GROWING UP AS AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN KID in Virginia, I used to appreciate the collection of positive stories about black people I’d get in the paper and on TV around this time every year. Stories about schoolchildren like me reciting portions of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, for instance, or of volunteers receiving kudos for their work in the black community and praising the inspiration of King or George Washington Carver or Rosa Parks. While their accomplishments were extraordinary, at the end of another February I’ve reached the point at which I can no longer stand to see the “history” part of Black History Month interpreted so literally — so lazily .
I’m all for celebrating achievements. The problem is, with our eyes too firmly fixed on the past, we’re missing all the things black people are accomplishing right now.
The late John Hope Franklin was one of the most prominent African-American scholars of his time. After earning his doctorate from Harvard in 1941, he taught at several universities, including Brooklyn College, where he became the first black department chairman at a predominantly white institution. In 1995, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton. Franklin was a peerless historian of African-American culture, yet even he got sick of Black History Month. “In his later years, he started planning his vacations during the month of February for the express purpose of missing [it],” recalls his friend and colleague Charles McKinney, himself a history professor at Rhodes College in Tennessee. “It was becoming something we did as a matter of repetition, without really celebrating anything.”
We’ve gotten so good at lauding black cultural giants from the past that I think we’ve forgotten to celebrate the most historic developments for African-Americans as a group: the fact that we have become such an active part of this country that smart people no longer try to define us by squeezing us into small cultural boxes filled with silly sitcom characters, baggy pants, and “black” music (that is, R & B and rap). Even black doctors and lawyers can now go about their business without having to endure comparisons to Cliff and Clair Huxtable.
The surprise expressed when learning that a black man is a scientist or a black woman a surgeon or a black boy a bigger fan of classical than hip-hop or a black girl the founder of a successful Internet start-up? That’s no longer necessary, because there are so many other black Americans with similar stories. These people are now just Americans.
So instead of constant odes to the past, I want to see people like Marquis Landon Cabrera lauded during Black History Month. Just a few decades ago, the 24-year-old Cabrera would have been considered a statistic with poor odds. He bounced around foster homes till he was 15. But then he was adopted by a family in upstate New York. He graduated high school as an ROTC officer with honors and was nominated to the Air Force Academy by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Representative Maurice Hinchey. But Cabrera chose Northeastern University instead, where he graduated magna cum laude. He has interned at the White House and in Massachusetts courts.
Today, Cabrera runs Foster Skills, a Boston-based nonprofit mentoring program he founded for foster kids. He has a volunteer staff of more than 50 and partners with groups like The Home for Little Wanderers. And his organization has connected more than 270 kids with needed social services and has worked with foster care agencies in Massachusetts, Oklahoma, and Michigan. Foster Skills was a finalist in the 2012 Nonprofit Excellence Awards.
Maybe it’s time that we begin marking Black History Month by celebrating the ongoing accomplishments of people like Cabrera, rather than just replaying the same old collection of profiles on nice people doing nice things in memory of the MLKs and the Harriet Tubmans of the world.
BY THE NUMBERS
The year that the US government designated February Black History Month.