I remember Black History Month growing up in the inner city schools I attended. While there was a great deal of attention paid to the same three to five figures most influential in Black History (Tubman, Parks, King, et al.), we were also encouraged to look up other African Americans and report on them. The thinking back then, especially as we entered middle and high school, was that if we could find a role model in the field that we eventually wanted to work in, we might be more encouraged to stick with it. Then, as now, most of the popular media attention was focused on African Americans in sports and entertainment, but we were told to dig deeper. We were told to look into Politics, Science, Medicine, Education, Literature, literally almost anything but sports and entertainment. Self images were being formed, and every adult knew it. If we were going to pick role models outside of our parents (which happens as we try to build our separate identities), then our parents wanted to make sure that we were focused on the qualities that would eventually shape us into the type of productive, progressive human beings they knew we were capable of being rather than the shallow caricatures the media often portrayed us as.
In 1983, new wave group Oingo Boingo posed the question "Who Do You Want To Be Today?", then proceeded to ask if we wanted to be just like someone on tv. For African American youth and young adults, this was a loaded question. If television defined and reinforced our roles, then we were expected to aspire to little more than the thin visions of ourselves that were permitted to be shown in popular media. Until Bill Cosby brought the vision of a successful, intact, middle class family headed by a physician and an attorney to American prime time in the mid-80's, we were often shown as broken families, loud clowns, or stoic sidekicks, with very few exceptions. This was at the dawn of the music video area, and the beginning of the definition of our lives and roles by the portrayals of Black men and women, and their relationships in these musical shorts. During this time, we were also introduced to the excesses of the hip-hop genre, and although not all of the artists preached materialism as pseudo religion, those were the artists that came to dominate the airwaves. We were assailed at all times by the tales of the extraordinary feats, and failures, of superstar athletes.
So who did we want to be? For 28 days each year we were asked to expand our definitions of who we could be, by turning our focus away from the media driven definition of what success should look like for us, and based on our own research, begin to craft what we wanted our futures to look like. There were, and there always will be, those who aspire to sports and entertainment. For quite a few of our young men, and some young women, sports were just the ticket needed to pay for their college educations. Educations that produced doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants and entrepreneurs. Educations that were not wasted, because due to a partnership between home and the classroom, youth were given something to strive towards by first being made to look back. Somewhere, in our shared history, was someone that we could relate to, whose career, or life, was something we would want to emulate.
For me, Black History Month has always amounted to finding the answers to three questions: Where have we been? Where are we now? Where are we want to go? These questions were the basis of our study of Black History many years ago, and sadly are being overlooked today in our hurry for the next headline, the next hero, and sadly for African Americans, the next heartbreak or humiliation. But if we continue to tell the old stories to the next generation, not just the safe, familiar narratives, but those diverse voices that tell every side of the African American story, maybe they will get something new out the stories. We never know who we are inspiring when we inform our youth that there is more to our history than the snippet that is shown to them in the media. Because if we don't give them the full picture of the possibilities available to them, how are we going to expect them to decide, with any real clarity, who they want to be?