Contemplating Black History Month

Yesterday, we began Black History Month— or if your prefer, African American History Month. I’ve heard it called both, and I don’t intend to pick sides on this issue. While it is generally agreed in mainstream culture that it is a positive thing to demark this time to reflect upon the struggles, contributions and impacts of African-Americans, I don’t regard it as that cut-and-dried. The concept of a holiday calls for an agreement upon a date or short period of time to concentrate our attention on one particular aspect of our lives, usually in celebration or remembrance; in similar fashion, Black History Month represents a time to put our focus on something that many Americans neglect or ignore, but which should be celebrated and remembered. However, the question must also be asked, isn’t Black History also important the other eleven months of the year?

One counter-argument that some people believe, and rightly so, asserts that Black History Month offers Americans, mainstream educators and textbook companies especially, an out that allows them to omit or sideline African-American culture and history and not to treat it as equally valid and important alongside discussions of culture, history, art and literature that feature white people almost solely. This argument for making Black History important all year does not devalue Black History Month but rather seeks to improve upon it.

One fact cannot be ignored in this discussion: the African-American segment of the population in the United States is comparatively small, about 12%. The largest portion of the population is self-described “white,” at about 70% to 75%, with Hispanic-Americans representing about 12% and a fairly small percentage of Asian-Americans and Native Americans, nationally. About one in eight Americans is black, yet there are large swaths of America’s geography where an African American presence is either scant or nonexistent. In Wyoming, for example, the African-American population is 0.8%; about 4,500 of the state’s 563,000 residents are black. However, where I live in Montgomery, Alabama, about 55% of the county’s population is black, which puts white people in the numerical minority. There are more black people in one predominantly black neighborhood in Montgomery than in the whole state of Wyoming! The contrasts in varying parts of the country are drastic and obvious, with the highest concentrations of African Americans being in the South and in urban centers outside the South.

So why do we need a national Black History Month, some people ask. My answer would be: to educate people who ask questions like that! Certainly, there are many Americans who seldom or never come into personal contact with any black person in their day-to-day lives— but to believe that we are only affected by people and cultures that we interact with in-person would be extremely obtuse, as would be the idea that ignorance is preferable to knowledge. We are all ignorant to something, and opening our eyes to things as significant as African-American culture and history is a better decision than purposefully maintaining a level of ignorance. And if it takes a dedicated month-long educational and public relations effort to do that, so be it.

Recently, when I searched the term “Black History Month” on Google, my very first result was the NAACP’s Black History Month page. So I clicked on it, and the first place it re-routed me was to sign up for daily Black History updates during the month of February. Sounded good . . . I filled out the form with my name, e-mail address and zip code, but left my mobile phone number off because I don’t want that information going into a marketing databases later— but it was required. So . . . no Black History Month updates for me, I guess. I was disappointed, and would have liked to know what they would send, but I remain unwilling to compromise my personal contact information to get facts that I could get elsewhere.

Perhaps one of the best and most trustworthy sources for information during this period of focused reflection is the African American History Month website, put together by the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Smithsonian Institution, and others. That website’s historical overview explains that the month-long “tribute to the generations of African Americans who struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society” was created by historian Carter G. Woodson, with the first celebration occurring in February 1926, and that President Gerald Ford took the opportunity on the fiftieth anniversary in 1976 to proclaim a national Black History Month.

As it is with modern keyword searches, I could have kept on browsing the results from that one search for the rest of my born days. The plethora of sources and resources was immense, and I would encourage anyone to spend a little time this month digging through them.

In an experience more immediate to me, right before the winter break, a student in my twelfth grade English class, an African-American girl, asked me if I would take part in the Black History Month program some students were planning. I immediately said yes, but also quickly wondered, why me? She said they would want to interview me and possibly have me help them to organize a speaker for the event. That sounded fine, I told her. Despite my career background in Civil Rights history work, and relatively strong knowledge base about the violence and brutality involved in Jim Crow and the movement, I never know how ready students will be for that ugly stuff. I also never know how some people who are black will take this discussion coming from a person who is not black. At the time of this writing, she has not come back to me for anything further, so I have yet to know how it pans out.

What some people are also not ready to hear is: I have mixed feelings about Black History Month. Not because I want to reduce its presence, but because I want to increase it. While I am glad for the educational benefits of this focused month-long event, I also believe that it is used as an excuse not to incorporate a complete telling of the uglier truths of American history into mainstream textbooks and other educational resources. I wonder how the long-term effects of Americans’ beliefs about our own nation would change if discussions of slavery were thoroughly interwoven with currently taught early American history. Today, most of that information is put in sidebars or a given brief mentions— but what if it were fully interwoven, discussed as a major thread with ongoing significance? If Americans were taught the full truth, from the earliest social studies lessons, about what was done, how and by whom, Americans would not be able to regard slavery and Jim Crow as by-gone historical footnotes that have no bearing on modern life, or on their own lives if they are not black. Could that transformation in consciousness occur if Black History was instead given full incorporation?

I ask two things of anyone who reads this: first, take some time this month to learn some things that you did not already know about African-American history and culture, and second, ask yourself what social circumstances (and stigma) causes us to have (and to need) Black History Month. That’s what Black History Month is also for, I think.

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