It's Only for a Month, So Have No Fears

February 03, 1994|By NICK CHARLES

NEW YORK — New York.--Comedian Jimmie Walker once said black people were hard to find in the '50s because they were hiding out waiting for the '60s. Today, the black experience seems to hibernate for 11 months of the year, only to burst on the scene, in all its Kente and mud-cloth glory, in February.

At least, that's a reasonable conclusion given the inordinate amount of attention, recognition and celebration that will be devoted to the accomplishments and contributions of African-Americans over these 28 days.

What started 68 years ago as a single week to appreciate black culture, to reflect on contemporary stratagems for black empowerment and to re-evaluate black people's relationship with America has been transformed.

Crammed with events, Black History Month is a boon to cultural institutions and media that may not be as vigilant year-round in presenting black culture and history. February has become a month-long historical and cultural ghetto that doubles as a race-specific marketing and publicity playground.

''Traditionally, black history week or month was connected to an ongoing struggle for black self-determination,'' said cultural critic bell hooks. ''Once it is disconnected from that, it becomes part of the commodification of ethnicity.''

Winston James, an assistant professor of history and sociology at Columbia University, says the month in some respects epitomizes the second-class status -- ''the marginalization, the incapacity'' -- still assigned to blacks.

With Black History Month as a consumer-friendly concept, corporations and other captains of industry step up their pursuit of black consumers in February.

''Black newspapers and magazines get more national-brand advertising, utilizing black icons and celebrities,'' said Felix Burrows Jr., who heads View Point, Inc., a market research company in Chicago. ''During this time, you're going to have a hyping of beer, tobacco and spirits, followed by fast foods.''

In other words, Black History Month is brought to you, in part, by the people at Miller Brewing Co., Anheuser Busch and tobacco producers.

Throughout February -- yes, the shortest and coldest month -- cultural, educational and social institutions will trip over each other to participate in what has become the annual forced migration of the African-American experience onto the national consciousness.

Museums will exhibit works by established black artists, such as Romare Bearden or Jacob Lawrence, or works by suddenly rediscovered artists. Books by black authors, or on topics deemed of interest to African-Americans, will be published and make up the majority of bookstore display windows. Television stations will carry hours of programming recounting the Harlem Renaissance or some other anointed era.

Saucy icons such as Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X get more exposure, not to mention sympathy, in 28, or 29, days, than they ever got in life. Black scholars and speakers will get a Hefty bag's worth of invitations, only to wonder a month later whether the post office has forgotten their address.

''I've started declining some of these requests,'' said Ms. hooks. ''If they want me in February, they should want me the rest of the year.''

And the pantheon of icons, usually made up of dead black males (Marcus, Malcolm, Martin, etc.), is trotted out for the K-12 set, to correct whatever self-esteem deficiencies are identified among black children.

But Ms. hooks added, ''You cannot create self-love in a month or salvage a self-hating psyche in a month. While it doesn't harm that psyche, we're fooling ourselves that it can heal.''

The critics of Black History Month or African American Heritage Month don't say it should be eliminated: ''It's better to have Black History than no month at all,'' says Mr. James.

But until Black History Month is no longer paraded as evidence of black inclusion, and becomes that site of resistance, reflection and struggle that its founder, educator Carter G. Woodson, hoped Negro History Week was, it will continue to be little more than the effective cultural placebo it is.

Nick Charles is a columnist for the New York Daily News.

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