Thursday, February 12, 2009

Is Black History Month Still Relevant?

This is inspired from a conversation I had with a friend when I went to Big Bear in December. Among other things related to this, she asked that well-heard question about why there isn’t a White History Month and I responded back to her with what I thought. But it made me think about if Black History Month is even relevant in the 21st century where color is almost an afterthought for most?

Carter G. Woodson came up with Negro History Week in 1926 because he wanted to celebrate the accomplishments of Black people. He came up with the idea for the 2nd week in February because of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. It’s no surprise this happened during the Harlem Renaissance when plenty of prominent Black thinkers/poets/activists came alive with creativity (the "New Negro" phenomenon).

If you consider that the only way most Black people heard about their history was through oral tellings, writing it down was absolutely essential. And consider when you have movies during this era such as “Birth of A Nation,” there was a need to tell the full story instead of it being dictated through the media at a time when racism thoughts were alive and well and lynchings/race riots occurred often (I’ll touch back on that storytelling part in a bit).

Pretty much if not for historians such as Woodson and W.E.B. DuBois (one of my personal heroes), it would’ve remained oral history. These folks recorded Black History and told stories that were well known and not well-known at the time. DuBois’ “Black Reconstruction” deconstructed some of the myths many had about the role of Blacks during that era after the Civil War (myths reinforced by “Birth of a Nation”).

Let’s throw in the fact that most White school children (and predominately White-run schools) from 1876 to 1954 were probably not told anything about Black history that was noble. After Brown v. Board in 1954, I’m sure that White kids were still not taught much for the next decade, especially in the South. So having a Black History Week that later became a month was a way for them to be exposed to another part of American history. Throw in another fact that the Civil Rights/Black Power Movements made people aware of more history and you only have this as a recent phenomenon in America.

Now people wanted to learn more about Black History, it was being added to curriculums across the spectrum. It became a great thing….but now what has Black History Month turned into. A tired retread of same old names and the same old stories. It stopped being fresh the minute I realized it was turning into old folks and others re-hashing the past without adding some vibrancy and newness to it. So now I have to wonder is Black History Month still relevant? Do we still need to celebrate it?

First of all, we need to make it more than just a re-tread of people who’ve already been made famous over the years (MLK, Rosa Parks, Fred Douglass). There’s needs to be a highlight of not-so-well known people so we can tell their stories and have them inspire folks. That’s why every year I’m at the paper I will do stories that highlight not-so-familiar people because their story needs to be told (the last two years, I’ve done the New York Rens – the first Black professional team that was paid – and Don Barksdale (below), the first Black to win a basketball gold medal and play in an NBA All-Star Game before becoming the Black radio DJ in the Bay Area).

Second of all, with people that we’ve heard so much about, we need to make their stories more dimensional. Don’t tell the same facts about that person, tell us something we haven’t heard or don’t hear enough about. For example, talk more about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s commitment to the Poor People’s Campaign and his anti-war stances. You need to make familiar legends relate to a new generation so they don’t see them as a 1-D caricature but a living human being. And we also need to search for this as well and not just settle for what we are told.

Edit: I was in the barbershop and my barber was telling me all this stuff about George Washington Carver I didn’t know about (he did as much with soybeans as he did with peanuts, he was an accomplished painter). I love learning about new people who were just as important whether they were Black Americans or Black people from other parts of the world (like one of my heroes Steve Biko)These are the kind of stories that need to be told this month.

Third, here’s why we need BHM most of all. Remember what I said about it gave Black people a chance to dictate their own history back in the 1920’s? Well in 2009, people still need to dictate their own history and not be told who or what is important. I don’t want people to have a one-sided view of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X or Martin Luther King and Booker T. Washington. If a group of people or organization can’t dictate their own history and it has to be told to them, it can be manipulated by the storyteller or there is potential for something to be left out.

That is ultimately why BHM is still relevant and why we need to seriously revamp it and give it a makeover to continue making it relevant. It is part of the American fabric and a history buff, I think that quilt needs to be remodeled every once in a while because old stitching can fade and tear. It really needs to be told every day not just one month, but if one month is where people learn a lot of new things, so be it. Let it be the start, not the end-all be all.

