The origins of an annual recognition of American black history, initially dubbed as “Negro History Week,” can be traced to as far back as 1926, despite blacks’ presence in American life since colonial times.
It would not be until the twentieth century that black Americans would acquire a respectable and noticeable residence in American historical scholarship.
Dr. Carter G. Woodson, born to parents of former slaves, was disturbed to find that the history of the African diaspora was absent and ignored in texts, mirroring the inferior position that the black race was assigned at that time. In response, Woodson launched “Negro History Week” to draw national attention to the contributions of black Americans throughout American history. He chose the second week of February for the birthdays of two men who he believed greatly influenced the progressive cause of black America, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. To choose Lincoln is not surprising; however, it does not come without complication, which I will discuss later in this post.
While Black History Month celebrations can provoke important and vital conversations for American academic, racial, and cultural fabrics, there are those that peddle the idea that Black History Month is no longer necessary or relevant, that Americans should not have to wait eleven months to pay tribute to and commemorate the legacy, achievements, and struggles of historical black leaders and their movements. Morgan Freeman, a critic of Black History Month, said “I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history.” There are those that claim that it (Black History Month) is shallow and actually fuels racism. The idea of schoolchildren learning about the same black historical figures annually — and only in February — can appear to be a ghettoization of black contributions, that somehow black history is not American history and that it is only worth the value of 28 days out of a year, or the shortest month of the year.
The aims of Black History Month all point to raising awareness and never forgetting; yet, I question how effectively the goals of Black History Month are met by schoolchildren who learn cheapened versions of the same figures year after year without background or the historical context that surrounds how they (historical leaders) were able to prosper despite deep-seated racism? To what end does learning black history without a contextual backdrop serve as meaningful history?
I question how adequately the goals of Black History Month are met at a time when colorism, the schism and contention between light-skinned blacks and dark-skinned blacks, has yet to be paid attention or afforded collective action. I question how useful celebrating the merits of school desegregation are when our black and Latino youth marry speaking proper grammar, pursuing education, and achievement to whiteness, that somehow one is “acting white” or can be considered a racial or cultural sellout because they “are not being true to who they are.” How can we discuss the injustices and the abomination that rage around the Emmett Till case who was brutally murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi when there continues to be rampant and pervasive discrimination and racial bias within our American criminal justice system because of the inability of the capitalist system to provide economic and social justice?
I do not advocate dismantling or abandoning Black History Month altogether. Truly, a knowledge of black history is essential to understanding the present and how to meet the demands of the African-American experience in the distant future.
The current framework and approach of Black History Month has run its course, though. Black History Month should not hold a seasonal occupation of once a month annually. The irreverence of how uncalibrated Black History Month has become in pursuit of raising awareness, never forgetting, and perfecting our Union is entirely apparent and glaring. If we insist on maintaining Black History Month celebrations, we should at least not niggerize* it. We should reframe the celebrations to provide more context for greater understanding, but we should also discuss problems and challenges of the black community today. Discussing and remembering the past is important, but it is not enough to solve our most urgent evils nor does it provide enough audacity to even consider the unknown perils of the future.
We should discuss colorism. We should explore the confusing and troubling word “nigger” and why it is both offensive and endearing depending on the user of the word. We should debate (and eradicate) the “acting white” phenomenon among our black and Latino youth. Let Whitney Houston be a lesson unto us all, but particularly within the black community. It is the lesson that we can have incomparable talents, potential, and wealth, but should we succumb to the ravage of substance abuse and drugs, we can instantly lose it all. We should address misconceptions and historical inaccuracies, such as the claim that “the Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln, fought the Civil War because he was sympathetic to slaves and wanted to free them.
“I will say, then, that I am not nor have ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races—that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with White people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the White and black races which will ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the White race.” – Abraham Lincoln, “Fourth Lincoln-Douglas Debate, September 18, 1858, Charleston, Illinois,” in “Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings” (New York: Library of America, 1989), p. 636, and in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 5, page 371
If we continue to cheaply honor the struggles and advancements made to ensure equality and justice for all, then we will always and only discuss history and never be doers in history. For all of the headaches that afflict the black community, simply reflecting on history is not enough today, for an entire month, or year. Black History Month, once upon a time, was necessary, and that was a time when simply recognizing history was progress. Make no mistake, America has made considerable progress, but to continue to see progress and move towards a more perfect union, we must remember meaningfully with context and never forget, promote black history to a year-round, permanent position, and discuss cultural and social aspects affecting or dealing with the black American experience.
*Niggerization is neither simply the dishonoring and devaluing of black people nor solely the economic exploitation and political disenfranchisement of them. It is also the wholesale attempt to impede democratization—to turn potential citizens into intimidated, fearful, and helpless subjects. – Cornel West, whose most recent book is Democracy Matters (2004) and whose most recent CD is Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations (2007), is a professor of religion at Princeton University.