Tyrone Williams

Why is black history celebrated during the month of February? Because it's the shortest month of the year. This joke has circulated in black communities for several years, and the cynicism embedded in it is telling. It points to a web of frustration, resignation and resentment which rarely fails to ensnare the observant black.

This bitterness is understandable. Black history month celebrations are supposed to make a difference in the perceptions and attitudes of blacks and whites. For both blacks and whites, black history offers a glimpse of the achievements of black culture in all its cultural forms-African, Caribbean, European, American. As such, it offers cultural touchstones as a corrective to prejudice and stereotyping.

If one views black history month in the context of other ethnic celebrations and holidays-Oktoberfest, Hanukkah, St. Patrick's Day, etc.--one notices three things immediately: (1) black history is celebrated over the course of a month--however short--as opposed to a day or weekend; (2) this "privilege" is alleged to derive from the simple fact that blacks represent the largest minority in this country and, unlike other minorities, were the victims of the cruelest system of slavery in modem history; (3) the existence of ethnic holidays presupposes and acknowledges the cultural norm that is in place all the other days--or months--of the year.

In this respect, ethnic groups delude themselves when they believe their annual celebrations counter the annual holidays--e.g., Christmas, Independence Day, Memorial Day--of the dominant racial, religious and gender group. For in many ways these holidays of the dominant ethnic group are redundant, overdetermined; they are "special" affirmations of what is already apparent everyday of every year in the media and cultural institutions of the predominant group: the predominance of WASP values. For example, two of the three majority culture holidays cited above--Christmas and Independence Day--celebrate consumerism in the guise of Christianity and Jingoism in the guise of patriotism. The themes of all three holidays are preached at us daily in the form of newspaper editorials, advertisements, political speeches, toys, games, public education, etc. Their message: obey Christian values, buy lots of stuff, and be willing to die for your "freedom." These values, bound to specific theological, economic and political interests, largely embodied in a specific ethnic value-system, are assumed to be the "natural" interests of all Americans regardless of race.

Because the issue of black solidarity represented by black history month is related to problems of integration and segregation, civil rights and nationalism, the black intelligentsia, the bourgeoisie and working classes, I want to discuss the implications of black history month by way of the work of Harold Cruse. I refer specifically to his controversial landmark study, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership.1 I want to argue that both the black and white intelligentsia and bourgeoisie are fundamental to the institutionalizing of black history month, so it behooves us to reconsider the class and racial implications of this fact. From the point of view of the disenfranchised black working classes, the question put to the black bourgeoisie--which includes but is not the same as the black intelligentsia--is not only what have you done for us lately but also what have you ever done for US.

I begin with a quotation from the foreword to the 1982 edition of the Crisis: "as the number of professionally trained black intellectuals has grown, there has been a parallel lessening of a collective sense of common experience, common purpose and perhaps even common commitment."2 What the foreword's authors--Bazel E. Allen and Ernest T. Wilson III--mean by this gloss on Cruse is that although there are more opportunities than ever for the ambitious black intellectual (though the Reconstruction period might be the exception that proves the rule), these opportunities seem to entail alienation from the working classes. But what Allen, Wilson and Cruse fail to sufficiently emphasize is this: the black working classes aspire to the status of the black bourgeoisie. This is why the black intelligentsia, like all intelligentsia, often finds itself adrift between the bourgeois and working classes. What unites the black bourgeoisie and black working classes is their capitulation to the marketplace; the bourgeoisie embodies the values to which the working classes aspire. In so far as the marketplace is dominated by white capitalists, this capitulation explains in part why black nationalism has failed consistently. As Cruse shows, the history of black leadership is the history of black leaders selling out the black working classes while they (the leaders) reap the partial benefits of integration into a predominantly white culture. But I want to stress that black history is also the history of the black working classes' failure to support black cultural institutions, black businesses and black political organizations. The black working classes--industrial or service oriented, Northern or Southern, small town or big city--also desire to integrate into the predominant culture. Thus their "nationalism" is often a result of their inability to make the "leap" into the predominant society. This nationalism--much like the nationalism of the early Malcolm X--is defensive, reactive. It spends more energy damning whiteness than it does affirming blackness because it secretly longs for the approval of white society.

