Black History Month: Lost in Translation

Several days ago three White South Los Angeles elementary school teachers were suspended without pay for encouraging students to honor O.J. Simpson, RuPaul and Dennis Rodman as part of Black History Month observation. The children carried photographs of the celebrities during a parade on the playground.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa discharged his outrage about the incident, the school’s principal has apologized for the teachers “errors in judgment” and the episode precipitated anger, uncertainty and debate about the teachers motives amongst Los Angeles community leaders,  the Los Angeles affiliates of The Urban League and The National Association for The Advancement of Colored People.

It is very important to note that the children were given a list of approved Black History Month personalities, a list that has not been updated since 1985.  Logically, Mr. Simpson is on that list; it predates his 1994 murder trial as well as the birth of all the students at the elementary school.

Rodman and RuPaul were added in pencil; the updates were not seen by the principal.  The teachers involved instruct first, second and fourth graders. The average fourth grader was born in 2001. Frankly I would be surprised if the students know who Dennis Rodman is let alone O. J. Simpson. Regardless, it is certainly time for the approved Black History Month list of the Los Angeles County United School District to be reviewed and brought up to date.

Notwithstanding, this cause célèbre has resulted in my observations about the purpose, meaning and evolution of Black History Month.

In 1915 The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) was founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson. The mission was to provide research and consciousness about the roles of Black people in American and World history. 1920 Dr. Carter G. Woodson and Omega Psi Phi fraternity created Negro History and Literature Week with the purpose of emphasizing the importance of Black heritage and cultural preservation in photography, literature and the performing arts which dramatized black history. In 1926, Woodson changed the name to Negro History Week and selected the month of February as homage to the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb 12th) and Frederick Douglass (Feb 14).

Negro History Week gained significance during the Civil Rights movement as Black people challenged the barrier of social justice-racial discrimination and post-Civil Rights in the 1970s during The Black Power movement. In 1972 The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) presently called The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASAALH) changed Negro History Week to Black History Week. In 1976, the nation celebrated the bicentennial and Black History Week became Black History Month.

The original intent of Negro History and Literature Week as a presentation of Black heritage and cultural preservation through photography, literature and the performing arts has resulted in the evolution of Black History month to include the celebration of Black pop-culture icons, television personalities as well as defamed Black professional athletes who are pop-culture icons and former reality TV personalities.

Performing arts may be a common thread between O.J. Simpson, Dennis Rodman and RuPaul if I use the term performing arts loosely, very loosely. However, if you evaluate the filmography of Simpson, Rodman and RuPaul, their TV and film roles as “black history dramatizations” are largely indefensible and not in the spirit of Carter G. Woodson.

Nevertheless, the inclusion, presence and influence of Black popular culture in America is undeniable.  Unfortunately, the inclusion, presence and influence of Black playwrights, choreographers, composers, writers, scientists, scholars, educators, engineers, physicians, CEOs, entrepreneurs is not as commonplace as Black pop-culture icons.

Suspending the teachers without pay is sending the wrong message. Instead Mayor Villaraigosa, The Los Angeles United School District, The Urban League, NAACP, scholars and parents should work toward expanding Black history resources, exposing children to Black history and culture beyond a 25 year old list, 20th century pop-culture relics, professional athletes and most television personalities.

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