2/28/2005

Are we mature enough to end Black History Month?

From Byron Williams on Common Dreams:
Now that we've reached the end of another Black History Month celebration, I have a confession. Under the right conditions, I would support its elimination.
I am quite certain that some are already asking themselves: "How can he possibly consider the elimination of Black History Month?" I recognize that it is a worthy tradition, but is it a tradition free from examination?
Black History Month began in 1926 as Negro History Week by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, as a way to bring attention to the positive contributions of black people in American history. Woodson's achievements alone are of great historical value. The son of former slaves, Woodson worked in the Kentucky coal mines in order to put himself through high school. He graduated from Berea College in Kentucky in 1903, and then went on to Harvard for his Ph.D. Woodson was concerned that one was hard pressed to find the contributions of blacks, positive or otherwise in American history books, even though blacks had been an integral part of American history since 1619. In 1915, he established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, and then founded the Journal of Negro History and Negro History Bulletin. In 1926 he began promoting the second week of February as Negro History Week. In 1976, it became Black History Month.
As for the conspiracy theorists who wonder why black history is celebrated in the shortest month of the year, Woodson selected February as the month so that it coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas.
However, does the legitimate reasoning that necessitated the celebration of Black History Month still require that we maintain it today? Perhaps the more appropriate question is, does America possess the collective maturity to end Black History Month?
I come to these questions with mixed emotions.
I suspect there are a number of African Americans who are quite comfortable with Black History Month remaining in its current state.
Whether it is the belief that without Black History Month the achievements of African Americans would go the way of the spotted owl, or the comfort realized in being marginalized, it is a conversation that many are not prepared to entertain.
My reasoning for supporting the elimination of Black History Month is that it renders the achievements of African Americans to an adjunct status in American history.
It is a mistake to view the Civil Rights Movement as something that merely helped blacks gain equal rights. This was a movement that tested the elasticity of the Constitution. In doing so, it made America examine whether or not the Jeffersonian notion of equality had validity.
Is that not a lesson for all Americans to embrace? Why are the names of George Washington Carver, Fannie Lou Hamer and Ralph Bunche almost exclusive property of African Americans? Furthermore, does not the concept of Black History Month suggest that other marginalized groups have a month of celebration as well?
Thus, the solution would be to authentically integrate the achievements of African Americans as well as other marginalized communities into American history. Here is where I fear we do not possess collective maturity.
An authentic integration of American history would require that all communities be honest about its high and low moments. A genuine incorporation of history would therefore demand that America become self-reflective in ways that it has managed to avoid.
If the descendants of African slaves cannot receive an apology from the United States government for the obvious centuries of dehumanization, how can we realistically examine the mistreatment sustained not only by Native Americans, but also practically every group that has arrived on these shores?
Sadly, America is not at this place. Any attempts to authentically integrate black history into that of dominant culture, I fear, would further marginalize the former.
It is a mature nation that can look at itself authentically, not for the purposes of guilt, but rather to become better and stronger. When it is no longer necessary that February commemorate Black History Month, we will be well on our way.

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