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Why I Love Black History Month–and How To Do It Better

Featured on the Huffington Post

joseph_marshall_jrI love Black History Month. I just believe we can do it better. At the beginning of February last year I had a long talk with the young people at my youth program Alive & Free to find out what they knew about Black History. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t very much. Most of their answers centered on Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, George Washington Carver and Rosa Parks. Almost all of them knew black people had once been slaves-conversations which made them feel uncomfortable especially when these conversations were held in classes at school.

What I learned from listening is that for most of them there was no real teaching or learning that goes on and certainly nothing with any depth or substance. Some had learned about famous black individuals or about black inventors, although most couldn’t recall half of what they heard. Some remembered there were posters hung around the school depicting famous Black people. Others remembered a Black History presentation or program with a guest speaker near the end of the month, and that was for the schools that did anything at all. One young lady said her high school teacher actually told her Black History Month wasn’t important and Black people weren’t important, so he wasn’t doing anything in February. All the kids felt they were being short-changed.

By the time February ended the kids said they really appreciated what we did with them during Black History Month-the time we spent on it, the discovery, the clarity, the books we turned them on to, the depth and substance of the instruction, and especially answering all of their questions as best we could. They devoured all of it. What most fascinated them was the African past–especially Kemet (ancient Egypt). They all thought Black History began with slavery. We told them “No, they were not the descendants of slaves; they were the descendants of a free people who were captured and kidnapped.” Boy was that an eye opener for them! And then the learning journey began–from the African past to the present. It was glorious.

Here’s the point I want to make. If I want to really know you as a person, why you are the way you are and why you act the way you act, I’ve got to learn as much as I can about your personal history. I’ve got to get some sense of all those events in your life that shaped you. The highs and the lows, the ups and downs, the beauty marks and the warts, the good times and the bad, the entire arc of your life starting with your birth.

So it is with Black History. If I want to know why the people act the way they act, why the community is the way it is, I’ve got to know all those events that contributed to shaping it and making it the way it is today. I just can’t get the March on Washington and the I Have a Dream Speech–one moment in time. I’ve got to get the back story, the entire story, the saga, the arc. I’ve got to be able to connect the dots so I can see how the pieces fit.

And please don’t start with slavery, because Black History doesn’t begin there. Go back to the beginning!

Why am I so passionate about Black History you might ask? Because it changed my life. There’s no way I’d be doing what I’m doing today–stopping the violence, working with young people, helping them not fall into the traps that are out there, sending them to college and paying for their college education, working for police accountability and reform–if I hadn’t learned my history. It was the Autobiography of Malcolm X that opened the history door for me and I’ve been learning ever since.

The actress Stacey Dash (Clueless) recently said on Fox News that Black History Month should be abolished because we’re all Americans. Well Stacey, maybe you don’t need Black History month but this Black American does and so do the kids I work with. I hope that’s okay with you because I’m not giving up and we’re not giving it up. By the way the government didn’t give us the concept–the black historian Carter G. Woodson did.

As February wound down last year, the kids couldn’t thank us enough for what we taught them. We sent them on an historical learning journey. You would be amazed at some of their comments– “I view myself differently. I feel different. I see my community differently. I have a better idea of why my community is the way it is today.” Still for all of them the questions lingered…”Why didn’t I know this before?” and “Why don’t they teach us this in school?”

February is now upon us again and there’s no time to waste. It’s teaching time! So in the words of the eminent hip hop artist Wyclef Jean–“Let’s get it started!” Happy Black History Month everyone!