“I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history,” Morgan Freeman says.
Over the next few weeks, you will see no shortage of functions organized by historical societies, libraries, and schools. You may even catch the corporate giants sponsoring short vignettes on black history, or perhaps a rerun of “Amistad,” “Roots” or “Malcolm X.”
Welcome to Black History Month.
The celebration has come a long way since 1926, when Harvard-educated Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week. Woodson, popularly known as “the father of black history,” chose the second week in February to correspond with Abraham Lincoln’s approval of America’s 13th Amendment to its Constitution, abolishing slavery, and also with the birth of prominent black advocate Frederick Douglass.
Woodson’s goal was not only to educate his community about its rich heritage, but also to make American society aware of black contributions. In 1976, during the U.S. bicentennial, the commemoration week was expanded in the U.S. to National Black History Month.
The celebrations are supposed to make a difference in the perceptions and attitudes of blacks and whites. Yet, since its inception, there has been a raging debate within and outside the community about whether the month has had a positive or negative effect.
Many people look forward to this month, during which a marginalized people’s history is given prominence in the mainstream. There is a newfound appetite for anything about black history during these magical 28 days. Others question its relevance and consequences. As Freeman points out, is black history not part of American or world history? Why should it be condensed and highlighted only during this month?
Indeed, some with conspiracy theory leanings even wonder aloud why the shortest month of the year was selected.
During our school years, we spend months, perhaps years, studying history. Yet, how much importance is given to the history of blacks? On far too many school curricula, outside of this month, black history shows up once just before the U.S. Civil War, disappears, then reappears with the civil rights movement.
Even a cursory glance at the tremendous contributions of the black community is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to note that the accomplishments and contributions by this community have benefited all of us, not just members of one group. Minorities and, indeed, all of us, owe a great deal of gratitude for the great civil rights strides advanced by the blood and sweat of blacks.
It’s not hard to understand the pride felt in having one’s history and contributions remembered and honored. Yet, others question whether in our increasingly multiracial and multiethnic societies today, does it make sense to commemorate the history of only one particular people in a discreet and isolated fashion?
Should the history of all peoples not be celebrated and taught all year? And, by limiting the remembrance, study and celebration to one month, are we not undermining and devaluing it?
Interestingly, Black History Month comes and goes like a holiday. As one commentator noted, it’s as if the sun rises on black history every Feb. 1 and sets on black history every Feb. 28.
This not only diminishes the contribution of blacks, but also minimizes their very prominent role in shaping society, as we know it today, particularly in America.
Moreover, dissecting and isolating black history from American, Canadian or world history gives others the chance to label it as “revisionist history.” It leaves the impression that the Eurocentric history, taught for the bulk of the year, is the “real” history, with black history merely being worthy of mention as an aside.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s good there is a month dedicated to acknowledge the achievements and contributions of blacks. Some time to remember is better than none at all.
As Woodson wrote: “The achievements of the Negro properly set forth will crown him as a factor in early human progress and a maker of modern civilization.”
But this is just a first step. The whiff of patronization and complacency is too strong during this month. Some blacks sit back with a sense of pride, while the rest of us feel good for allowing “their” history to be told and recognized.
The celebrations have been going on more than eight decades, yet the cycle of racism has been remarkably consistent over that period. As Tyrone Williams notes, “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.”
Agree or disagree with Williams and Morgan, suffice it to state that until the contributions of minority groups are the focal points of history books, rather than footnotes, the need for Black History Month, and other such remembrances, will remain necessary.
Faisal Kutty, a lawyer, is an assistant professor at Valparaiso University School of Law in Indiana and an adjunct professor at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter@FaisalKutty.