Like most commemorative events, Black History Month is an assertion, a statement that this month and what it represents are important. The Canadian rapper Shad almost captures this commemorative spirit in his song “Remember to Remember.” I say “almost” because despite its pithy title, which is repeated in the chorus, “Remember to Remember” betrays an attempt to conceal its own origins. We have to be to told to remember to remember precisely because it is easy to forget. And this ease suggests that the things we want to remember might actually be unmemorable, unimportant. The sheer conviction of the statement “Remember to remember” paints over that anxiety of forgetting, which I think is dangerous.
Another rapper, DOOM, more accurately captures the spirit of commemorative holidays, drunkenly rapping, “Remind me to remember what you told me,” in his song “All Outta Ale.” DOOM’s line simultaneously asserts his desire to remember and admits that he’s already forgotten. He knows that the importance of memories is contrived, arbitrary, so that’s how he treats them, embracing the artifice. He doesn’t see forgetting as a vice, a denial of Truth. He sees it as more reason to remember. Importance is a concentrated effort, not an inherent characteristic.
I pinball between these two modes of thinking about historical memory, but I ultimately side with the DOOM approach because it is more transparent. “Remember to Remember” has a certain self-evidence to it that I think is ultimately self-defeating. If black lives and history inherently mattered, we wouldn’t have to declare their importance.
This is precisely why #alllivesmatter falls flat on its face. Not only does it grossly deface the point of #blacklivesmatter, which is to highlight the devaluation of black life through ongoing systemic racism, but it obscures its own origins. In other words, #alllivesmatters paints itself as an “obvious” correction, an “of course,” when it is really a reaction to #blacklivesmatters’ collective observation that all lives seem to matter except for black lives (as well as other marginalized groups). If all lives inherently mattered, no one would be compelled to make the counterclaim that certain lives don’t.
The same goes for the silly annual tradition of people asking, “Why is there no White History Month?” which is unfortunately rarely a rhetorical question. That question can only be asked if you view history with a severely unempirical eye, thinking of it as a mere archive rather than as the process of archiving certain things toward certain ends, like the Texas school board fighting to get textbooks that misrepresent Islam, climate change, and the Mexican-American war, among other things.
There might be some implicit nihilism in the assertion that no life is inherently important, but I’d rather embrace that nihilism than bet my life on some alleged inherent properties of this life that have never been acknowledged. This stance, and Black History Month as a whole may seem like a concession, but that’s the point. Black life and history matter precisely because we say that they matter in spite of how they are routinely treated. Without that concession, that painful admission that this remembrance is willed, it’s just another empty cause.
In the end, I’m just saying that I think it’s important to remember why we remember, not just to remember. Because as soon as Black History Month or #blacklivesmatters forgets or elides their reasons for existing, they spiral into meaninglessness, losing their power to change and joining the ranks of other defanged projects and customs, like Labor Day and Earth Day. We can do better and it starts with actively remembering why we have to.