African or American?
An independent researcher on political assassinations, covert operations and hidden history, John Judge calls himself an “alternative historian.” I liken myself to an “a-historian,” whose only noble crusade is to correct the miseducation of me.
I’m an unconventional journalist, embedded in the life of a 29-year-old Black male shaped by an urban environment--hardly unique for a Black male who writes rhymes, but for a part-time “war” reporter and a part-time a-historical documentarian, it’s hard to find a credible source when I’m it. I’m as much the writer as the subject of the study, the reason for the season, educator and informant, the researcher and the researched. I am all of this, Black history and then some, a history and an a-historian.
Now you’re it.
Tag. In a month-to-month ritual where we tokenize … er, rather, celebrate Women’s History (March), Asian Pacific American Heritage (May), Chicano/a Heritage (Sept. 15-Oct. 15) and Native American Heritage (November), we need to realize we are it. Carter G. Woodson was the director of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and founded Negro History Week in 1926, the predecessor to Black History Month. He picked a week that shared the birthday of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln because he believed both these men played essential roles in increasing the social position of Black Americans. In a 1922 essay on his goals for Black History, Woodson stated, “You have a history, a record, behind you … If you are unable to demonstrate to the world that you have this record, the world will say to you, ‘You are not worthy of the blessings of democracy or anything else.’ ”
We are it. We are the record, we are tomorrow’s history as much as we are yesterday’s future. And, yes, we need to learn the lessons of our past so we don’t repeat them; but aren’t some parts of the tragedy that is American history worth honoring? Like remembering how we gave ourselves CPR when an oppressive society had us on a respirator. Remembering how we bravely sang and danced in the face of danger when institutional racism tried to assassinate our character. And it is more than a few individuals, a few monumental events and a few inventions: It is all of us and all of our stories; we are it.
Tag. So if I’m Black and I’m writing it, it must be Black history. To me, Black history is less of a subject and more of a lens through which to view a particular set of data. This requires going outside the same handful of Black folk sanctioned by White historians--commonly referred to and privileged as simply American historians--to find more sources. It makes for a more complete a-history. I see February as a month to “right” things, and when we write it, we’re the source. We, meaning all of us, should “right” it as American history instead of a tool of separation or even a mechanism of novel appreciation.
We can write February as the month W.E.B. Dubois, Frederick Douglass and Bob Marley became alive. The same month Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass also died. The month Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 23 years. The month B.K. Bruce became the first African-American to preside over the U.S. Senate. The month Four Saints in Three Acts became the first Black-performed opera on Broadway. The month Debi Thomas became the first Black to win an Olympic medal in figure skating. The month Michael Jackson won eight Grammys.
I wonder what Black people did in March? I’m sure something, for every day a woman did something in February as sure as Chicano history is made every day. I’m an a-historian because I prefer not to privilege any history. I call them all my own--the good and the bad, all Black to me when I am writing it. Woodson also said, “Those who have no record of what their forbearers have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” Even if the system in which I operate has selective memory and a curiously strong need to compartmentalize people and information, I can still doggedly pursue my storyline and collaborate with other credible journalist-poet-like-dudes and -dudettes who will continue to not just write their a-history, but make history.
Ole Carter wanted us to be inspired so we could be included in making a-history. Not just African-American history, but American history. It’s a big story, but what I take from Black History Month is a motivation to put us together, piece by piece. Not just month by month, but day by day and story by story, witness by witness.
Tag. You’re it.
Hakim Bellamy is a two-time National Poetry Slam Champion whose work has been published internationally. He is also the social and community programs coordinator with the New Mexico Office of African American Affairs.