Thus, both the black bourgeoisie and black working classes can be viewed as two moments in a movement toward assimilation into the predominant culture. Both have a great deal of investment in the "melting pot" strategy of integrationism. But Cruse argues persuasively against integration as a strategy for group achievement, though not against integration as a value per se:

However, it is important to emphasize here that racial integration is not being criticized as a social philosophy on purely moral or ethical grounds as a human condition. It is being criticized on sociological grounds, because its methodology is open to question, in terms of means to achieve an end. It is the means that are under attack here, because the ends that are sought could very well be defeated by faulty means.3

Now if integration as a strategy for improving the welfare of blacks as a group is 'flawed," then the value of the Civil Rights movement is open to question. Cruse thus argues that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 implies the impotency of the 14th and 15th amendments as applied to blacks. Indeed, Cruse reminds us that those opposed to the Civil Rights Act cited the Constitution on their behalf since the Act violated the rights of individuals and private property.4 In this regard, then, the Civil Rights Act was an important and bold step forward for protecting those blacks integrating into American society. But as most blacks, like most Hispanics and whites, live in segregated communities, the Civil Rights Act meant very little for the majority of blacks. The Act helped the bourgeoisie and those aspiring to be bourgeois. To this extent, the Act is fundamentally reformist as opposed to radical. And it is this facet of the Civil Rights Act that makes it constitutionally valid: it protects individuals, not groups. Because the Constitution is geared toward individual rights, it can never, in its present form (and this includes all past, present and future amendments), protect the rights of groups. Thus, critics of the ERA also cited the Constitution to argue against the proposed amendment which, they claimed, sought to protect the rights of a group (women). But the point is that even if the ERA is passed one day, it will never protect the rights of women in general since its very wording is geared to the protection of individual women in their interactions with the dominant gender. Thus the ERA is to women what the Civil Rights Act is to blacks: a document for the assimilation of individuals into an established system that is largely hostile to the values and practices that women define as "womanly" and blacks define as "black." The extent to which women and blacks capitulate to essentialism is, strictly speaking, irrelevant here. For even if one argues that there are "womanly" values and "black" values sewn into the fabric of American life in all its facets, that there could not, in fact, be an America without these "other' principles, it would then be the case of the system's self-denial. In short, whether an oppressor subjugates an "other" from fear of contamination or self-discovery, the fact remains that the "other" is subjugated.

The cruel irony, as Cruse shows, is that the Constitution itself was formulated for the political, cultural and economic interests of a particular ethnic group: White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.5 It is from the perspective of this majority ethnic group--which never calls itself ethnic--that all other groups get designated as ethnicities, special interests, the 'Other," etc. Given this entrenched power, integrationism is perforce assimilationism since it is incapable of offering a critique of current institutions, values and practices that reflect majority interests without undermining its strategic function. Those who thus propose to change the system from "within" rarely understand that radical systemic changes would mean the abolition of the processes that allowed them to get into the system. The truth is, most "activists" within the system work for, and sometimes accomplish, "mere" reforms. These "mere" reforms are not unimportant; however, their limits are always made devastatingly apparent. Consider, as one example among many, the recent rollbacks in rights for women, blacks, criminals, etc.

