Is Black History Month Still Necessary?

February 3, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Guest Editorial by Kevin C. Peterson

In a country that has elected the first African-American president, is there really still a need for Black History Month?

For some within the black community the question is rhetorical: the foregone conclusion being that dedicating a month solely to Afro-American history is essential to preserving a collected knowledge of the country’s racial past.

While for others, the salience of black history month is simply anachronistic.  They wonder why it is still necessary to spend so much time rummaging in the cloistered precincts of ethnic history–especially when so much of that history is about the unpleasant accounts of subjugation.

Created in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard-trained historian, the month-long dedication, began as Negro History Week and was expanded into Black History Month in the 1970s after decades of obscurity.  It’s creation represented an ardent and earnest attempt by Woodson to insert the achievements made by African-Americans into the nation’s consciousness.  In a country which still held its relationship with the Negro at a distance and with much disdain, Woodson’s goal was to integrate the black presence into mainstream American life and in doing so give African-Americans a sense of belonging in every chapter of the American story.

And it all made sense back then.  At that time in American history, blacks were only two generations removed from slavery and many African-Americans were still living in the vice grip of the Jim Crow South, lacking voting rights, public accommodations and fair housing laws.  The NAACP was less than twenty years old and the Jazz idiom was nascent, with Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington eagerly waiting in the cultural wings.

More than that, Black colleges were only slowly emerging into prominence, most of them state land grant institutions created after the Civil War, located in the rural and undeveloped South, lacking federal funding and attention. Garrett Morgan, the great African-American inventor, had just years earlier received the first patent for the traffic light he created. And Jackie Robinson, who would go on to integrate Major League Baseball–and give American sports new and complex meaning–was still in elementary school.

In other words, much of black history was undocumented. Black life–its culture and social accomplishments–were essentially ignored by the larger white society, giving formal no formal ways to study and celebrate its strivings and comprehend the cultural, political and moral nuances related to their emergence from chattel servitude.

But for decades now haven’t blacks have lived in a country where their talent and capacity have been obvious?  Oprah, for example, ubiquitously reigns as the predominate media persona of the age. The majority of athletes in major professional sports are minorities and the trends of popular music and dance are often decidedly swayed by the prerogatives of black youth culture.

So why continue to pay special attention to Black History Month given that African-Americans are now so prominent in the broader American cultural narrative: shaping its laws, influencing public policy at the highest levels, dictating aspects of American vernacular and style? Put another way: Why the focus upon the niceties and complexities of black history when the present is certainly enough to sustain a sense of cultural-identity and existential relevance for African-Americans?  And we are a nation inclined toward pluralism aren’t we?

Perhaps there are strong reasons for forgetting the past, especially if major aspects of that history are painful–discomfiting reminders of degradation, terror and lasting trauma.  For those who wish to jettison the idea of Black History Month, forgetting the past may be an attempt to escape from racial parochialism.  And in such circumstances, historical distancing would seem natural and maybe even necessity.

But reasons for retaining Black History Month may well lay in the fact that without a clear sense of the past, cultural groups– namely blacks in America–are decidedly diminished.   Bereft of historical reference points, groups invariably lose their identity and the very foundations upon which they project themselves into the future.  Without their history, in other words, blacks would lose their orientation and direction.

One thing is clear, however: As African-Americans become more integrated into the American fabric, the need to cling to a racialized history will certainly diminish.  So will the desire fade for future generations of blacks to point a finger to slavery and segregation as reference points that depict their American otherness.

But such a period is far in the future.  Black History Month will remain a focal point for decades to come because blacks will continue to glean richly from its particulars, using its many failures and successes as a recipe for future achievement.  And in the meantime, whites and other Americans will find in Black History Month an opportunity to access a people’s history that is so vital to the American democratic narrative.

Kevin C. Peterson, is founder and director of the New Democracy Coalition, which is in Residence at the College for Public and Community Service at UMass Boston.

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  1. Is Black History Month Necessary?

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