One of the most brazen statements related to Black History Month in recent years came from rapper Kanye West about ten years ago when he said “...I make Black History everyday, I don’t need a month.” Since then, this phrase has found it way across the lips, Twitter timelines, and Facebook statuses of a new generation of Black folks every February. Like many of Kanye West’s statements, the words seem to revolve around a need to affirm oneself. However, reflecting deeply on the essence of the quote, and considering its decade long permanence as a manta of sorts for the hip-hop generation, West’s declaration signals the tensions between Black History Month and the youth to whom it should mean the most.
In my interactions with young people over the last two weeks as I have drifted in and out of Black History Month events as a speaker, teacher, or fly on the wall, I have seen Black and Brown faces from various ethnicities disengaged in the mandatory Black History Month classroom lessons, and purposefully skipping the voluntary Black History Month celebrations. When I asked them why, I received a number of responses that indicate that they acknowledge the month and its historical significance, but somehow don’t feel connected to it. For a new generation, Black History Month has become an appreciated but seldom used relic. An expensive outfit purchased by their grandparents tucked in the back of the closet, but rarely, if ever worn.
The phenomenon I describe above doesn’t mean that a new generation doesn’t recognize the importance of Black History Month. They see the need to celebrate Black history and to highlight the contributions of Black people across the diaspora. They understand its significance given the metaphorical and literal white washing of Black history from school curriculum. They will even fight feeble and intellectually simple justifications for getting rid of Black History Month (see Stacey Dash). Yet, they are not fully connected to it. Despite their cerebral connections to the month, it remains in the back closet of their collective consciousness; recognized but rarely truly valued or celebrated.
What is most fascinating about the relationship between Black youth and Black History Month is how connected this generation is to the activism that the month was intended to spark and fuel. They are socio-politically awake, deeply aware of their Blackness, and actively engaged in the work of championing for the rights of Black folks. They are stretching the discourse on Blackness and how it has been fashioned to be an ever-present threat to America, they are interested in running for political office, and jumping into the discourse around the upcoming presidential election. Any assessment of their engagement in the current landscape of civil rights indicates that they are intellectually and socio-politically rigorous. Yet still, Black History Month remains tucked in the metaphorical closet as a thing that they don’t necessarily want to engage with.
In response, I suggest that a deliberate effort be made to understand this generation’s disconnect with Black History Month. Based on what I’ve observed in this month, I can offer a simple step forward.
Firstly, it is important that we connect Black History Month to the young people making history today. I suggest that we should do this before we connect to the heroes like Martin Luther King Jr, Thurgood Marshall, and Harriet Tubman that we too often lead with. This is not to devalue their legacies or diminish their significance, but to highlight the fact that in the telling and retelling of their stories in ways that have a beginning and an ending removed from the present generation, they have been stripped of their true value in connecting to youth. Beyond telling the stories of our ancestors, we must highlight the work of young people who are actively fighting for civil rights and equality everyday. People like Bree Newsome who climbed a flag pole to remove a Confederate flag at a monument at the Statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina, and Jonathan Butler who went on a hunger strike in protest of racist incidents at the University of Missouri have engaged in powerful recent work that youth can connect to in ways that are unimaginable.
In my work, I find that young people do not want to know about flawless heroes who lived perfect lives and then died long before they were born. They honor these heroes, but they do not feel a connection to them. Today’s youth do connect to those whose missions are still unfulfilled and who need them to carry on tradition.
Each celebration and classroom lesson I have witnessed this month is formulaic and repetitive. Too many tell the same stories about the same heroes the same way at the same time each year. The notion of history is taken too literally and the concept of recent and local history is lost in the interest of maintaining tradition and celebrating the ancestors. Of course, this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t celebrate important figures in Black history. We should. However, we must recognize that their stories don’t end at their death, tightly wrapped in pretty bows; not if we expect youth to continue to celebrate this month. Furthermore, the stories we tell cannot be so glorified and sanitized that youth are unable to relate to them. I believe that our heroes die twice when we stop them from living in the hearts and souls of the next generation. Connections that need to be made between the ancestors and the present generation cannot be made when history is told without context. If the stories of past battles are told like they are over or conquered, Black History Month remains as it currently stands...not as meaningful to those who can carry on its traditions as it needs to be.
About the Author
Christopher Emdin is an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science, and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he also serves as associate director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education. The creator of the #HipHopEd social media movement and Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S., Emdin was named the 2015 Multicultural Educator of the Year by the National Association of Multicultural Educators and has been honored as a STEM Access Champion of Change by the White House. In addition to teaching, he serves as a Minorities in Energy Ambassador for the US Department of Energy. He is the author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y’all Too. Follow him on Twitter at @. Visit his website: chrisemdin.com.