By noon on February 1, I already knew it was going to be a rough Black History Month. The annual ritual has long failed the vast and diverse story, but this year the bar was set even lower. Following the triumphant Obama era, the uplift narrative floundered: Had we really come this far just to elect one of the most extreme white supremacist candidates in the last half-century? As the new administration moved to roll back civil rights through a series of executive orders and cabinet appointments, one could see the long arc of history taking a turn for the conservative, oppressive and hateful.
That morning, Vice President Mike Pence tweeted about Abraham Lincoln, centering a white man’s role in black history. Later, President Trump remarked that Frederick Douglass was “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more,” which seemed to indicate he had no idea who Douglass was.
But it was Beyoncé who stole the show, announcing her pregnancy with twins in a simple but celestial photo shoot replete with a prop bust of Nefertiti and Virgin Mary’s floral archway — absorbing unwieldy public attention on a day appointed to revisit the black past, not speculate on black futures. (Beyonce employs black nostalgia fruitfully: Last year, she dropped the “Formation” music video during the first week of Black History Month.)
The distraction was insensitive, ignorant to its own consumerism, and escapist at best. The overall effect was of an onslaught from all sides: white supremacist heads of government and a capitalist black entertainment class. Do they even know our history?, I wondered.
In 1926, Harvard–educated historian Carter G. Woodson conceived Black History Month, believing history to be a powerful record for the survival of a people: “If a race has no history,” he wrote at the time, “it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” For Woodson, Black History Month was meant to stand separate from other forms of black remembrance, celebration, art and practice — more rigorous, more solemn, more precise. Its object was the discipline of history, not just the theme.
“The Negro can be made proud of his past only by approaching it scientifically himself and giving his own story to the world,” Woodson wrote in his 1933 book, The Mis-Education of the Negro. “What others have written about the Negro during the last three centuries has been mainly for the purpose of bringing him where he is today and holding him there.” Black history would stand against a false meritocracy that puts black achievement last at all times, by considering structures, fact and the effect of inequality.
In the second week of the month, when Beyoncé lost the Album of the Year Grammy to Adele, music writers did well to point out the ongoing overlooking of black musicians, placing the snub within a history of erasure and minimization. It was this the scientific study of it all that brought the problem to an unassailable conclusion: The Recording Academy has a race problem.
Neil Portnow, president of the academy, defended it against accusations of racism, telling Pitchfork, “I don’t think there’s a race problem at all. We don’t, as musicians, listen to music based on gender or race or ethnicity.”
But history is more than just conjecture: Are we to believe that every record that beat out a black record for Best Album was objectively better? Portnow’s commentary struck me like that of a climate-change denier. What about the science?
In the third week of Black History Month, I hoped that things would turn around, but the injury only got closer to home. The president suggested that April Ryan, a veteran reporter, schedule a meeting with the Congressional Black Congress for him. It was a plainly inappropriate request where protocol is concerned, but particularly affronting where black history is concerned.
Many were offended at the assumption that all black people know each other. But this disrespect to Ryan’s station and experience was a galling example of a particular brand of racism reserved for smart and outspoken black women—to assume that they are there to act as the help. Ryan’s rebuff was no surprise, given Trump’s “law and order” and “make America great again” verbiage — language that a black historian might be quick to attribute to previous periods of civil rights backpedaling.
In the final days of Black History Month, I naively maintained that ray of hope that the Oscars might provide some artistic justice — and that got screwed up, too. Following two years of #OscarsSoWhite, this year, many well-received black films and artists were shortlisted to win Academy Awards, and some did.
Although Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis won the Best Supporting Actor and Actress awards, Casey Affleck’s Best Actor win re-aggravated soreness in the black community over comparable accusations leveled at Nate Parker. The Parker accusations overshadowed the release of his historical film, Birth of a Nation, and have wrecked his career, but Affleck has sailed through, a notable instance of white privilege.
But nothing topped the spectacle of the evening: When Faye Dunaway announced La La Land as the winner of the Oscar for Best Picture, followed by the film’s entire cast and crew coming on stage—only to find out that the winner was in fact Moonlight. For all the awkwardness, which only the glamor of the Oscars could partially cure, the real tragedy was that this historic occasion—an all-black cast on the stage to accept Best Picture—was clipped short and overshadowed.
This year’s Black History Month can be characterized by the erasure and minimization of black history, and (predictably) black history’s embarrassing thematic reprisal in current events. But if the study Woodson had in mind can show us how to organize, or what it means to be an ally, or how racist dog whistling works through coded language, there’s something worthy of being salvaged. Black history—the recalling and conversing, the sense-making and community reckoning—needs to be foregrounded, even if just for a psychic salve: the knowledge that we’ve been here before and survived, regrouped and triumphed.