the coldest month of the year” had any relevance in the 21st century.
While signs of progress can be seen in the renaming of February to National African-American History Month by President Obama (versus the original Negro History Week, launched in 1926), famed poet Maya Angelo may have it right, stating “we want to reach a time when there won’t be Black History Month, when black history will be so integrated into American history that we study it along with every other history.” — MG