Each year, the notion that Black History Month should be abolished is enthusiastically resuscitated under the pretense of promoting racial harmony. Those who emphatically oppose the institution of Black History Month tend to argue that it amplifies division between ethnic groups by serving to elevate blacks above everyone else.
Black History Month, the argument goes, should be eradicated because it promotes racial separatism. The protestation that, “it isn’t fair that blacks get a month to celebrate ‘how great they are,’ while no other race is afforded such a privilege,” is vehemently raised by “equality” advocates. This annual 28-day celebratory period, these advocates posit, is, therefore, antithetical to the goal of achieving racial reconciliation in America, and should consequently be abolished.
There are valid criticisms of the manner in which Black History Month is celebrated today. In many ways, Black History Month as practiced today doesn’t live up to its inaugural intent. It is unquestionably true, for instance, that Black History Month celebrations tend to unabashedly promote hero worship of a handful of notable Civil Rights leaders (such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks) rather than engage in a more comprehensive recognition of historical black achievement, and holistic celebration of black cultural heritage.
That said, it is one thing to say that Black History Month celebrations often miss the mark and should be improved. On this point, I will offer wholehearted agreement. However, it is entirely absurd to proffer the historically illiterate sentiment that Black History Month’s very impetus promotes black separatism or black superiority. It is equally absurd to assert that Black History Month’s less-than-ideal attributes and accouterments merit its abolition. Further, the idea that Black History Month takes attention away from the history of “other races” is merely a regurgitated white nationalist talking point.
“Instead of advocating its abolition, we should be working to reorient Black History Month toward its original intent.”
In truth, esteemed black historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week in 1926 to counter prevailing notions of black inferiority and reinforce the fact that blacks are legitimate members of society—equally deserving of recognition, respect, and remembrance. Black History Month—a protuberance of Negro History Week—was instituted to help cultivate the cultural milieu in which these ideals could be promulgated.
Black History Month’s principal impetus was advancing black legitimacy, not black superiority. In an era of rampant racial discrimination and deliberate erasure of black societal contributions from American history books, there was a distinct need to counter the pervasive marginalization of blacks in culture and education.
Woodson argued that history was being recorded by men with deep racial prejudices whose biased historical accounts flowed naturally from their bigotry. These skewed historical accounts, in turn, affirmed and exacerbated racial prejudices and stereotypes. Breaking this cycle of bigotry and correcting historical misrepresentations, Woodson asserted, required a concerted academic and cultural campaign.
In a pamphlet advertising the first Negro History Week in 1926, Woodson wrote:
“In such a millennium the achievements of the Negro properly set forth will crown him as a factor in early human progress and a maker of modern civilization. He has supplied the demand for labor of a large area of our own country, he has been a conservative force in its recent economic development, he has given the nation a poetic stimulus, he has developed the most popular music of the modern era, and he has preserved in its purity the brotherhood taught by Jesus of Nazareth. In his native country, moreover, he produced in the ancient world a civilization contemporaneous with that of the nations of the early Mediterranean, he influenced the cultures then cast in the crucible of time, and he taught the modern world the use of iron by which science and initiative have remade the universe. Must we let this generation continue ignorant of these eloquent facts?“
Highlighting previously ignored or underemphasized black achievement serves to challenge the white supremacist notion that the world’s most notable accomplishments can be traced to only persons of European lineage, and provides a more even-handed account of history. A salient popular culture embodiment of this concept in American history is Hidden Figures, a critically-acclaimed biographical drama film that recounts the crucial roles that brilliant mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson played in launching NASA astronaut John Glenn into space.
The story of Hidden Figures is particularly indispensable because it not only highlights the characters’ incredible resilience in the face of unspeakable injustice; it also emphasizes their extraordinary intellectual giftedness in contradistinction to the false conviction that blacks are inherently inept.
“But black history is American history! Why should we create a distinction between the two?”
This objection is nonsensical for two reasons. First, as outlined earlier, Black History Month doesn’t assert that black history is wholly separate from American history. Contrarily, the principal purpose of Black History Month is to ensure that African American history is appropriately and sufficiently integrated into—and not eliminated from—American historical narratives.
