Black History Month, fried chicken and American historical ignorance

Black-People-Fried-Chicken-A-Love-Affair-in-AdvertisingNearly half way through Black History Month 2014, the only story remotely related to black history that seems to have broken into the national consciousness is one from California in which a high school came under criticism for offering the stereotypical African-American cuisine of fried chicken and watermelon on its lunch menu.

Administrators at Carondelet High School, an all-girls Catholic school, thought it would be a good idea to celebrate the annual month dedicated to the appreciation of African-American history by serving a special lunch of fried chicken, cornbread, and watermelon – because, after all, that’s what black people eat. The school’s announcement naturally set off a firestorm of criticism from students and parents, a firestorm that inadvertently provided some historical context for the controversy.

As several media outlets reported, the ridiculous fried chicken and watermelon stereotype was popularized by the racist 1915 film Birth of a Nation. In the movie, a grim warning was issued about the consequences of letting African Americans vote, with one scene showing black politicians drinking and being rowdy during a legislative session. One of them is seen ravenously eating fried chicken.

“That image really solidified the way white people thought of black people and fried chicken,” Claire Schmidt, who studies African American folklore at the University of Missouri, told NPR.

For what it’s worth, Carondelet Principal Nancy Libby promptly issued a letter apologizing to parents for the episode, explaining that the menu choice was not intended to offend anyone. “I’d like to apologize for the announcement [of fried chicken and watermelon] and any hurt this caused students, parents or community members,” Libby said in the letter. “Please know that at no time at Carondelet do we wish to perpetrate racial stereotypes.”

Setting aside for a moment how monumentally ignorant it was for the school to set such a lunch menu in “honor” of black history – not to mention how silly the whole stereotype is to begin with, considering how pretty much everyone regardless of race or ethnicity equally enjoys fried chicken and watermelon – consider for a moment what this controversy says about the sorry state of historical education in America.

Indeed, one wonders what thought process led to the decision being made in the first place. It’s hard to imagine the staff meeting in which this approach was decided on, but perhaps it came down to a toss-up between having a “ghetto fabulous” theme day or serving fried chicken and the administrators thought that the theme day would be too distracting.

Regardless, the fact that a school actually resorted to implementing a mindless stereotype regarding African-American culture should sound the alarm about this country’s general level of historical ignorance, and could call into question the usefulness of Black History Month altogether.

While the roots of the month’s observance may have some validity, being originally established by a son of former slaves in 1926 to counter the complete absence of African-American history from history books, at this point the tradition looks like little more than a band-aid attempting to cover a badly broken bone – in this case the broken bone of historical education in America.

The month dedicated to African-American history is just one of many identity-based history months, including Native American Heritage Month (November), Hispanic Heritage Month (September-October),  Women’s History Month (March), Irish-American History Month (also March), and Asian-Pacific Heritage Month (May).

But rather than promoting an unflinching look at the American story (warts and all), these months arguably serve to compartmentalize Americans’ understanding of history into distinct narratives of history, when in fact it is all just history, and all of it together has shaped – and continues to shape – the contemporary world.

How exactly does John Brown’s raid fit into the picture, one might wonder. A white abolitionist, in 1859 Brown attempted to spark a slave revolt in the south by seizing a federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, from where he intended to launch a series of attacks on plantations and raise an army of liberated slaves.

His plan ended in total failure and his subsequent death by hanging, but the shockwaves that the attempted revolt sent through the south are credited by historians as giving impetus to the Civil War, which in turn brought an end to the institution of slavery.

Brown’s ancestors, however, were 17th-century English Puritans, so unfortunately his story wouldn’t fit into any of the neatly conceived heritage months that are designated for various ethnic groups in America. But obviously his heritage is important for both African-American history and U.S. history in general, with the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People considering his contribution so important in fact that they chose Harper’s Ferry for their first meeting on U.S. soil in 1906.

One of the NAACP’s founders, Dr. W. E. B. DuBois wrote of Brown as “the man who of all Americans has perhaps become nearest to touching the real souls of black folk. John Brown worked not simply for black men – he worked with them; he was a companion of their daily life, knew their faults and virtues, and felt, as few white Americans have felt, the bitter tragedy of their lot.”

America in general should honestly look at its past – including African-American slavery, Native American genocide, and Jim Crow – on a daily basis and remember that the very founding of the nation is rooted in a deep-seated hypocrisy on fundamental concepts of freedom and liberty, but also that throughout history there have been courageous people of all races, ethnicities and genders who have striven for justice and made the country a better place.

This approach to history, however, would not fit in well with the compartmentalized approach that is offered by designating months to various demographics. Beyond this identity-based approach, what about other important aspects of history, such as the U.S. rise as a global empire starting with the Spanish-American War of 1898? How about a month designated to studying America’s foreign military adventures, or perhaps a more manageable course load of just post-World War II military conflicts and covert operations?

Of course, it is fairly unimaginable to think of the U.S. holding a “Covert Action History Month” every year, which is precisely the point. The identity-based heritage months serve to not only compartmentalize history, but also simplify history by omitting vast areas of study that are vital to understanding contemporary American political life. If this is not the intention, it is certainly the effect.

So, perhaps it is time to do away with these heritage months altogether, and instead dedicate every month to critically examining the American past.

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