February is Black History Month, the annual celebration of achievements by African Americans who have shaped the nation’s history.
While the month-long holiday has been around since 1976 after it expanded from a week-long celebration back in 1926, many believe that one month isn’t enough to cover a history that spans over 400 years.
“Fannie Lou Hamer was a rural Black woman from Mississippi who was a leader in organizing working-class people, poor Black people and many white people as well, seeking justice [through] the Mississippi Democratic Freedom party,” UCLA African Americans Studies, American Indian Studies and History Assistant Professor Dr. Kyle Mays said on Insight. “There are so many folks like that, everyday people who do not get the attention or credit that they deserve as important figures of Black history.”
While the holiday has existed in its current form for over four decades, historians are questioning not only how African American history is taught but how and by whom. That history can often be taken out of context in American classrooms, Mays says.
Mays joined CapRadio’s Randol White on Insight to talk about some of the forgotten Black Americans who have shaped the course of the country and how that history is taught in American classrooms.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
On the commodification of Black historical figures and Black History Month
I think that [historical Black figures] did get commodified. So what I would like to call the commodification of Black history, even today, [for example], so misremembering someone like MLK and the erasure of Black women within the civil rights movement. So, all of these things combined — it’s amazing to me that these things sort of happen well into the present.
So what I mean by commodification — Apple has a Black history [Apple watch] band. Corporations have Black Lives Matter. We saw things around in the Super Bowl. Black Lives Matter on the NBA court.
So what you have is every February, people profiting and making money off of Black pain, Black history, Black suffering, which to me, is quite unfortunate. It can be education, but it’s mostly about making money, and I don’t think that’s the right way to go about celebrating African American history, which is filled with pain and oppression, as well as resistance.
On the “myth-making” of African American historical figures
One of the favorite myths is the commodification and reimagining of Dr. Martin Luther Jr. So, there’s this whole idea that Dr. King was simply a man of nonviolence, which he was, but he also had security around and would carry guns.
One of the groups [working security for Martin Luther King Jr.], for instance, the Deacons of Defense who were actively protecting Dr. King, and they carried guns, and they did not carry a nonviolent philosophy with them.
The second thing about Dr. King, especially perhaps [for] those who consider themselves conservatives, have considered Dr. King focusing on the content of our character, but what they forget … about [his speech in Washington, D.C.] he’s also saying “we’re coming to cash our check,” right? That the U.S. owed something to African American people as well.
So they sort of take that out of context and his misremembering — that’s what I like to call it — of Dr. King is perhaps one of the most fascinating components of understanding and teaching African American history today.
On California’s role in historical moments for Black activists
California was central [in the history of Black activists], especially the Watts riots, etc. … [in] the formation of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, [and in] also the Los Angeles chapter founded by Bunchy Carter, and the unfortunate murder of Black Panthers at UCLA, my home campus, in the late 1960s.
So that sort of activism, armed self-defense, and imagining U.S. democracy to be different, to become better and different, similar to what Black Lives Matter has been doing today, has been a key part of African-American history, especially in places like California.
On the role of Black women in the civil rights movement and movement for racial justice
Often we’ll focus on large male leaders, figures, personalities, but we ignore that many organizations had people, especially Black women, doing most of the daily tasks. They weren’t always on television going in front of cameras. They were mailing things, putting things together like Marian Kramer, [the] Detroit leader of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.
They were out in the streets, but they were certainly doing paperwork, the breakfast for children program through the Black Panther Party. They were feeding children — so they’re doing all of these daily tasks which don’t get much credit, [but are] essential and foundational for organizations to run.
On looking to Black celebrities as leaders in the movement
So Malcolm X, at a panel he gave in 1963 at Berkeley, California, he criticized certain leaders for what he would call “selling out to the white liberals.” For Malcolm, he understood that just because you have money, wealth, access to power, proximity to white elites, that does not mean that you should even be considered a leader. For him, you are selling out the Black working class, white poor people because you’re there for your own individual interests and not for the interests of those who are less fortunate than you. So Malcolm was very keen on understanding the class divisions within the African American community, and we see some of these things today.
Well, I think today, and people I deeply respect, for instance, LeBron James and the More Than A Vote initiative — people using phrases like “using our platform.” For me, the question is, what does that even mean? And who designated you as such a leader? Is it because you have a certain talent? Is it because of your proximity to white elites and politicians?
Ice Cube, as a more recent example, when he was trying to work with the Donald Trump administration and get around $500 million when many reports suggest he needs 15 to 20 … trillion dollars to have any significant change in the wealth gap for African Americans. So these are more recent examples. But you have counter-examples such as Colin Kaepernick and many more, including Maya Moore of the WNBA.
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