“…history is best qualified to reward all research.” – Malcolm X
African-Americans have historically played a trailblazing role in the quest for justice, equality, and freedom in the United States and internationally. Let’s examine the roots of Black History Month and our struggle today.
Carter G. Woodson, an African-American scholar and author of the classic 1933 book The Mis-Education of the Negro, pioneered the call for a “Negro History Week” that was established in 1926. Woodson’s Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) and the Journal of Negro History provided ground-breaking work focusing on the contribution of people of African descent throughout the diaspora and the world. The work of Woodson and countless women, men, and organizations began to debunk and confront the stereotypes, mythology, and brutality of U.S. capitalism and white supremacy. Their work in rescuing the humanity of African people coincided with militant social struggle by the black working class, poor, and youth engaged in a fight to end racial and class oppression.
Black History Month evolved during and after the Black Power era, through student strikes and occupations on major universities and college campuses around the country, opening the door for working-class and young people of color to attend higher education. Subsequently, ethnic and black studies programs were established throughout the country. The study of black history permeated communities and workplaces as the political, class, and racial consciousness was heightened during the 1960s and 70s.
Today, higher education for working-class, middle-class, and particularly black and brown youth is becoming less accessible due to rising tuition costs and elimination of Pell grants. Ethnic and black studies are being eliminated or merged into other social science departments by university administrators and big business around the country in this post-racial era.
The history of African people in the U.S. has devolved into a commercial enterprise for multi-national corporations to sell SUVs, Big Macs, and computers every Black History Month. To make this month meaningful, we need to learn our past to better arm ourselves for struggles against capitalism and racism in the future.
Obama and African-Americans
This year, President Barack Obama will attempt to galvanize black workers and youth to support his campaign. Yet in the four years of the Obama Administration, African-Americans have borne the brunt of economic neglect during this deep recession and jobless recovery. The Brookings Institute reports that “blacks comprise 45 percent of the population living in extreme poverty neighborhoods.” The official jobless rates in thirty-five cities for African-Americans are between 30-35 percent, matching the Great Depression years.
Donna Addkison, President of Wider Opportunities for Women, which commissioned the study “Living Below the Line: Economic Insecurity and America’s Families,” found that 80 percent of single black mothers “working the equivalent of full time still are not earning enough to get… beyond economic insecurity. “We’re talking about a baseline, we’re not talking about even cable television or cell phones,… but the costs of housing, food, transportation, health care, and child care, …basic needs,” said Addkison. These figures speak to the structural oppression under a racist capitalist society overseen by the first black president.
Still, Obama’s approval rating is 58 percent among African-Americans. Obama has strong support in the black community in the midst of the GOP presidential primary circus. Obama has pushed activists, Black Congressional Caucus members, the black misleadership, and grassroots organizations to get the vote out in November. What are we getting in return for our support beyond a symbolic figure in the White House?
We must be honest; we are engaged in a historically abusive relationship. As Malcolm X said “…you put the Democrats first, and the Democrats put you last.” Obama has consistently put the needs of Wall Street oligarchs first, before the working class, particularly black workers, the poor, and youth. A clean break from the party of slavery, Jim Crow, war, and austerity is needed. We must begin to forge an independent working-class political course rooted in speaking truth to power, economic justice, collective social struggle, and building a party of the working class and poor.
Reclaim Your History
The study of history by working people, particularly black workers, the poor, and youth, enables us to learn the valuable lessons of past struggles, our victories and bitter defeats. It reminds us of where we’ve come from, our present condition, and the struggle towards living in a world without oppression, violence, and self-hate based on your race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or class. Carter G. Woodson envisioned black history to be a living experience to be celebrated year-round. By reclaiming our history, we reclaim our voice, dignity, and humanity for this and future generations.