I’ve always been ambivalent about Black History Month.
While I didn’t mind the obligatory incantation of “Every month is Black History Month,” one of the bromides dusted off every February, I would roll my eyes as bookstores stacked their windows with works by Black authors usually relegated to a bookcase in a corner.
I’d scoff at the mad scramble for Black speakers at various events, prominent displays of Black filmmakers on streaming sites, and stores that turned the month into a capitalist bonanza by co-opting Blackness as just another product. And don’t even get me started on schools continuing to serve fried chicken and watermelon for lunch without any historical context.
But this year Black History Month feels different, as if it’s been silently marked with an expiration date.
No one has been as relentless in removing Black history from classrooms as Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida. Even baseball legend Henry Aaron’s story isn’t exempt from DeSantis’s white supremacist purge.
If the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame hadn’t already existed, they would have had to build one for Aaron, who ended his career with 755 home runs. Not a hint of scandal ever tainted his 23 years as a player or his reputation off the field. In the two years since his death, praise for Aaron has remained glowing and universal.
But not in Duval County, Fla., where a book published in 2010 for kids between ages 5 and 8, “Henry Aaron’s Dream,” remains out of classrooms and off school library shelves pending a “review” to “ensure its appropriateness for children at that grade level and its compliance with new laws,” school officials said in a statement.
Those new laws include DeSantis’s revolting Stop WOKE Act, which claims to protect parents’ rights about what their children can learn but exists to spare white people from an uncensored American past and how it continues to control the present. That’s not only about the Black suffering through slavery and the Jim Crow era, but the breadth of Black innovation and achievement in a country that would not exist without it. This is designed for the glorification of whiteness at the expense of truth, facts, and history.
In a tweet, Matt Tavares, author of “Henry Aaron’s Dream,” said, “No specific reason has been given, but they seem to be removing any books that acknowledge that racism exists. They probably also don’t like the fact that it mentions the racism that Henry Aaron encountered when he played for Jacksonville in 1953.”
At 19, Aaron became one of the first Black players to integrate Florida’s South Atlantic League when he was assigned to the Milwaukee Braves’ minor league team in Jacksonville. Tavares’s book touches on the racist slurs and slights Aaron was forced to endure just to play baseball. Jacksonville is in Duval County.
“It really seems like they’re just banning stories about people who aren’t white,” Tavares tweeted. And it seems that way because that’s what’s happening in Florida — and Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, and other states.
Of course, this is why Carter G. Woodson, a Black historian, journalist, and founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, founded Negro History Week in 1926. He wanted to celebrate Black stories he believed were being purposely expunged from American history.
“It is not so much a Negro History Week as it is a History Week,” Woodson said at the time. “We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in History. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hatred, and religious prejudice.” Driven by Black college students and educators, Negro History Week expanded into Black History Month in the 1970s.
This year’s commemoration began with the College Board eliminating from its Advanced Placement African American studies course several noted Black authors including Angela Davis, Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks, and Ta-Nehisi Coates and stripping discussions of the Black Lives Matter movement and Black queer lives.
While College Board officials claim they didn’t capitulate to DeSantis, the impact is the same: students deprived of lessons and books that can help them better understand their nation and themselves. And it won’t stop with DeSantis pushing the Sunshine State deeper into the darkness of white supremacy.
My ambivalence has turned to purpose. Black History Month this year can’t just be about celebrations and capitalism. The challenge — and that burden is not for Black people to bear alone — is to save this crucial American history from being eroded book by book, law by law, and state by state.