Black History Month means a lot of different things to different people. For me, it is a success story of triumph amid persecution and a reminder of the unfinished legacy of the Civil Rights era.
Conceived as Negro History Week in 1926 by Dr. Carter Woodson, the celebration of important African-American historical contributions grew to include the entire month of February in 1976.
The original weeklong celebration encompassed the birthdays of President Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the influential abolitionist and former slave whose memoires helped turn public opinion in the North against the atrocity of slavery.
Noticing the intentional historical omission of important achievements of black Americans, Carter envisioned the week as a way to build self-esteem among blacks and eliminate prejudices against whites.
Sounds like a great idea, right? For most reasonable people, the answer should be, “yes.” But history has proven that being reasonable is not a trait people always possess when it comes to issues of equality.
In a sense, Black History Month has become a rehearsed routine: High school history teachers show “Eyes on the Prize” and other documentaries while college campuses host guest lectures and keynote addresses. Furthermore, those same groups of opponents who surface every year ask why Black History Month exists. Some even laughably ask why there isn’t a white history month (apparently the other 11 months aren’t enough to satisfy them).
Perhaps they would be shocked to learn that Woodson himself supported getting rid of the tradition he established once the accomplishments of Black Americans received the same academic and social treatment as those of white Americans.
In a 2006 interview on “60 Minutes,” Morgan Freeman echoed Woodson’s sentiments, stating, “I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history.”
I sometimes wonder what history education would look like if Black History Month were eliminated.
Would public school history teachers be more inclusive in their coverage of black history during the rest of the year or would the likes of Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, MLK Jr. and Malcolm X virtually disappear from school curricula?
I’m afraid the latter is more likely.
Take the near absence of Hispanic and Asian-American History from high school history classes as a case in point; I realize this is an apples-to-oranges comparison, but bear with me.
The real problem, I believe, isn’t just the secondary treatment of black history, but the longstanding influence of Eurocentric thought.
Some have equated the treatment of MLK Jr. to a form of hero worship, but why not call out King for actually making a positive impact when other not-so-great aspects of history are put on a pedestal without much ado?
The U.S. Constitution is revered by most Americans, but the same Constitution that has become a symbol of our freedom and democracy expressly allowed slavery under Article I, Section 2 until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.
The same presidents we commemorate on currency owned other human beings.
For nearly a century after the Revolutionary War, America turned a blind eye to slavery even after Great Britain and other European countries had banned the practice.
Today, no rational person supports human slavery. To our modern sensibilities, the thought of owning another human being is repulsive, but 150 years ago, people shrugged.
Contrary to popular belief, change is not inevitable. It takes movers and shakers, people who are considered “radical” in their time to challenge public opinion and force people to confront their own social prejudices.
If we continue to make progress towards equality, I suspect people in 2160 will perceive our actions the same way we perceive the actions of people in 1860.
After all, the legacy of slavery and institutionalized discrimination is alive and well.
In 2010, the Bureau of Justice found that 4 percent of all black males are incarcerated, compared with rates of .7 and 1.7 for white and Hispanic males, respectively.
A recent study by M. Marit Rehavi of the University of British Columbia and Sonja B. Starr of the University of Michigan Law School found that black inmates serve sentences 60 percent longer than white offenders for the same crimes, and were twice as likely to receive mandatory minimum sentencing.
In 2009, the U.S. Census Bureau unearthed the poverty rate for black Americans was 25.8 percent.
The Hispanic poverty rate was a close second at 25.3 percent.
Whites trailed at 12.3 percent.
If this isn’t proof that there is progress to be made, then I don’t know what is.