Second, Black History Month isn’t just about celebrating black achievement in America. Black people across the African diaspora have been achieving significant feats for millennia, and these feats—which have been historically suppressed—should be common knowledge.
Too often, Black History Month celebrants reduce black history to the recounting of gruesome historical injustices. But underpinning Black History Month is the fundamental belief that the collective story of black people encompasses more than the injustices experienced under slavery and Jim Crow. This is of course not to say that these injustices, or the valiant efforts of black people to overcome them, should be dismissed. As writer Chidike Okeem has noted:
“The convenient white supremacist fiction that Africans lived in mud huts before the arrival of Europeans is arrant balderdash. The history of black people does not begin with slavery or colonialism—nor does black achievement begin with gaining civil rights in the West. Black History Month needs to depict the full historical picture of black brilliance—just as Dr. Woodson envisioned.”
It is undeniable that the historical contributions that blacks have made on the world stage continue to be ignored.
For instance, Greece is often credited with the origin of most of the arts, sciences, and culture that have shaped much of the world. But very little mention is made of the ways in which the Greeks were significantly influenced by Africans. This influence is what made Greek prominence possible. Eminent Greek scholars like Socrates and Plato frequently traveled to Africa to study complex subjects, and borrow and develop existing ideas. Pythagoras, known today as the “father of mathematics,” learned geometry and calculus from priests in Kemet (modern-day Egypt). Pervasive historical biases in the historical record, however, will either pretend these influences never existed or downplay their significance.
Closer to home, a particularly flagrant example of bias in the historical record is the way the Founding Fathers are often portrayed with respect to slavery. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, is typically portrayed as a vociferous advocate for the emancipation of slaves. But Jefferson’s blatant hypocrisy on this issue is rarely explicated. Though he publicly repudiated the institution of slavery, Jefferson maintained ownership of the majority of his personal slaves in order to preserve his own personal financial interests.
The whitewashing of many of the Founding Fathers’ legacies of slavery serves two purposes. First, it preserves their near-deity status in American culture; it ameliorates the cognitive dissonance caused when one is forced to acknowledge that the men who boldly proclaimed that it was “self-evident” that “all men are created equal” violated the very spirit of this proclamation in their personal lives.
Second, it makes the white supremacist theory that slavery was beneficial for blacks more palatable. After all, if the moral giants who founded this great nation personally participated in the institution of slavery, it can be posited that their reasons for doing so are morally justifiable, and that slavery was therefore both a necessary evil for the country and a positive good for blacks.
“Black History Month is not—and was never intended to be—the end in itself.”It is important to note that Black History Month was not intended to be the end-all-be-all solution to the problem of inequitable historical accounts. Rather, it was meant to draw attention to the critical need to redress these deficits in the historical record and help create the environment necessary for formulating actionable strategies toward this end. Black History Month is not—and was never intended to be—the end in itself.
Black History Month decriers argue that it is simply unfair to attempt to “confine” celebration of black history to one month.
“You’re going to relegate my history to a month?” protested Morgan Freeman in a famous 2005 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace. However, this common objection merely demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the spirit with which Black History Month was founded.
We aren’t supposed to attempt to “relegate” all celebrations of black history to the month of February. That’s not what Woodson would have supported. We should, however, elucidate the gaps in the historical record concerning black achievement, advocate for the filling of these gaps and their inclusion in school curricula nationwide, and encourage blacks to unapologetically embrace their esteemed cultural heritage instead of engaging in self-hate.
As Dr. Woodson astutely recognized, ignorance breeds anti-blackness. True racial reconciliation will be impossible so long as the question, “what has the African contributed to the world?” continues to be asked sardonically.
To the extent that ignorance and dismissal of the myriad contributions of blacks to society continue to be pervasive, a mechanism for redressing these deficits is still desperately needed. Black History Month, if executed as intended, is indeed the most optimal mechanism for achieving this goal. Instead of advocating its abolition, we should be working to reorient Black History Month toward its original intent.
I eagerly look forward to the day when Black History Month is no longer necessary. Unfortunately, in my humble opinion, that day has not yet come.