Love in the Stacks: Some Thoughts on Black History Month

This undated handout photo provided by the Smithsonian shows Nat Turner's bible, part of an exhibit "Changing America," begin
This undated handout photo provided by the Smithsonian shows Nat Turner's bible, part of an exhibit "Changing America," beginning Friday at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, presenting a walk back in time through two different eras. A new exhibit, "Changing America," parallels the 1863 emancipation of slaves with the 1963 March on Washington. It is thought that Nat Turner was holding this Bible when he was captured two months after the rebellion he led against slaveholders in Southampton County, Virginia. Turner worked both as an enslaved field hand and as a minister. A man of remarkable intellect, he was widely respected by black and white people in Southampton County, Virginia. He used his talents as a speaker and his mobility as a preacher to organize the slave revolt. (AP Photo/Michael Barnes, Smithsonian)

Feb. 1 marked the start of another Black History Month, an event that began, humbly enough, as Negro History Month in 1926 at the behest of historian Carter G. Woodson, also the founder of the Association for the Study of African American (Negro) Life and History (ASALH). Eighty-seven years after that first commemoration -- Woodson chose February as way to acknowledge the birthdays of the "great emancipator" Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass -- there are some who decry that there is no longer a need for such an observation as Black History Month as it effectively self-segregates the black experience from the larger American story.

When I entered college 30 years ago, I was unaware of Carter G. Woodson, let alone "Negro History Month." Like many of my peers, who did not benefit from multicultural curricula, even in public schools in a cosmopolitan metropolis like New York City, my sense of black history was limited to Martin Luther King Jr. (this in the years before his birthday became a national holiday) and the headshots of "great black leaders" that were regularly stapled on classroom bulletin boards around President Lincoln's birthday (then still celebrated as a separate holiday before, his and George Washington's birthday were collapsed into one "President's Day" holiday).

I still have vivid memories of my first Black History Month in 1984, which was highlighted by speeches from Chicago educator Marva Collins and writer, poet and publisher Haki Madhubuti, who had just published his collection Earthquakes and Sunrise Missions: Poetry and Essays of Black Renewal, 1973 - 1983 (Third World Press). That book began a constant companion; decades later there are still cadences of Madhubuti's writing in my own. My immediate response to meeting and reading Madhubuti (the former Don L. Lee) was to track down his earlier works like Don't Cry, Scream! (1969) and We Walk the Way of the New World (1970), many of which I found in the E 185 section of the library. It was then that I began a life long love affair with E 185, which within the Library of Congress's call system is the "Black" section.

It was not unusual in those days to find me on lazy Sunday or Saturday afternoons on the floor in the stacks -- the E 185 section of my campus library -- literally pulling books from the shelf onto the floor, as if I was pulling pieces together of some giant puzzle -- and indeed I was; In the absence of a Black Studies curriculum and even black professors, E 185 was my Black Studies department. Years before Google and YouTube, E 185 was my search engine, and sitting on the floor in that space, Black History Month was indeed every month, everyday.

During subsequent Black History Month celebrations during my college years, I always had great excitement about the chance to meet and exchange with many of the figures who were initially introduced to me while sitting in the E 185 section. I still carry with me the times I sat with Sonia Sanchez, Kwame Toure (the former Stokely Carmichael), Gwendolyn Brooks, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Dr. Yosef Ben-Jochannan, and Amiri Baraka, who later when I was a graduate student sat with me for two hours working through the nuances of black cultural history. That all of these exchanges occurred in the context of Black History Month events, has never been lost on me.

In our contemporary moment, Black History Month has become little more than a cottage industry, that allows mainstream institutions like corporate media and public schools to continue to segregate the black experience from the national narrative. For many of the giants (and not so giants) of Black Arts and Letters, it is the opportunity to gain some financial recognition for the work that they've done and continue to do. For far too many young blacks, their connection to black history is far too often gained from documentary footage on YouTube and searches on Wikipedia. Even amongst the privileged few who have the opportunity to take Black Studies courses on college campuses, the work in those courses are deemed secondary to academic offerings that some view as more "legitimate" or "relevant" to their post-collegiate careers.

In a perfect world, the experience of the black world would be fully integrated into the national American narrative, particularly in our school curricula, yet that is not the case -- even with a black president, who has shown little desire to use his bully pulpit to reflect on the full scope of the national narrative. Black History Month will be needed as long as black Americans experience what Salamishah Tillet refers to as "civic estrangement" in her new book Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination (Duke University Press).

For me, Black History Month will always remain the context in which I fell in love with living a life of the mind -- a love and life that is as timeless and as relevant as the occasions that inspired them.