Why do we recognize Black History Month
Black History Month : Black history is human history
Michaela Dudley, born in 1961, is from Berlin with Afro-American roots. She works as a cabaret artist, columnist and keynote speaker. Dudley is a trained lawyer. As an expert on diversity, the trans * woman is also committed to LGBTQI rights and against racism.
Black History Month begins on the first of February. The activist in me raves, the cynic in me rolls my eyes. You can understand the duality of this reaction if you have been in my skin, in my dark skin, for 60 years. My US birth certificate says “Race: Negro”. I'm black Damn proud, damn worn, damn it.
Allow me to begin with a few childhood memories: I got goose bumps when my Air Force veteran father told me about Jesse Owens, whom he had met in person. Owens had shown Adolf Hitler and the world in record time in the Berlin Olympic Stadium in 1936 where it was going: four gold medals. Despite his bravura performance, the national hero Owens encountered hostility at home.
In 1968, I watched myself on television when African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the Olympic podium. The alleged black power greeting was not welcomed by the mainstream audience. The "Time" magazine insulted Smith and Carlos at the time as "angry, disgusting, ugly", the front page with its pictures looked like a mug shot.
The IOC President Avery Brundage had the two blacks removed from the Olympic Village like rubbish. Incidentally, Brundage was a white American and an experienced N-word user who even encouraged his athletes to show the Hitler salute at the 1936 games in Berlin. And so we are already in the middle of black history. The story tells of double standards and humiliation across generations and oceans, of defiant triumphs in the grip of desolate tragedies.
Black History Month is about putting both the achievements and the suffering of black people at the center. The celebration, which started 95 years ago in the United States, is now celebrated around the world. In this country, Black History Month was naturalized in 1990, thanks to the suggestion of the Berlin poet and activist May Ayim (1960-1996) and the initiative Black People in Germany. Since then, associations, NGOs and cultural institutions have been organizing various exhibitions, discussions, concerts, film and dance performances and workshops.
Due to Corona, the events will be drastically restricted this year and largely shifted to the digital level. Covid-19 is not the only life-threatening epidemic that is rampant and of all things the USA, the motherland of the celebration, so mercilessly.
The forerunner of Black History Month
Breaking news: Racism is back on the radar. What would Carter G. Woodson have thought of that? Born the son of slaves, the historian paved the way for Black History Month in 1926 when he founded Negro History Week.
He put the event in February to coincide with the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln, who had proclaimed the liberation of slaves, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes.
Woodson, only the second black man to earn a PhD in history from Harvard University, advocated the introduction of African American studies into the country's educational institutions, beyond the Black Colleges. His goal wasn't just academic.
Marked by the racist unrest of the summer of 1919 and the two-day Tulsa massacre, Woodson realized that the school-based silence of many aspects of the black experience was not only contempt but also danger. One becomes "a negligible factor in the thinking of the world," he warned - knowing full well that the distance between neglect and annihilation can be terribly small. In other words: if you have no history, you also have no future.
Black history found its way into the curriculum
Half a century after Woodson's pioneering work, the weekly weekly celebration was extended to cover the entire month of February. US President Gerald Ford urged his countrymen to "honor the achievements of blacks in all areas of our history". It was 1976, the US 200th anniversary.
Back then I went to a Catholic high school, where I was even allowed to wear my Angela Davis badge on my cardigan. Educational institutions were de-segregated, at least officially, and black history was finally making its way into the curricula of elementary, secondary, and higher education.
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So the fruits of Woodson's labors could be seen. But hatred continued to germinate over the next five decades, unimpressed even by Barack Obama's eight-year residence in the White House. The murder of George Floyd by a patrolman last year is evidence of this, as are the fatal police shots at Breonna Taylor.
Far-right militias are springing up like anthrax. So-called concerned citizens are flirting with the civil war. The Confederate flag will be waved in the Washington Capitol on Epiphany 2021, which did not even happen during the civil war (1861-1865). “Whitelash”, the counterattack of the white Suprematists.
Celebrating role models is good - but not enough
In view of these developments, the question arises: “Is Black History Month” still up-to-date? "My answer is a decided yes and no. We in the Black Community are actually constantly walking the narrow, sharp-edged line between self-pity and self-empowerment, loyalty and passion. No matter what we do, others and even ourselves never really like it.
Of course, there is nothing to be said against highlighting a month of the year in order to draw the attention of non-black fellow citizens to our fate and our brave role models such as Rosa Parks or Harriet Tubman, whose portrait will soon be on the 20 dollar bill. But that alone is not enough.
Rather, we have to be careful that our figureheads do not lose their sharpness or exchange them for salon ability. In the meantime, Black History Month has degenerated into an event in many places where some of the meanwhile accessible, almost trivialized figures of the black past are allowed to enjoy an annual hero worship.
Adoration often also means appropriation
Keyword Martin Luther King. In the days leading up to his murder, he had long since passed his zenith. I still remember. The Nobel Prize winner was a troublemaker for many whites. Nowadays, however, ultra-conservative US Republicans outdo each other in quoting King as praiseworthy - as they did on his birthday the other day. That they, of all people, piously pray down King's Mountain Top speech - indeed his Sermon on the Mount - is the summit, as it were!
Because these are the same gentlemen in whose eyes Black Lives Matter is a terrorist movement. By selectively digging up and paying homage to our pioneers, archconservatives are rashly declaring the goals of the civil rights movement to have been achieved. So be careful with the parliamentarians' Sunday speeches, especially when they commemorate Afro-Germans like the great May Ayim.
Adoration often also means appropriation. Now it is the politicians themselves who clearly have to show their colors with their actions. And they have to be held accountable when the system is unwilling to solve murders like those of Amadeu Antonio Kiowa and Oury Jalloh.
We have to ensure that our movement remains flexible and does not lead to a historical ghettoization. Hashtags and “Blackout Tuesdays” are not enough. How about if the discipline of black studies finally became an independent course in Germany and our wonderful colleagues of all stripes recognized that black history is also the history of mankind. And this has to be taught, learned and lived every day.
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