Black History Month mercifully ended last week, but not without a note of local controversy. Some students at the Johns Hopkins University staged a sit-in to protest a "Black History" Month display at the Milton S. Eisenhower Library. The subject of the display was the anti-slavery activities of James and William Birney of Maryland, who we can safely assume were white.
The ruckus raises an interesting question. Does the study of black history at any time involve the study of whites? "Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali" has a number of curious references to Alexander the Great. Reading it, you may be inclined to study further to see just how far Alexander penetrated into Africa and how his legend came to be part of the folklore of the Mandingo people of the Western Sudan.
If the subject is anti-slavery, as in the Birney exhibit, it might be informative to mention who is black and who isn't. I remember discussing black American heroes with a young lady from the West Indies. She mentioned John Brown, and I just looked at her and grinned. She was pulling my chain, obviously joking, and I was waiting for the punchline. When none came, I had to break the news to her. "John Brown wasn't black," I said.
"What?" she asked, and looked at me as though she was waiting for the punch line. "But he led an uprising against slavery."
"The anti-slavery movement in this country was multi-racial," I told her. "John Brown was white, but he's probably the only white American whom blacks would designate an 'honorary brother.' "
Whatever the merits of including whites in a study of black history, the Hopkins students had a valid point. The Birney exhibit could give the false impression that blacks did nothing to end their own condition of slavery and were content to wait for the generous actions of whites like the Birneys to bring about emancipation. The display committee at the library should have realized this, and the Hopkins students were right on the mark in pointing out the committee's myopia.
But the Hopkins students -- and blacks in general -- are guilty of something almost as bad as myopia: provincialism. Kobi Little, one of the student protesters, was quoted by the Sunpapers thus: "The Birney display makes no mention of the contributions black Americans have made to this country." That, alas, is the prevailing definition of black history among African-Americans today: the study of the history and contributions of African-Americans to the good old U.S. of A.
Lest anyone think that Mr. Little merely made a slip of the tongue, it's worth noting that some black historians support such parochialism. "Deromanticizing Black History" by Clarence E. Walker is a collection of pedantic essays, all but one of which cover American topics. The lone exception is an essay about Marcus Garvey, whom Walker dismisses as a mere West Indian with little or no impact on the American scene.
Last year, Lerone Bennett wrote an article for Ebony magazine about the "Ten Most Important Events In Black History." The title is important. It didn't say "Black American History," but each event listed was an experience within the continental U.S.
Mr. Bennett, author of "Before the Mayflower," should know better. The independence of Haiti on January 1, 1804, establishing the first republic in the Western Hemisphere, surely ranks as a "top ten" event of importance. The fall of the Brazilian state of Palmares in 1694, an African model of independence and self-sufficiency for nearly a century, would be another top-ten contender. The defeat of the Songhai army by Moroccan forces in 1591 and the Zulu defeat of a British army at Isandlwana in 1879 could also be on the list.
Such events are not thought of as "black history" by most African-Americans. Black History Month has become an "us only" club to which black Jamaicans, Haitians, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Trinidadians, Grenadans, Central Americans, South Americans, Canadians and Africans need not apply.
I generally refuse to celebrate Black History Month when it rolls around. Like voting, "it would only encourage 'em."
Gregory P. Kane is a Baltimore free-lance writer.