You know what February means: Fashion Week is on the horizon, we’re a month closer to spring, and…it’s Black History Month. For the next three weeks, we’ll collectively be honoring the past achievements of black people and their (our) contributions to society. In theory, at least. In practice, it’s more like a tribute to the same handful of black leaders, inventors, and artists we’ve celebrated since Black History Month’s inception in the mid-’70s.
So until March peeks around the corner, prepare for a barrage of the following: schoolchildren reciting “I Have A Dream,” biographies of Harriet Tubman dug out of the vaults at PBS, community center tributes to Ella Fitzgerald and her jazz contemporaries, museum exhibitions focused on black art, etc.
We’ll celebrate the poetry of Langston Hughes, the writing of Zora Neale Hurston, the songs of Duke Ellington, the trumpeting of Louis Armstrong, the crooning of Billie Holiday. We’ll celebrate the intellect of W.E.B. Du Bois, the politics of Booker T. Washington, the discoveries of George Washington Carver, the courage of Rosa Parks. We’ll celebrate black history.
But while we honor our inventors and record-breakers and boundary-pushers, we’ll ignore the dismal realities faced by black people today. Statistics suggest that black Americans are poorer, unhealthier, and likely to die much younger than other Americans. Nearly 26 percent of black Americans live below the poverty line, as compared to nine percent of whites and 12.5 percent of Asians. Half of all homicide victims are black, and 93 percent of their killers are black, too.
For the next few weeks, we’ll honor our civil rights activists. But we’ll ignore the fact that black men are more likely to go prison than to college; that black men, despite making up a fraction of the population, are six times more likely to be jailed than white men; that, in 2009, one in 703 black women was imprisoned, as compared to one in 1,987 white women. That even though only 12.9 percent of Americans are black, 41 percent of American prisoners are.
We won’t talk about how they got there, or about why they keep shuffling back in.
For the next few weeks, we’ll remember the Little Rock Nine. But we’ll ignore the fact that black children are among the most undereducated in the country, that black youth are twice as likely to drop out of school than their white peers. That, according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, an average black high school graduate has the level of reading, writing, and math proficiency of a white seventh- or eighth-grader. Last week, a black Ohio woman was jailed and fined $30,000 for sending her daughters to a better school in a neighboring county.
But we won’t talk about why that is, or about the system that keeps black youth underperforming.
For the next few weeks, we’ll celebrate Ella Baker. But we’ll ignore the disintegration of the black family; the fact that the majority of black children are born to single mothers; that 69 percent of black pregnancies are unplanned; that the children of teen mothers are likely to be teen parents as well. We won’t talk about how the black family unit, integral to the development of healthy, productive individuals, has progressively crumbled.
We won’t talk about how that cycle began, or about how to end it.
For the next few weeks, we’ll talk about black history, but we won’t talk about black people.