Black History Is American History
Think of Black History Month, and chances are you think in turn of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., maybe Marcus Garvey. It’s a familiar group — and that, says Alex Pierce, is precisely the problem. “It’s become a way to pack a few hundred years of history into one 28-day month of the year,” the Texas-based designer and art director says. And so this month, Pierce launched Black in History, a blog to highlight the accomplishments of influencers like Gerald Anderson Lawson, the inventor of the video game console, Roy L. Clay Sr., the “Black Godfather of Silicon Valley,” and jazz great Nat King Cole. We talked to Pierce about his love/hate relationship with Black History Month.
Your day job is in advertising. Has that made you a cynic?
I would say I’m more sensitive than some to the strange relationship advertising has with black people. It’s not all bad, believe me, but I do cringe when Black History Month comes rolling around and a few brands decide to change their jingles to soul-R&B music and feature more colorful people in their broadcast spots and print ads. My family laughs about it all the time. I get it — it’s a great way to tie your brand to an important message while selling some stuff. I’m not necessarily against that. It’s just when it’s done bad, it’s pretty bad. Black history in a lot of advertising has become a way to say something without really saying anything at all.
You write in your introduction that the site is “in honor, or in spite” of Black History Month. What do you mean by that?
I guess where I was coming from was that I do appreciate there is a Black History Month. But I think at the same time, black history has been reduced to the same conversations about MLK Jr, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, and the other more highly publicized black Americans. There’s just so much more to that.
Indeed, the people on your site aren’t the usual suspects.
Part of my frustration was that by primarily focusing on the person’s race and tying it to their accomplishments, you’re kind of saying “Hey, he/she did a lot of cool stuff for a black person to do back then.” I’m not saying it isn’t significant that some of the people on my list were the “First African American to ____”. I’m saying that they’re more than just being the first person of their race to do something. For instance, Granville Woods is called the “Black Edison,” as if he didn’t make a name for himself on his own merits. He got over 50 patents, a lot of which involved improving and innovating the railroad industry. Thomas Edison tried claim one of Woods’ patents as his own invention twice in court. (And Edison lost twice.) The message I wanted to share with this site was that the things these people did influenced everyone’s lives in many ways other than advancing social progress, or civil rights. These people made contributions to society in ways everyone can relate to.
What about your audience? You ask people to submit names, while pointing out that “You don’t have to be black to do it.”
Sometimes I get the impression Black History Month is targeted more toward black people, which I find ironic. I also wanted to let everyone take a little bit of ownership by contributing a name they think should be on the list. This is also why I chose Tumblr; it’s the easiest and and most convenient way for people to send information to me. And everyone has a different take or perspective. There’s gonna be things I miss or people that are off my radar. There’s a lot of black people out there. Contrary to the myth, I do not know all of them. That would be cool wouldn’t it though?
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