Black history month began as Negro History Week under the auspices of the black historian Carter Godwin Woodson. As such, it was unabashedly nationalist since it concentrated black achievements into a separate limited context. Precisely because it defies the integrationist strategy that would see it subsumed under American history, black history month would seem to be a positive nationalist gesture. But Cruse criticizes.-and rightly so--nationalism in general for one critical error: separatism.6 This is an important distinction. Nationalism is not equivalent to segregationism. Now this does not mean that segregation is not an important movement within nationalist strategies but it does mean the two do not coincide. Black nationalism concerns the consolidation of economic, cultural and political resources for the purpose of providing clout during the inevitable negotiations with the predominant culture and its institutions, practices, values, etc. Segregation within nationalism concerns only these resources: it does not entail isolation from whites. Such separatism is self-defeating, intellectually crippling, and morally bankrupt since it is in these conditions that stereotypes and prejudices about the "other" calcify into indelible "truths." And while it does not follow that integration is the panacea for race relations in the U.S., the possibility of understanding increases when people actually have some of the same concerns, have actually met and talked to and lived among "others." One must distinguish between segregation as a positive strategy but (ultimately) negative value, just as Cruse distinguishes between integration as a negative strategy but (ultimately) positive value. A nation of nationalities equally represented across cultural, political and economic lines is only possible if each nationality--or ethnic group--deals from strength. Thus black history month represents a tacit capitulation to racism since it does not challenge the ghettoization of black achievements but in fact gives in to it.

Within the limited context of civil rights, affirmative action doctrines represent another movement forward from the Civil Rights Act since affirmative action proposes to redress past inequities by arbitrarily--if temporarily--suspending market forces. But these strategies soon run up against their limits when opposing forces cite that old bugaboo of liberalism: "quotas." Quotas, of course, imply groups, and since there are no provisions in business or government for the advancement of groups, the liberal supporter of affirmative action tends to shy away from endorsing quotas. If affirmative action is simply the belated child of integrationism, affirmative action without quotas is integrationism without civil right laws.

Quotas frighten supporters of affirmative action because the suspension of market forces makes whites confront the peculiarly American ahistorical legacy of privilege without responsibility. Example: a young white prospective employee may feel that he should not be forced to pay for the injustices of the past since he had nothing to do with slavery, Jim Crow, etc. This line of argument and its variants are quite familiar to affirmative action proponents. The usual answer the young white gets is that he, in fact, does have to pay. The young white may become bitter, and in America this bitterness readily finds its expression in bigotry. But if one must respond to the young white in this manner, and thus accept the capitalist premise of competition in the workforce, one should at least explain the connection between privilege and responsibility, a connection the young white must discount at all cost. For the brutal truth is that anyone who argues against his responsibility to the past of his race has already accepted and made use of the privilege of that race. Privilege without responsibility in order to benefit from the privilege--that is what it comes down to for the young white who is not at "fault" for the past of his race. This privilege has been so naturalized, so deeply entrenched into the fabric of American culture, that the young white is often quite sincere in his belief that his skin color has not played a role in his success. He cannot see that the very fact that his skin color has never been an issue is precisely the issue (which is why he detests affirmative action quotas: they throw his race back into his face). For blacks, of course, skin color has always been an issue, a factor, good or bad. The young white knows that blacks are black (and they certainly know they're black); affirmative action reminds him that he is white.

Inasmuch as it makes blacks and whites race-conscious, affirmative action is sometimes seen by blacks and whites as a backward, misery-loves-company, policy. The implication is that it would be better if we didn't think in the fictional category of race. No doubt. But it does not follow then that we can pretend things are otherwise by not thinking in terms of race. When a black says that he never thinks of himself as black, that the fact of his blackness is "accidental" and thus "unimportant," that he just wants to be known as an "American," one can be certain that this person has internalized what he thinks--what he desperately hopes--is the viewpoint of whites. This person--usually a member of the middle-class, or a working class member with middle-class aspirations--will often go out of his way to prove to whites that he's just like them, that he poses no threat to the order of things, that his only enemy is the white's only enemy: the unwashed disenfranchised worldng classes (black and white).

