Commentary: Toward an end to Black History Month
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 28, 2009 - I was invited to speak at an event celebrating the culmination of Black History Month, and two things struck me.
The first was that I almost forgot it was Black History Month! I'm just being honest. Addressing issues of race and honoring the stories of people from all backgrounds are things I aim to do regularly, so I didn't fully connect that the recent events I had been attending were for Black History Month.
The second realization is that this forgetting is both a good and a bad thing.
The good thing is that maybe it isn't just my life. Maybe we as a society have gotten better about honoring multiple perspectives. Perhaps this awareness has become mainstream so that the increase in "ethnic" activity feels less abrupt.
Yet, a quick glance at an elementary history book sets me straight. The stories of people of color are segmented (like months) rather than interwoven throughout. This point leads to the possible cons.
The bad thing is that in some ways we might have "accepted" that February is full of Black things rather than fighting the larger battle for integration throughout the year. At one of those events, someone should have provided a context for the month.
For example, Carter G. Woodson was inspired to start Black History Month - what was originally the second week of February to commemorate Frederick Douglass' and Abraham Lincoln's birthdays - after he became frustrated with his schooling. Woodson received a PhD from Harvard, yet his education largely failed to include African Americans. Where they were included, they were considered inferior. Therefore, he started the tradition of Black History month to catalog and honor Black history. His overarching desire would have been for it to be part of mainstream education, but he knew he had to start somewhere.
As a result of President Obama's election, some have called for the abolition of the month. Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution stated, "The commemoration is a damaging form of apartheid." She says that "the nation of Tiger Woods, Oprah and Barack Obama no longer needs a Black History Month."
I would agree with her that it is a form of apartheid, which is why we must consider context. At its inception in 1926, Blacks were separate in society. Therefore, the history of Blacks was also marginalized.
Yet, to claim that the month is no longer necessary, we would need to ensure that the history is no longer separate but now within the mainstream education. As I mentioned before, that has yet to happen. We are taught about a handful of African Americans, whose stories usually emerge around the topics of slavery and civil rights. Legally, we have made great strides, but socially and educationally we are not integrated.
Tucker's second point speaks to a number of firsts that have occurred within the African-American community. Wyatt Closs wrote an interesting piece on this phenomenon, which suggests that it is the wrong way to go about measuring progress. In essence, at this stage of the game, we should be more embarrassed than applauding that there are still firsts to be made.
If we focus on the firsts rather than the fourths, tenths and umpteenths, we are only pointing to barriers broken down rather than full progress being made. I am not suggesting that we not celebrate "firsts," yet I am suggesting that simply because they have happened does not mean African Americans on the whole have arrived.
Personally, I welcome the day that Black History Month is truly obsolete; because that would mean we no longer need it. It would mean that the stories of African Americans were told in their complexities throughout the year.
My greater hope is that the same would be true for all people of color. Then the colorful story of American history will be told in its entirety.
Perhaps if we knew each other's histories and saw portrayals of American heroes in all shades, we would be less prone to judge one another and more likely to recognize points of commonality.
Kira Hudson Banks (left), PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.