Black History: More Than a Month
February is Black History Month -- “a time to honor the struggles and triumphs of millions of American citizens over slavery, prejudice, and poverty.” Perhaps more importantly, it’s a time to celebrate African Americans’ myriad contributions to our country’s cultural and political life.
On “Jewesses With Attitude,” it might seem fitting (and predictable) to blog about Jewish women’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement or the Jewish tradition’s ethical imperative to strive for racial equality. But honoring Black History Month by drawing attention to Jewish achievements -- notable as they are -- makes me uncomfortable. True, Jewish history demands our responsibility to identify with the “other.” But through our identification, we sometimes run the risk of co-opting something that isn’t ours.
What interests me is the extent to which Black History Month and other racial or ethnic themed months that have emerged -- American Indian/Alaska Native Heritage Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and, beginning last May, Jewish American Heritage Month -- serve as effective vehicles for remembrance. Black History is so central to U.S. history, that the act of re-claiming and re-packaging it into one month is almost embarrassing. So much history has been erased and manipulated by generations of white men, that February’s concentrated attention seems to marginalize the stories of African Americans. Yet this month of remembrance does remind all Americans that these narratives should not be ignored. Black History Month somehow satisfies the recurring need to redress the absence and erasure of an entire group of people from our collective story. Regardless of who we are or where we’re from, Americans share the same (secular) calendar. We all have February, which allows for collective remembrance. Or does it?
At a lecture I attended last night, I was reminded of how central the act of remembering is to being Jewish. Instead of randomly assigned to commemorate months, Jews have concretized remembrance through ritual experiences. At Passover, we re-live the Exodus story, the story of our freedom from Egypt, through the ritual of a Seder. As we re-live this story from year to year, we absorb a past that can inform the present. And knowledge through experience feeds possibilities for change. For me, this presents a challenge -- since our present-day realities are so different from those of the past, the process of knowing history by living it sometimes lacks a sense of authenticity. How can I actually journey from slavery to freedom when I’m sitting in a comfortable home? And yet, even as I am very aware that the Seder cannot really recreate the historical experience of oppression, its annual repetition offers an opportunity to interact with my ancestry, which generates a deeper kind of understanding.
Perhaps this interactivity is what’s missing from Black History Month (and all of the other themed months of the year). While the month itself challenges our tendency to forget the sacrifice and struggle of the African American community, how do we commemorate this history beyond the calendar? How can we celebrate Black history and interact with it in ways that reflect our shared responsibility as change-agents?