Black History Month. Meh.

I think people who want to get rid of Black History Month are only slightly less annoying than people who complain about Kwanzaa. Yes, it's true--Bob Johnson and Michael Jordan weren't what Carter G. Woodson had in mind. But the true mark of a movement's success is its descent into hackery. Black people don't get to pick and chose what aspects of America we want to integrate into. We have to take it all.  White people who complain that there is no "White History Month," much in the way that one might complain that there is no "Black Rapper Show", merit no real response, except that we all look forward to a day when there is one.

Me on the other hand, I tired of black history month, circa 7th grade. True, I did do a recital of Marcus Garvey's "Look For Me In The Whirlwind" at the "Black Awareness Assembly" in 12th grade. But mostly when I think of Black History Month, I think of being made to watch footage of Negroes getting the shit kicked out of them, and then Negro teachers extolling the nobility of letting someone kick the shit out of you. You can imagine how well that went over in West Baltimore at the height of the Crack Age. And then there was, as one of my editors put it, the "I Am Somebody" bullshit, in which you were forced to memorize a litany of black achievement facts. The goal seemed to be to prove that my history took to rote for just as well as anybody's. I too can be reduced into a list of facts, America.

I'm thankful for some of that--Garret A. Morgan is forever etched on the brain. But what sucks is black history, as it was presented to us, was a kind of museum filled wit exhibits dedicated to the effects of oppression. It's been a great relief to read black history as an adult and find much more compelling, human stories. It helps to know that Booker T was a schemer, that Du Bois was arrogant as all hell, that Monroe Trotter was a little off. A couple of months ago, I finished Paula Giddings's incredible biography of Ida B. Wells. What a lovely book and what a heroic, brave woman. Ida Wells rode through the south with a pistol, investigating and reporting on lynchings. But the books true success lies not in extolling Wells's courage, but in this simple fact: When I finished reading, my conclusion was as follows: "Damn. I wouldn't have wanted to date Ida Wells. She's the sort of chick who'd have you beefing with some dude at the club."

That's a very irreverant reaction. And yet it showed, to me, how well Giddings had sketched her subject, had rescued her from "I Am Somebody" narrative and given her some rough edges, a sense of humor, some humanity. In other words, though much of Wells's career was a reaction to white racism, she came across as a fully realized person. If I could change anything about Black History Month, it would be that. Less hero worship. Less empty celebration of achievement. We need more people in our past, and less idols.

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

The Blacksmith: A Short Film About Art Forged From Metal

"I'm exploiting the maximum of what you can ask a piece of metal to do."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in Entertainment

From This Author

Just In