Why Societal Change Is No Reason to End Black History Month
Once again, February has arrived. With it comes the presidential inauguration, the Super Bowl, driving snowfalls and blistering cold temperatures, and Black History Month. Movies, essays, cultural events, community gatherings, and school lessons. Each intended to draw our attention to the legacy of Africans in America.
As celebration marks the month of February, so marks criticisms of this celebration.
Recently, the National Review published an article entitled “Against Black History Month“, written by Editorial Associate Charles C.W. Cooke. The sub-heading reads, “This month is Black History Month. Let’s hope it’s the last.” As the title suggests, the article attempts to make a case for ending a tradition that has its roots in Negro History Week, launched by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1926.
Cooke rightfully provides an accurate context for the origins of black history celebrations. A period of government-sanctioned segregation; a separate and shamefully unequal dualism in America. Segregated military. Horrendous acts of whites lynching (and burning) innocent black citizens, and without any meaningful resolution in the court system. Laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage. All solidified by the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that legitimized segregation as official public policy of our nation. Cooke then notes progress in matters of race and posits the nation’s historical treatments should evolve from focused education (i.e., on African American history) to a more integrated approach. He writes:
“Things, mercifully, have changed. Education should follow suit. Rather than being treated as a separate and limited discipline, divorced by the pigmentation of its subjects from “mainstream” American history, the teaching of black history should hew to the principle of integration. Black Americans are not visitors putting on a cultural show, nor are they legally separated. They are an integral, inextricable part of the country’s past, present, and future. The curriculum should treat them as such.”
The idea of change appears to be a compelling argument. Yes, things have changed, indeed. Despite one’s personal politics, it is significant that an African American has been re-elected to the presidency. It is significant that after decades of whites questioning the mental capacity of blacks to play quarterback in the NFL that we are witnessing feats of athleticism and gamesmanship the league has not seen before — thanks to Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffith III, and others. It is significant that African Americans have placed thumbprints on industry as in the case of the late Reginald Lewis who executed a $985 million leveraged buyout of TLC Beatrice International Foods.
However, one cannot deny that Negro History Week, itself, emerged out of some measure of accomplished social changes. Most notably slavery was no longer sanctioned public policy in America. The vast majority of our nation’s 105 historically black colleges and universities [HBCUs] — Cheyney University (1837), Wilberforce University (1856), Howard University (1867), Bennett College (1873), Tuskegee University (1881), Bethune-Cookman (1904) — had been founded and well on their way to making significant contributions to society. And by the time Woodson’s idea took shape, commercial zones such the Greenwood-Archer-Pine [GAP] District in Tulsa, Oklahoma — commonly referred to as Black Wall Street — had proven themselves to be viable catalysts to improve economic conditions for a people turned out of slavery without recompense. As incomplete as it might have been, the very idea of change could have been levied at Woodson to discourage the creation of a black historical celebration in 1926.
Further, underneath Cooke’s argument lies several views that in-fact make Black History Month an imperative for both the evolution of America’s black community and the nation at-large. The idea that things have changed does not bring us to a kind of cross-cultural utopia.[pullquote align=”left” textalign=”left” width=”30%”]
“In 1910, nearly one million black farmers in the U.S. owned a total of 15 million acres; by 1969 they held only 6 million acres. In 1920, blacks owned 14% of the nation’s farms; today, there are only 18,000 black farmers, representing less than 1% of all farms.”
Cooke misses the importance of Black History Month. Namely, a focused study of black history not only reveals the hurdles crossed, but reminds us of those still in our path. It reminds us, for instance, that with nearly 15,000 securities listed on American stock exchanges, less than 15 are black-owned. Black history reminds us that in states like Ohio, where budgets ranges in the billions, it is not uncommon to see African American companies win a meager one percent of public contracts. Black history points to the erosion of black farming and farm land ownership. Through the eyes of black history, Professor Michelle Alexander and journalist Daniel A. Blackmon can place the mounting problem of incarcerated African Americans in a context that dates back to post-bellum America. And ironically, Woodson’s educational works, particularly The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 and The Mis-Education of the Negro, offer extraordinary insights on challenges facing contemporary educational systems and, equally important, the human product of these systems.
