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Opinion Naive hope is at the heart of Black History Month

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) in the Civil Rights Room in the Nashville Public Library on Nov. 18, 2016. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Happy Friday — the last Friday of February and, of course, of Black History Month.

I am always ambivalent about Black History Month. It has become such a corporate, mainstream event — the time of year when school and corporate cafeterias add “soul food” to their lunch menus. Of course, taking dedicated time to focus on Black history is extremely useful. But the older I get, the less I care for retailers and corporations donning Black liberation colors, pushing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. quotes and the performances of solidarity.

This year’s observance took things to an especially absurd level. Just a few weeks after the brutal killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, we saw reports of police departments sending out Black History Month patrol cars.

Dear Jesus: Please send the meteor.

I’ve written a lot about the battle being waged in our schools over America’s racial history. I’ve been in school board meetings in Texas and Oklahoma where Black educators and students were railroaded by White board members determined to limit what children learn about race and racism.

The recent controversy in Florida over a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies has taken all of this to a new level. A few weeks ago, Florida announced it would ban the AP offering, claiming it violated the state’s Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees — or Stop WOKE — Act. Since then, the College Board, which administers AP course work, released its curriculums, with notable changes, including leaving out the work of Black feminist writers such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and Audre Lorde.

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Of course, that made it look as though the College Board was caving to right-wing forces. So the College Board put out a lengthy statement in an attempt to clear the air. Remarkably, it admitted to mistakes while navigating Florida’s hurricane of race hysteria.

“We deeply regret not immediately denouncing the Florida Department of Education’s slander, magnified by the DeSantis administration’s subsequent comments, that African American Studies ‘lacks educational value,’” the statement said. “Our failure to raise our voice betrayed Black scholars everywhere and those who have long toiled to build this remarkable field.”

The College Board further admitted it was “naive not to announce Florida’s rejection of the course when [the Florida Department of Education] first notified us on September 23, 2022.”

Sigh. This is what happens when people think they can remain quiet and above the fray when marginalized folks face an onslaught: Other people get to shape the narrative.

For a good part of the past month, I’ve been reading about past battles over history and education, as well as private and public memory. I’ll discuss one particular book below. The question I’m seeking answers to: How did Black activists, educators and writers of the past respond to moments of increased race consciousness?

Because as we know, there’s nothing new under the sun ...

Book Circle: Black studies and Black Power

In 1968, CBS aired a documentary called “Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed.” It included a scene showing John Churchville, a former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member, teaching a 4-year-old Black girl at North Philadelphia’s Freedom Library Day School.

“What do you want, Jenell?” he asks.

“I want freedom,” she replies.

“When do you want it?” Churchville asks.

“I want my freedom now.”

Many Black viewers saw the series as a triumph. They thought it right to prepare Black kids to withstand a public school education that centered on White culture and values.

But others in the audience saw it as ideological brainwashing and said they didn’t think it right for a “major network to contribute to white backlash and resentment.”

Sounds a lot like today’s debates, doesn’t it?

This episode serves as the introduction to “We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination” by Russell Rickford, a Cornell University historian. I picked up his book because I wanted to learn more about the history of independent Black educational institutions. (By 1970, there were more than 60 Pan-African schools across the country.) The book details the movements for Pan-African centers of learning in the United States and the efforts by Black radicals and African anti-colonial thinkers who wanted to be free from White power structures altogether.

What caught my eye about this history was various strains of “contributionism,” which Rickford characterizes as “an approach to African American history that presented the achievements of innocuous Black strivers — from Phillis Wheatley to George Washington Carver — as the product of industriousness and self-discipline in an increasingly meritocratic society.” “Contributionism’s appeal,” Rickford explains, “rested on the premise that a portion of white America, faced with an accurate and balanced record of the nation’s past, would recognize the need for racial cooperation” — especially when it came to highlighting America’s geopolitical greatness.

However, more militant Black nationalists scoffed at the idea of contributionism — that “simply ‘calling the honor roll of great blacks of the past’ could not humanize a racist society.” The more nationalist wings saw their struggles as linked to the struggles of the Third World and wanted to build the social and intellectual infrastructure for a separate Black nation.

Well, contributionism has won the day. It is the intellectual scaffolding for Black History Month programming, fighting back against efforts to oppose critical race theory and, ultimately, for integrating courses such as AP African American studies into school curricula. Indeed, I and many other Black writers working at White institutions have made contributionist arguments — that if White America just knew how much Black Americans helped make this country great, this country would be better. The radicals would be scoffing at us, I imagine, calling us naive.

Of course, for myriad reasons, much of the idealistic Pan-African and Black nationalist movements of the 1960s and ’70s lost steam. And a number of civil rights activists and Black Power figures were assassinated or died under mysterious circumstances.

“We Are an African People” is a useful reminder that there is a rich history of Black liberation pedagogy. There have long been deep debates within the Black community about how best to maintain cultural and psychological strength in White America. And maybe “community” is the key word here. I do believe there is much value in teaching how Black people have shaped this country. But I would never expect school systems to do all the work. It’s up to our families, networks and communities to affirm, prepare and strengthen our young ones, spiritually and psychologically.

And like so many other things in this world, there are no easy answers. But as long as we are here, we must continue to ask questions.

Home Front: In Nashville, an attack on Rep. John Lewis Way

Speaking of Black people fighting for their own history, let me turn to a recent story out of Nashville.

The late civil rights icon and Georgia congressman John Lewis had a special connection to Nashville. He led many of the famous lunch counter sit-ins in the city to protest segregation. He was one of the 13 original “Freedom Riders.” He later attended Fisk University there.

In 2020, the Minority Caucus of the Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County sponsored an ordinance to rename Fifth Avenue, where the historic sit-ins occurred, to Rep. John Lewis Way. The street was officially re-christened in 2021.

Fast-forward to 2023, and Tennessee state Sen. Frank Niceley and Rep. Paul Sherell have introduced a bill to rename a portion of the road — Donald Trump Boulevard.

Yeah, you read that right.

I spoke with Jerrick Lewis, the nephew of John Lewis and the executive director of the John Robert Lewis Legacy Institute, to get his take on this direct attack on his uncle’s legacy. “It’s just very disheartening,” he said. “And my main question is — why? I have no disrespect for any president having a street named after him, but why John Lewis Way in Nashville?”

White backlash to Black progress is nothing new. Why else was Confederate Heroes Day being put on the calendar in Texas in the 1970s after Black lawmakers succeeded in making MLK day a holiday?

Lewis told me his uncle’s family is extremely hurt at the proposed renaming. “It’s like, we’re not supposed to be elevated to be celebrated? People want you to stay down at a certain level, and that’s just not the way John Lewis thought.”

Sounds like plenty of people are prepared to cause good trouble to protect John Lewis Way. Last weekend, hundreds rallied to protest the proposed name change. I’ll be watching this story to see how it pans out.

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