Black History Month, held every February of each year, is known as a time to reflect, recognize, and show respect to the black Americans who have paved the way for other Americans to reach many social and economic milestones.
Black History Month: To be or not be? That is the question. Over the past decade, growing controversy has arisen over whether Black History Month is effective in its purpose of celebrating and spreading knowledge of many influential black figures in American History. When first asking others if Black History Month ought to exist, the typical response is “Absolutely!” When delving deeper into the purpose of Black History Month and why it was initially established, the answer becomes less obvious.
After being frustrated with the misrepresentation and underrepresentation of Black Americans in school after obtaining his Master’s degree and Ph.D., historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson coined a week in February as” Negro History Week.” He did so in the year of 1926 in order to honor the birthdays of civil rights activist, Frederick Douglass, and President Abraham Lincoln, who is often known as the leader who emancipated the black slaves. It wasn’t until 1976 that the week Woodson set aside would turn into a month-long celebration known as Black History Month. For decades since the adoption of the holiday, it has been recognized as a month for reflection and is also celebrated by Canada and the U.K. Now first – let me say that we have made immense progress over the past decades, with going from a one-week celebration to a whopping four weeks! But before we rejoice in the achievements, let’s look at Woodson’s reasoning for creating the week of acknowledgment once more.
Many are aware of the accomplishments of Frederick Douglass (thanks to the redundancy of primary and secondary education), yet many do not know the significance of Abraham Lincoln’s executive actions and how his intentions for change are far from heartwarming. President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, legally freeing around 3 million slaves in designated areas of the South. While many rejoice at those numbers and idolize President Lincoln for being moral, caring, and understanding of the black experience in America, they are unaware of his intentions. As Philip Randolph expressed, “freedom is not given; it is won,” so why did Woodson base Black History Month’s precursor on a man who debatably “gave” black slaves freedom without honest intentions of bettering the lives of Black Americans? In fact, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed as a military measure and did not free slaves on the border states like Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri (all of which had remained loyal to the Union).
In early schooling, Black History Month often focuses on civil rights leaders who are deemed less “threatening” and are able to be watered down to fit the idea of Black cooperation while remaining peaceful and complacent. James Baldwin says that “Education is indoctrination if you’re white; subjugation if you’re black.”This is not to say that leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass remained complacent because that would be far from the truth; all of them suffered physical, legal, and emotional repercussions. Although these leaders assisted in paving the way towards equality and equity, much of the dialogue from black America is missing. Textbooks will frequently provide MLK’s iconic and moving speeches, tell stories of Park’s courage to remain seated on the bus, explain the Underground Railroad, and mention Douglass’ journey from a slave to a free man; however, we are not taught of MLK’s internal battles with remaining peaceful, the woman who did not give up her seat prior to Parks, Tubman’s relentless attitude in the face of death, or Douglass’ many famous speeches or books. What is clearly missing within these teaching of famous black Americans are the details, which leads me to the main reason Black History Month should not exist: Black History is American History.
“Black History is American History.”
Black Americans have contributed to the upbringing and current hegemony of the country, yet school districts are still told to dedicate one month per year in educating students on their contributions (it is no wonder the racial tensions remain so high in the country, we never address history!) Perhaps if we taught history in accordance with chronological events (regardless of race/ethnic background), we would have a more accurate and inclusive view of history. Imagine all that we would learn through incorporating more about the Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, the Black Panthers, Angela Davis, W.E.B. Dubois, Sojourner Truth, Nina Simone, Booker T. Washington, Muhammad Ali, and many more years long! In theory, Negro History Week should be celebrated 52 times each year, and we should always be ready to celebrate.
As James Baldwin once wrote, “…any Negro who is born in this country and undergoes the American educational system runs the risk of becoming schizophrenic. On the one hand he is born in the shadow of the stars and stripes and he is assured it represents a nation which has never lost a war. He pledges allegiance to that flag which guarantees “liberty and justice for all.” He is part of a country in which anyone can become president, and so forth. But on the other hand he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization – that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured. He is assumed by the republic that he, his father, his mother, and his ancestors were happy, shiftless, watermelon-eating darkies who loved Mr. Charlie and Miss Ann, that the value he has as a black man is proven by one thing only – his devotion to white people. If you think I am exaggerating, examine the myths which proliferate in this country about Negroes.”