Though this person is invariably a member of the bourgeoisie in fact or value, he is rarely a member of the left black intelligentsia (though he may be a liberal or conservative: Carl Rowan, Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, etc.). As I've suggested, the position of the black intelligentsia, especially at the extremes of the political spectrum, is ambivalent in regard to the bourgeoisie and working classes in general. Consequently the black intelligentsia, right or left, often finds itself living out the civil rights dream: integrated neighborhoods, schools, stores, friendships, etc. The black intelligentsia thus tends to elevate class over race as its socializing determinant; its conflict with the bourgeois-working classes alliance often assumes the form of a conflict between intellectualism and anti-intellectualism. This anti-intellectualism has a direct relation ship with the anti-historicism I cited earlier. Thus class conflict is only evident when integrationism is at work, which is why poor blacks, and poor whites in the same neighborhood often share specific contempt for the intelligentsia (though not the bourgeoisie in general). But the race factor is never fully suppressed, for poor blacks understand their situation as a consequence of both race and class bias. Only at the middle-class plane can blacks and whites attempt to fully suppress race as a factor in social, political, cultural and economic ambition. Integrationism thus blinds poor whites and middle-class blacks to the effects of race more thoroughly than it does middle-class whites and poor blacks.

Given the consumerist orientation of the bourgeoisie and working classes, Cruse plants his hope for salvation of the black race in the soil of the black intelligentsia. Thus his essay is an ongoing critique of the failure of black intellectuals to seize leadership roles at critical moments in history. Cruse departs from conventional wisdom, however, when he criticizes the cult of personality that makes us think in terms of the individual--as opposed to a group--leader:

On the other hand, even when a reformist organization such as the OAAU is established by a strongman leader like Malcolm X, it collapses if the leader is removed. This reveals an almost incurable Messiah complex, characteristic of Negro emotionalism. There must always be the great Individual Leader--the Messiah, the Grand Deliverer, the cult of the Irreproachable Personality who, even if he does not have all the answers to the problem, can never be wrong .... What the Afro-American Nationalists need is a collective leadership, a guiding committee of political, economic and cultural experts to tackle an agreed upon set of social goals.7

But might not leadership itself be the problem? For even if Cruse proposes a "collective leadership" to circumvent the "cult of the Irreproachable Personality" so common to "Negro emotionalism," he has only dealt with one of the problems of leadership in general. The notoriety of vanguard parties--in different countries, at different historical moments, to be sure-is well-deserved. Once a people places the responsibilities for its political, economic and cultural affairs into the hands of representatives--elected or imposed--that people tends to absolve itself of responsibility for the conduct of its representatives. And so the representatives never simply represent the interests of his constituents. As a constituent himself he also represents his interests. But in America--and here is the rub--because he is no longer a member of the same class as the majority of his constituents, much less a member of the same geographical area (even when he deigns to keep a "residence" or "office" in the old neighborhood), his interests no longer coincide with those of his constituents. He has become a constituent of a different class, area, etc.

Even if one cites--as counter examples--King and Gandhi (and thus imply that politicians should never be construed as leaders), one still has not confronted the problem of what I will call collective responsibility. And it goes without saying that collective responsibility presupposes individual responsibility. We need collective functionaries, not collective leadership. Now the term functionary has a pejorative connotation only because we associate it with the organization man, the one who mechanically performs his duties in deference to the Organization or great Individual Leader. But what if the functionary performed tasks that represent the interests of a people who had taken responsibilities for their lives into their own hands? What if a thousand Rosa Parks had decided not to stand on the busses, not because they'd been told to do so, but because they were tired, they were frustrated? What if Ying had never been allowed to take on the cross of martyrdom? What if there had only been small local or regional organizations like SNCC, thus forcing people not to turn to King for hope, for salvation, but to turn to themselves, their own hands, their own communities, their own lives? What if we all became part-time functionaries, part-time representatives of our own interests? Here I would need to offer a critique of labor in its present-day form--in particular the 40-hour week--as well as the concept of the "expert" which supports it, but I can only gesture in the direction of that task.8

If we do not require leaders to tell us what is to be done, then where do we find the solutions to our problems as a race? At the very least we each must rethink and reread--or read and think seriously for the first time--all that pertains to economics, capitalism, sociology, cultural formations, etc. in the United States. We must teach each other how to critically learn, not to uncritically follow. Beyond self-education we might consider the turbulent, contradictory and controversial career of Carter G. Woodson, As I mentioned at the outset, Woodson initiated Negro History Week in 1926 to showcase the artistic and intellectual achievements of blacks. Woodson's timing was crucial; he lived during a period when the eugenics movement was revealing itself as a "scientific" apologia for racism, when post-Reconstruction attacks on blacks and their white supporters continued unabated, when the Harlem Renaissance itself was divided and subverted by interference--for good or bad reasons--from whites, and so on. Thus Woodson's idea for Negro History Week, like the journal he founded--Journal of Negro History-under the auspices of his umbrella organization, The Association for the Study of Negro History and Life, was inspired by the need to demonstrate black intellectual and artistic parity with whites.

