School children are lauding "local black heroes." Uncle Ben's Rice is saluting Paul Robeson. Radio station managers are haunting libraries for history reflecting the black contribution. The preachers, the politicians, even the journalists are reeling from making speeches at all hours before crowds mighty and miniscle.
There are exhibits depicting the long black struggle for freedom and proclamations of the important role blacks have played in the creation of America. Black folks are sticking out their chests a little. In local and U.S. government agencies and in private industry, from Maine to California, if it's February, it must be Black History Month.
This is a bittersweet celebration. Just 57 years ago, there was no such event to mark the fact that blacks were among the many millions who built the America we know. Once, a handful of historians, black and white, labored against the odds to straighten out the distorted facts of history--erasing the rosy portraits of smiling slaves and generous masters, debunking notions that the only black heroes were George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington. It was to rectify the injustice and shortsightedness that Carter G. Woodson began Black History Week in 1926.
But a week wasn't long enough to honor black achievement. The idea of mining this rich, neglected field caught on. Now it's a month-long celebration. With that change has come something of a different view of things. Students demanded and got black history as a part of some college curriculums. Alex Haley's "Roots" wedged one view of the black experience into the popular culture. The revolution of black consciousness prompted genealogical searches and family reunions. Many more scholars began to write and probe.
Maybe we still need this month, but maybe we don't. People are rethinking things. I know one woman who was made so furious by this annual rite that she stormed out in the middle of a Black History lunch, muttering, "Hell, don't give me no month, put me into American history 365 days a year."
I know another whose hands stopped in mid-air as she reached for yet another recording of black music, and said, "If this is important enough for me to do this month, isn't it critical enough for me to do all of the time? There shouldn't be just a month of focus on all this history and culture. Hell, civilization started in Africa."
I have friends who grow nauseated at the commercialism and hypocrisy of, say, Uncle Ben's--whose smilin' black "uncle" symbol is a throwback to the days when blacks were not called mister--saluting a cultural revolutionary like Paul Robeson, an activist, singer and actor who denounced capitalism and who was silenced by the very system now hailing him.
Still, I'm not convinced this month is a total anachronism. I'm not so sure that it is something that we can do without. I don't think this country has gone far enough in its efforts to achieve parity to dispense with this special concern.
For this month does show black people not as pathology, but in full humanity. This month does underscore that black and white people need to know black history. This month does teach us new things and gives some people a chance to feel and to know pride in themselves--even if it is a little too often vainglory.
But at best, this sword has two very jagged edges. There's a "Month," but no serious integration of the subject into many schools. Too often, what little black history is taught centers mostly on slavery and a few superachievers. Many school children can recall much they have learnt about Russia, China and the Middle East, but nothing about blacks.
History gives identity, and when it is neglected, people become alienated and feel they don't belong. We have a generation growing up now being made to feel that they are rootless and have done little to build the present.
Perhaps half a loaf is better than none. But this country will have really come of age when, "Month" or no "Month," we can all remember the past the way it really was, with all of the forces that have made us a great, if troubled, giant.