*And as for the tired argument about why can’t there be a White History Month, let me counter with this. If you had a White History Month, what would be its purpose? What reason would you need for it besides just to “have it” in the name of fairness? If you wish to promote great White people or White history, consider that many of them have already been promoted for years and are well-known parts of the American fabric.

Promoting Black/Latino/Asian/Women’s/GLBT History is because not everyone knows that side of American History, so it must be told.

Why celebrate "White History Month" if it’s something that is recognized on a consistent basis? I don't have a problem celebrating great people for what they do or celebrating one's culture but if you want a White History Month for the simple reason of having one (or promote people we ALL know or read about in history), you grossly misunderstand why BHM or other history months were created. It's like if I was mad at an Islam Awareness Week when I know good and well that Christianity is the dominant religion here....a worthless argument in the grander scope of things.*


  1. Great piece friend... I definitely agree. I do have to give credit to my own high school U.S. History teacher for continuously weaving Black/Asian/... History into the everyday history. There was never any separation and I wish that it could be like that always. As you noted, each is a part of the American quilt and the stories must be told and stitched with care.

    "If a group of people or organization can't dictate their own history and it has to be told to them, it can be manipulated by the storyteller or there is potential for something to be left out."

    I loved this line most of all... it reminded me so much of my senior thesis at USD.

  2. I got a very diverse history lesson at USD in World History and U.S. History, I learned more about Latino history through that and then my Black History class was def.'s like shakespeare said (and JFK the movie and Joe Biden later quoted), what's past is prologue

  3. good shit, dude. a few comments on white history month though, which are in no way meant to sound like i advocate for any sort of white-emphasized day of celebration:

    the largest merit i could see to 1) the dissolution of black history month or 2) the creation of a white history month, would be that it would undo years of anglo-centric classification. british imperialists saw white as a "non-race" and everyone else was considered black, brown, yellow, red or, in general, "the other"; these were people that "needed" to be labeled because they were different; they were something other than white. because of this smug, superior, imperialist attitude, whites have been able to set the tone of racial discourse, going unlabeled and unstereotyped as a race while simultaneously categorizing everyone considered "the other." (one of the reasons i have grown to further enjoy the "stuff white people like" website is because it makes an attempt to classify white people based on ridiculous stereotypes... something we have avoided for most of history and something that has never really been written down and documented, even tongue-in-cheek, prior to this point in history.)

    by creating something like a "white history month," it would explicitly identify white as a race instead of a non-race. it would say, "you're not the people setting the tone of this conversation that everyone else is having... you are smack in the middle of a conversation that everyone is having about everybody else."

    similarly, dissolving black history month (which i don't advocate per se, but i do see its relevance coming to an end in the frame of globalization and post-racialism) would integrate and elevate blacks as a non-race, or, would rather make it clear that their race (i should say, their skin color)is a non-issue.

    for now, it makes sense to celebrate black history month because it wasn't (and still isn't) the case that blacks are treated as a non-race... the fact that a half-african-half-white president is considered "black" shows that the dominant feature in racial discourse is still skin color, as opposed to genealogy or culture. but i still hold to the idea that people will someday be so integrated and heterogenous that black history month will lose relevance and the idea of viewing anyone as a part of a skin-color-based race or as an "other" will be seen as a complete non-issue... pointing out a person's skin color will be like pointing out that that person has skin... it'll be silly to even bring it up.

    anyway... just some thoughts from a dude who's recently been confronted with and haunted by the troubling idea of his own white privilege.

  4. Good points Andy (btw, Stuff White People Like is hilarious as well as interesting), I like the idea of whiteness being classified so they could see that they are part of the story, not the outside storytellers. To that same point, I think that's even more reason why diverse stories need to be told because we have played a role in determining our history not just reacting to what somebody said.

    Black History month is growing irrelevant (hence why I didn't do this blog until now instead of on Feb. 1-2) and my generation is becoming less bound by previous racial notions, which is good/bad. Good in the sense that we aren't thinking about race all the time, bad in the sense that we aren't conscious of it enough so that when things happen that affect a certain group, nobody knows why people are upset and get called complainers.

    So maybe that's why I'm torn about it. I do see a point where Black History Month goes the way of the dinosaur (as well as the Black press, including the paper I work for) but I worry what will happen as a result.