Of particular interest to me is Woodson's life-long criticism of black colleges. Whatever the personal reasons for the criticism, what Woodson had to say about black colleges is worth considering. He first criticized them because they were not yet up to snuff, so to speak. They hadn't matured--because most were comparatively young--like white colleges. More importantly, he criticized their curricula. Specifically, he wondered about the relevancy of teaching Greek, Roman and European classics to blacks who, he felt, should be taught African and Afro-American classics. True to his time, Woodson felt this way because he believed every race had its own particular "talent" to contribute to world culture. Woodson thought that Africans and their American "descendants" were particularly talented in the arts and humanities, and thus these were the areas on which black colleges should concentrate. But Woodson went out of his way to shield his ideas from being co-opted by the proponents of eugenics by arguing against the validity of converting racial "talents" or predilections into hierarchal values of superiority or inferiority.

To extend and modify Woodson's treatise a bit, one might argue that black colleges whose curricula are fundamentally Graeco-Roman in spirit if not form are essentially redundant even when these curricula contain a higher percentage of Afrocentric courses than white colleges. It has often been argued that black colleges can be justified primarily if not solely on the basis of racial solidarity; they're more comfortable for black students. But this therapeutic value is useless, and perhaps dangerous, if at the same time black students are inculcated primarily with the values, ideas and practices of a largely Graeco-Roman curricula. This does not mean that "Western civilization" should be ignored or trivialized. To do this is to play back into the hands of a culture that has always told us to choose, that formal and informal learning involves either/or. To a certain extent, the ideal situation would be one in which black students were exposed to all the American histories: African, Afro-American, European, Native American, Hispanic, etc. But this ideal brings us back to the idea of black history month.

If black history is American history, and vice versa, one might never know the contours of this relationship on the view of certain history texts. The arbitrary separation of the two, however justifiable from whichever perspective, black or white, does more harm than good. For blacks, the implementation of black history month represents a retreat on the frontlines of cultural warfare. Yes, warfare. Having failed to implement black values, practices and achievements in the arts, sciences and business curricula of the predominant learning institutions, we settle for the crumbs of a black history month. Black history month diverts and dilutes our resources and energy from the real hard work we'd rather avoid. Black history celebrations have been going on for over six decades in one form or another, and yet the cycle of racial intolerance and racial tolerance in this country has been remarkably consistent over that period. Whatever ameliorating effects black history month was supposed to have had, the fact remains that it has failed to have any lasting impact on race relations in the United States. More bluntly, it is largely an opportunity for the black and white, bourgeoisie to demonstrate the virtues of integrating into a dominant ethnic caste which is tolerant enough to allow other ethnicities their moments on stage. Small wonder that recent polls show a great discrepancy between black and white notions about the "progress" of race relations. Black history month is not an advancement; at best it amounts to an annual cease-fire during what continues to be a protracted war.


  1. Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership (1967; New York: Quill-William Morrow, 1984).

  2. Bazel E. Allen and Emest T. Wilson III, foreword, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership, by Harold Cruse (New York: Quill-William Morrow, 1984) iii.

  3. Cruse 85.

  4. Cruse 7.

  5. Cruse 8.

  6. Cruse 439-40. That is, permanent separatism, which Cruse criticizes as idealism.

  7. Cruse 442-443.

  8. See, for example, Bob Black, "The Abolitioii of Work," Semiotext[e] USA 13 (1987) 15-26.

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©Copyright Tyrone Williams