Black History Month deserves to be looked at with more complexity and thought than is currently given to it. The reflexive reaction is to applaud the notion of such a “celebration” and engage in its activities. It is also a chance, however, to reflect on some key questions – what is “black history”, why is it exceptionalised into a month of its own, and is this one month every year enough of an appreciation and acknowledgement?
On October 16th 1968, after having completed the 200 metre race, two African-American athletes raised their fists into the air and became a part of “black history”. Tommie Smith and John Carlos won Gold and Bronze respectively, but this is not what people remember. They were elite athletes, but again, this is not why their names are so prominent. In fact, giving the “Black Power salute” has become their most memorable stand. Collecting their medals wearing just black socks and a black glove on each raised fist, Smith and Carlos’s symbolic act and its significance is an appropriate illustration and embodiment of the wider implications of “black history” and Black History Month.
The two were booed off the podium after having collected their medals. Their decision to involve political issues with the sporting event angered many. Their exploitation of the opportunity to make a case on internationally broadcast television, and their “disrespect” of the Star-Spangled Banner, was seen as insulting and cynical. What Smith and Carlos managed to do was to bring the issue of oppression and violence towards blacks in America into the prestigious arena of the Olympics. They juxtaposed the gesture of black pride and solidarity with the oppressed, with the sacralised national anthem of the guilty state at hand – what Dr. King called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” in 1967, just a year before this act took place. Where injustice is concerned, the two athletes showed that no forum is too exalted to be used to bring such issues to light. The image of America had not been “tarnished” by what Smith and Carlos did; it had tainted itself long before, but only in the eyes of those who had come under its brutal arm of oppression.
Empathising with those in extreme circumstances is difficult. Understanding what they do and why they do it, and the social contexts and experiences that lead to their actions, is not easy to comprehend. Smith later said, in reaction to the boos coming from the crowd, that “Black America will understand what we did tonight.” “White America”, I presume he believed, was too detached from the realities of what African-Americans were going through and too indulged in their own lives, to understand the motivations behind what he and Carlos did. Whether this is an unhelpful characterisation of white Americans at the time or not, it raises the issue of isolation and self-isolation, and why sometimes a “controversial” and “offensive” act is necessary to wake us up from sleep-inducing comfort.
“Black history” is a history of such acts – some small, some magnanimous – that all ultimately intend to encourage empathy with the weak and forgotten. It is a history of courage in the face of overwhelming obstacles. “Black history” is world history, a history of intellectuals, sportsmen, social and political movements and traditions that stem from all corners of the world, and reach back to them also.
Photo: John Dominis/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images, Oct 19, 1968
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