Black History Month is the annual compass that takes us along a journey that has crossed certain territories, but also leads us into those territories left to be conquered. Without a focused treatment of the subject, the still unfolding and often tumultuous experience of Africans in America would be lost in the malaise of a broader, more detached American history.
Change, by its own very nature, is organic. Progress is not a final state, but measuring rod at-best. And given the uniqueness of a plight that has defined the African American experience, wherever society finds itself on that meandering road of change, a celebration is necessary to keep travelers moving in the right direction.[pullquote align=”right” textalign=”right” width=”30%”]
“One can matriculate through our nation’s school systems. Be awarded Class Valedictorian honors. Complete a 4-year collegiate program. Obtain a Masters or PhD. And through that, learn very little about the incredible and inspiring contributions that African Americans have made to various areas in society.”
African Americans occupy our nation’s public school systems, but rarely have authority to dictate the terms of public education, and certainly not as it relates to black history. Else, we would see, for instance, the works and remnants of a Harold Amos or Ruth Ella Moore in every textbook that celebrates a Louis Pasteur, Alexander Fleming, or other white microbiologists. Astronomy books that inspire us to explore the universe would not only list John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin. But they would find in the discussion prominent places for Guion Bluford, the late Ronald McNair and Michael Anderson (both killed during NASA missions), Mae Jemison, and other black astronauts — places that consider their contributions to physics, engineering, and space travel as well as their vesting themselves in pursuits that defied the odds. B-schools capture the imaginations of tomorrow’s diverse entrepreneurs by channeling textbooks, lectures, and Harvard Business Case Studies on the Steven Spielberg Ron Howard, and Mat Damon types. These are intriguing histories. But I would venture to say that neither comes close to the legacy and still unappreciated implications of Oscar Micheaux.
An appropriate treatment of black history is food for the psyche of black youth that are bombarded with negative imagery. No offense to Mr. Cooke, but having been a black child. Growing-up in a black home, among black neighbors and their children. Having raised black children and mentored many out of this shared social context. I suspect Mr. Cooke is only remotely familiar with the psychological gauntlet that African American children must endure. Black History Month is a guide through this very gauntlet.
The month-long celebration is likewise profitable for institutional psyche. That is, how society views black institutions such as HBCUs, the black church, black-owned banks, etc.
And this history can be particularly useful to the next generation of whites who will operate in an increasingly diverse world, making decisions each day on healthcare, complex business transactions, scientific research, etc. It is necessary that garden-variety racism be rooted out of a society that seeks growth in such a changing world. But extricating the prototypical forms of racist ideologies is not sufficient. American society will flourish to the extent that whites evolve a genuine appreciation for the skills, capabilities, and legitimacy that African Americans bring to demands of society. Such comfort need not evolve abstractly. Reasoned persons can ground their comforts in the significant historical contributions of people of color.
Black History Month has and continues to serve this purpose.
If history is our shared responsibility, calls to end Black History Month distract from one’s higher calling. Chiefly, to be a trumpet that demands a telling of the African American experience in the full grandeur given to histories that feature white Americans.
Black History Month can do even greater things when we expand the historical horizons to events, places, and people not typically discussed during the annual celebration. Allow the month to take on new meaning. Invite new icons, living and deceased, to the circle of our conversations. To seriously embrace the insights we gain from Black History Month and enable those insights to carry us towards a more excellent union.
That is the challenge. Not how to end Black History Month, but to enlarge it.
What are your thoughts. Is Cooke right? Is it time to end the celebration we know as Black History Month? Share your opinion and thoughts in the Comments area.
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