It’s been quite a Black History month.
For most Americans, February is when everyone watches the “Free At Last” clip of MLK at the March on Washington or grainy B&W documentaries of cops attacking Black students with dogs and firehoses. There may be PSAs on tolerance with cursory mentions of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass on local news segments. People are comfortable with those images of Black history, because it’s history. Safe. Static images of things that happened before any of us were born and have no bearing on our lives or the present.
Not this year.
As far as popular culture goes, February 2016 will go down in history as the Blackest Black history month on record.
Conventional music industry wisdom says that Black artists who aspire to mainstream (white) superstardom have to make their ethnicity as ambiguous as possible. Beyonce destroyed that convention with “Formation”, a track with lyrics that explicitly declared her Blackness and Southern bonafides and a video with images right out of the protests that have erupted nationwide over the past two years. People who where confused and shocked by the song went into hysterics after her halftime show at the Super Bowl. Flanked by all Black female dancers dressed in a homage to the Black Panthers she used a world platform to call attention to Black womanhood and Black activism. The image of a Black woman celebrating her Blackness in the middle of America’s (White America’s) game, a game where one of the teams had a Black quarterback who has been attacked for being his authentic Black self, was a bombshell with reprecussions that are still being calculated.
A few days later, Kendrick Lamar gave a visceral, searing performance at the Grammys that condensed the oppression, hope, joy and anger of Black American life into six minutes. His set put images of Mass Incarceration, African dance, and social uprising on a global stage and reminded America that the Black music it loves to consume comes from a place of real struggle and creativity in the harshest economic and psychological conditions.
The week after that saw the premiere of the PBS documentary Vanguard of the Revolution, a history of the Black Panther Party that got great ratings and critical accolades. It’s sparked discussion about the how some of the conditions that created the party are still with us today, as well as the extrajudicial tactics the government pursued to destroy the party leadership, including fomenting internal division, false imprisonment and state sanctioned murder. Conservatives attacked the film, saying it praises a group that incited terrorism and violence against police, ironically the same lies used to discredit modern protestors.
Not even the Academy Awards provided white people any respite from the onslaught of angry Blackness. While the show itself was indeed the whitest awards telecast in years the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag brought attention to the lack of Black nominees and diversity in the Academy, despite it having a Black president and Chris Rock as a host.
One of the memes that circulated in the wake of Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy set was of white audience members sitting with their lips tight, staring nervously at the uncompromising Black spectacle taking place in front of them. It’s a great metaphor for the different perceptions of Black culture in America and levels of comfort with the history that formed that culture. For many African-Americans, February’s celebrations of Blackness were seen as acknowledgement of strength in the face of adversity and hatred. For many whites, they were seen as angry, hostile actions by race baiting troublemakers.
Regardless of the responses, February 2016 reminded everyone that Black American History is a living, vital, ever evolving tapestry, one that still has the potential to make power structures nervous. What the people who are uncomfortable with that don’t understand is that none of this was about them. It was about Black people acknowledging our own heritage and greatness, taking it out of textbooks and continuing to create it with present day actions.