In Defense of Black History Month
by Adrienne Edwards | University of Pennsylvania
Poor black history month. It seems like all it gets is a bad rap.
Some people seem to think that Black History Month is only relevant to elementary school students.
Others complain that black history is American history and should not be separated, let alone in the shortest month of the year.
And still others feel Black History Month is obsolete in an obviously post-racial world.
These perspectives are all misguided. Black History Month is empowering in that it temporarily gives control to black Americans to tell their own history. In that respect, Black History month is not inadequate, far from obsolete and relevant to all, including non-black people.
The origins of Black History Month can be traced back to 1926 when Carter G. Woodson created a “Negro History Week” with the Association for the Study of the Negro Life and History. In 1976, during the country’s bicentennial, the week was expanded to a month.
There is an unfortunate level of “hero-praising” that occurs in conjunction with Black History Month. The same names and faces are routinely introduced and religiously commended. It’s more limiting than investigative — people feel compelled to speak about the same people during the month rather than introduce other accounts that history has left uncelebrated.
Yet Black History Month should continue. Professor Tricia Rose of Columbia University sums up the need for Black History Month, saying “There is an extraordinary illiteracy about what the history of African-American people is, what their representational history is about, and how it is played out in the contemporary. Even worse, [there is] no knowledge whatsoever about contemporary accumulated experiences of structural racism and their effect… I cannot describe to you the lack of knowledge of what has happened and where we are now that plagues the United States as a whole, cross-generationally.”
Beyond the educational need, Black History Month is necessary because it gives black Americans a chance to tell their own story. One filmmaker, Shukree Tilghman, released a documentary “More Than A Month,” which argues that the United States should end Black History Month.
Even Tilghman conceded, “History is about power, the power to control the story, even for a brief period of time. And a history month is a way to do that.”
Ever heard the phrase, “History is written by the winners?” The same idea applies here — those that control the telling of history control the current perceptions based on the past. If a group of those crazy progressive liberals retold the history of the Founding Fathers as a group of hypocritical, cowardly slave-owners who got lucky with the idea of America (which could still fit the facts), there may be less emphasis on constitutionalism in policy debates. I’m in no way suggesting this should occur. Instead, I’m inventing the circumstance to show how easily history can be controlled and subsequently construed for a political purpose.
In fact, some politicians continue to control history. There are some that called for slavery to be removed from textbooks because it makes the Founding Fathers look bad. If this power was granted, these politicians would have the power to prioritize the heroism of the Founding Fathers over the courage of slaves and all abolitionists that worked in the face of injustice. When you educate children in a way that distorts the truth, you inevitably shape their perceptions as adults, thereby perpetuating the injustices of the past.
Black History Month is just as relevant to a 50-year-old as it is to a 10-year old, and just as relevant to a black person as it is to a white, Latina or Asian person. If we take the time to tell the marginalized narrative, it reminds us all, especially adults with the power to make decisions that impact a large population of our country, that there are still voices that go unheard.
Yes, Black History Month is the shortest month of the year, but it should not be seen as a handout in compensation for past discrimination. It’s not as though the country could justifiably tell black Americans, “Here’s a month. Oh, about that slavery thing? We’re even.” Rather, Black History Month is the acknowledgement of a deficiency in the telling of American history and a specially designated time during which the country can focus on the stories that are intentionally or unintentionally removed from the mainstream. Black history is American history, but the experiences of black Americans have traditionally been excluded.
Lastly, Black History Month offers the country a chance to have a discussion about race. It’s no secret that we don’t live in a “post-racial” world. It’s also no secret that this country does not like to talk about race, but in a country where race is still a divisive issue, there need to be conversations about its impact on our society. If Black History Month is able to spark those conversations, it has done its job.
For all its worth, Black History Month gets unfairly shunned. It has its flaws, but overall, Black History Month contributes more than it detracts.Adrienne Edwards is a voices contributor for Next Gen Journal. She is currently studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the University of Pennsylvania.