Why Is Black History Segregated?
3 months ago
Does a dedicated month stifle integration of our contributions in all aspects of U.S. society?
It's February--time for teachers to assign reports on Rosa Parks, create dioramas of the Underground Railroad in action, and have their students read chapters of Ralph Ellison’s "The Invisible Man."
Few could have imagined, when historian Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week 87 years ago, that today, millions would celebrate the contributions of black Americans for an entire month, in schools, churches, offices and homes throughout the country.
But is Black History Month enough, and does segregating our celebrations to one month let the nation off the hook for integrating the story of blacks into the broader narrative? In an ideal world, American—and world—history as taught in our schools would reflect the full picture, representative of the rainbow of peoples and cultures that contributed to it. There's something about black history being separated and discussed only during one short month that seems to diminish the achievements of African Americans.
“Our documentation of our cultural achievements and history are a way to prove our very humanity when so many are invested in dehumanizing black people," says Janell Hobson, an associate professor of women’s studies at The University at Albany, who also lectures about black history.. "There is a racial ideology that says ‘These people have no history, no culture, therefore they are not quite human.’”
It took almost 30 years after the first observance of Woodson's Negro History Week before the mayors of several major cities issued proclamations making the week official. The first U.S. president to acknowledge the significance of black history to Americans of every hue was President Gerald Ford, who, during the 1976 bicentennial celebration, urged the nation to “seize the opportunity to honor the too often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” That same year, the association Woodson created to carry out his mission, now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), expanded the celebration to a month-long affair, following the lead of young celebrants on college campuses who had long dedicated February to the celebration of black history and culture, and updated the vernacular to refer to it as Black History Month.
In the years since, events in black history have been infused in everything from lesson plans to pop culture, with our contributions getting the Hollywood treatment on the big and small screen in films such as "Red Tails," "The Great Debaters" and HBO's "Something The Lord Made." But despite such inroads, black history and the accomplishments of African Americans are still too often segregated when it comes to larger discussions of U.S. history in school curricula or with regard to media images of racial norms in pop culture.
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“I cannot tell you how many times students—white, black, Latino, Asian—express gratitude that I’ve exposed them to new narratives and new histories and how they wished they had been given this information elsewhere," says Hobson. "While I take it as a compliment that they feel they’ve learned so much from me, I also feel that too many of us who are faculty of color are burdened with being the ones to provide the ‘diverse’ perspective in colleges and universities. How do we diversify this education so that all faculty are teaching from a multiracial perspective of history and society?”
Perhaps a more comprehensive and integrated view of history would better achieve Woodson's mission. When he first celebrated Negro History Week during the second week of February 1926—he chose the second week of the month because it included the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and emancipator Abraham Lincoln, and was already a time of celebration in the black community—he theorized that teaching black history would, “besides building self-esteem among blacks, help eliminate prejudice among whites.”
But the focus during February is typically on the same African Americans--Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass--as if African American history is limited to the accomplishments of these notable few.
“Textbooks have done a better job of including African Americans into U.S. history texts, but this is usually confined to the most famous leaders who have been validated by the U.S. historians and the political establishment. Some leaders are not mentioned because they are considered too radical or controversial,” says V.P. Franklin, a history professor and editor of The Journal of African American History at University of California, Riverside. “Black History Month provides the opportunity to focus on leaders who are often missing, such as Henry McNeal Turner, Marcus Garvey, Ida Wells-Barnett, W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and Malcolm X.”
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For some, the very existence of Black History Month helps feed the notion that African American history isn't American history. Lloyd Marcus, chairman of the Conservative Campaign Committee certainly thinks so:
“I think it is time for Black History Month to end. Rather than focusing on contributions by blacks, educators, the media, and the Democratic Party chose to focus on promoting the lie that blacks are eternal victims of an eternally racist America," says Marcus. “Am I saying to ignore the mistreatment of blacks in American history? Absolutely not. I am simply saying tell the whole story.”
However, the consensus among pundits, activists and historians seems to be that there is yet work to be done in educating not only blacks, but all Americans, about the contributions of people of African descent across the spectrum of life in the U.S. and abroad, and this annual celebration is key to the struggle.
"Black History Month is needed now more than ever because there is a need for the younger generations to be informed about history in general, and African American history in particular," Franklin says. "It allows exposure to past events that shaped the nation and focuses attention on the numerous and varied contributions made to the nation's development by people of African descent."
Michael Coard, a Philadelphia-based attorney and founding member of the Avenging The Ancestors Coalition agrees that dedicating February to our past is still important.