Home > The Rationale For Black History Month

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“…Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery… “

-Bob Marley, Redemption Song-


During Black History month, we celebrate the plethora of Blacks’ achievements including scientific inventions; corporate successes; medical discoveries; educational, military and political leadership; academic excellence; electoral positions; progress towards equality and justice; notable “firsts” as in Barack Obama being the first Black President; the highest levels of achievements in the performing and fine arts as well as athletics; and, in sum, Blacks’ contributions to civilization.  However, it is critically important to note that it is more than a month of celebrating distinguished achievements.  This month of truth telling also addresses a deep and abiding concern for the healthy growth and development of people’s minds. 

Malcolm X emphasized the fact that slavery entailed controlling the minds as well as the bodies of slaves.  As he stated, “There were three people involved in the crime that was committed against us—the slave trader, the slave master, and a third one that they don't tell you and me about, the slave maker…”  Of the three, the most cruel, contemptuous, and consequential might have been the slave maker, the person who physically and mentally “broke in” the slaves --the one who got individuals to “accept” the fate of being slaves, the fate of being just another animal the slave master owned and from whom he profited.

In setting forth the significance of the slave maker, Malcolm X stated, “…You can't make a wise man a slave, you can't make a warrior a slave. When you and I came here, or rather when we were brought here, we were brought here from a society that was highly civilized, our culture was at the highest level, and we were warriors… How could they make us slaves? They had to do the same thing to us that we do to a horse. When you take a horse out of the wilds, you don't just jump on him and ride him, or put a bit in his mouth and use him to plow with. No, you've got to break him in first. Once you break him in, then you can ride him. Now the man who rides him is not the man who breaks him in. It takes a different type of man to break him in than it takes to ride him. The average man that's been riding him can't break him in. It takes a cruel man to break him in, a mean man, a heartless man, a man with no feelings…” 

               In the process of “breaking in” slaves, the slave maker engaged in cold-blooded tactics including beatings with the same whips used on animals; castration; dismemberment; lynching; rape; burning; maiming; and separating children from mothers.  Added to these atrocities was mental degradation, i.e., the slave makers’ assaults on slaves’ self-esteem by getting them to believe [1] they were not simply worthless human beings but also descendants of a lower species akin to apes; [2] they had no arts, no language, no worthwhile music, no family values, and, in sum, no culture which they brought from Africa; [3] they had contributed nothing to the advancement of civilization; and [4] the only way to save their lowly souls was to become as White as they could as fast as they could while they remained in subservient roles.

Writers such as Ngugi wa Thiang’o (Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature), Frantz Fanon (Black Skin White Masks), Carter G. Woodson (The Miseducation of the Negro) and Ossie Davis (The English Language is My Enemy) have reminded us that, throughout the African Diaspora, the control of Blacks’ minds has been integral to controlling their actions.  As Woodson succinctly indicated, “If you can control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.” 

I observed a vivid example of the foregoing during a recent trip to Jamaica.  The January 19, 2019 issue of The Gleaner (p. B9) contained the story “Too Young to be Baptized?”  Prominently featured was a photo of a Black male child about to be baptized by a White male with reddish-blonde hair and wearing a white robe.  It was a stunning image for a newspaper published in a country with a population that is more than 90% Black, has other people of color, and is less than 1% White.  One is left to wonder about the picture’s impact on the minds of young Black Jamaican children as well as adults. 

In terms of how others would control the current narratives that involve Blacks, consider a January 20, 2019 New York Times article that focused on a suffrage monument to be built in Central Park.  The women in charge purportedly could not understand the limitations of a monument featuring three White suffragists as opposed to one that also included Black women such as Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell and other women of color.  The president of the fund for the statue indicated, “The bottom line is we are committed to inclusion, but you can’t ask one statue to meet all the desires of the people who have waited so long for recognition.” 

The above irrational reasoning is why we must remove the Civil War statues across the country and why we must have historical corrections such as [1] the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration; [2] the National Museum of African American History and Culture; and [3] the Free at Last? Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries ExhibitAs the National Museum of African American History and Culture founding Director, Lonnie Bunch, indicated, “There is no more powerful force than a people steeped in their history.  And there is no higher cause than honoring our struggle and ancestors by remembering.” 

Steeped in their history, and, with opportunity gaps removed, our young children will aspire to become biologists, brick masons, casino managers, chemists, computer scientists, creative writers, dentists, engineers, entrepreneurs, food service managers, heavy duty equipment operators, pilots, police officers, public health practitioners and scholars, mathematicians, nuclear power operators, pilots, postmasters, nurses, physicians, politicians, realtors, sheriffs, social scientists, university administrators, code writers, or anything else they so desire  to actualize themselves.  

Being powerfully steeped in history will contribute significantly to Senator Kamala Harris becoming the first woman President of the United States.  As she stated in her January 27th announcement, "We are at an inflection point in the history of our world. We are at an inflection point in the history of our nation. We are here because the American dream and our American democracy are under attack and on the line like never before…  We are here at this moment in time because we must answer a fundamental question: Who are we? ... Who are we as Americans?"   In closing, she added, “We can achieve the dreams of our parents.  We can heal our nation. We can give our children the future they deserve. We can reclaim the American dream for every single person in our country. And we can restore America’s moral leadership on this planet. So let’s do this.” 

Another way of stating the reason for Black History Month is that it falls into the realm of what my granddaughter, Akili C. Echols, refers to as education for empowerment.  Paraphrasing what she said to me, “Education for empowerment addresses the widely agreed on view that education is and should be the ‘great equalizer,’ that if one goes to school and does their part in becoming successful, then they will be successful in life.  Education can be the ‘great equalizer,’ but it cannot be an equalizing force if it is distributed unequally.  Thus, education for empowerment refers to making education equitable on all fronts --everything from the policies governing the educational process, to the distribution of funds and other resources for education, to the addressing the bias in history books.”  Black History Month addresses the latter point, i.e., it corrects biases as well as lacunae in history and, most importantly, presents a valid narrative regarding Blacks’ contributions to our nation as well as the international world order.  In doing so, it emancipates Blacks and others from mental slavery.

Jack L. Daniel

Co-Founder, Freed Panther Society

Pittsburgh Urban Media Contributor

January 29, 2019

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