H2H: Is One Month Enough?

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1. Black History Month Enriches America

Sean Williams

Any discussion of Black History Month is supplemented by the discussion of why we have holidays in the first place. In setting aside time to honor something important, they are intended to be a reminder and a celebration of something. Black History Month sets aside a whole month, a testament to the significance of African-American movements in shaping our nation. It deserves its place of recognition as much as any other recognized event.

In questioning the need for the month, one unfortunately misses the point of special occasions. Holidays and celebrations do not preclude us from recognizing something all year round; they simply act as strong reminders, telling us that an issue is important and we need to give some more thought to it. The history of African-Americans is a fine example of something we should come back to again and again for guidance on how to live our lives.

In the same way that we wouldn’t get rid of Christmas because we are often exchanging gifts with our friends, we shouldn’t get rid of Black History Month simply because we want to acknowledge it year-round. In fact, celebrating the month can be the first step to creating a greater awareness of the issue. If this special designation wasn’t here to act as a reminder and a motivator, the diverse history of African-Americans wouldn’t receive the same amount of attention and focus that it does. Black History Month paints a standard to compare ourselves to as a society — we can ask ourselves whether we are paying enough just attention to minorities as we may have during the specially-marked month.

Experience has taught us that despite many significant gains stemming from the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans still face discrimination. Statistically, they are more likely to live in poverty and are frequently targets of public and private discrimination. The issue should not be ignored just because we don’t want to hear about it anymore. Black History Month still desperately needs to exist to draw attention to these issues of discrimination as a way to push for change, and as a way to acknowledge the past. Learning and acknowledging African-American history can inspire us and drive us to action.

People in America often claim to be color-blind, saying that we should stop talking about race and do away with distinct racial separations through things like Black History Month. Unfortunately, such a stance can have the effect of masking the inequality that continues to face African-Americans. Bringing the issue to the forefront does not mean it must dominate the conversation, but it does force us to recognize it and see how well we are doing with it. Black History Month can encourage us to make comparisons, seeing how we might be doing things better now, but also how discriminatory practices may still exist in some forms today.

Although I agree wholeheartedly that black history is American history, I think this annual visitation is important. A glance at the history of African-Americans reveals to us that, for a long time, many Americans did not consider black history to be American history. If we wish to be better than that, we need to set ourselves apart. Taking one month out of the year to specifically recognize African-American history is just one of the ways we can do that.

Finally, I think we can do better with Black History Month by truly taking it to heart. Actually reading about black history and learning the stories you may not have heard can give you a new, enlightened perspective. Teaching it in classes and discussing it on social media are among the small steps that can be taken to make sure African-American history is recognized. Whether or not you want there to be a Black History Month, we can all do better and truly take the intentions and ideas behind its recognition to heart.

letters@chronicle.utah.edu

2. Black History is American History

Dalton Edwards

Ralph Ellison published “Invisible Man” in 1952, a masterpiece of American literature. “Invisible Man” does what literature today strives constantly to do — with wit and music, it captures the clash of disparate and converging cultures, the violence and bigotry that springs from such convergence. And above all, it remains true to the racialized subject. Ellison, like his predecessors and successors Douglass, Baldwin, Morrison or more recently, Colson Whitehead or Zadie Smith, conveys the anxiety and disproportionate out-of-place-ness to which African-Americans (and, considering Smith, black people globally) have been both quietly and violently subjected.

This essay does not strive only to remind you of those literary giants for whom history, writing and race relations have meshed so vividly, successfully and powerfully. Nor is it written as any kind of comprehensive history lesson. Rather, I hope only to have thus far provided some footing from which I can make a claim you might be hearing this month and in subsequent Februarys (since the argument’s fanbase is growing).

Let’s do away with Black History Month.

The month of February has since 1976 been legally considered “Black History Month” in the United States. The 28 or 29day vigil comes originally from a week in February which Carter G. Woodson, a historian, claimed as “Negro History Week” in remembrance and celebration of the birthdays of two great emancipators — Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Since 1976, kids across the U.S. have been taught every February bits of African-American history: the roots of slavery and America’s foundation, the causes and outcome of the Civil War, the prose and poetry of great thinkers and writers of the 19th, 20th and now 21st centuries. February, while the shortest month, has given generations of students and historians alike reason to celebrate a traditionally marginalized perspective.

This, precisely, is why Black History Month has run its course. A great segregation has been carried out under our very noses; in fact, it has occurred without much question for decades. For one month every year, American curriculum demands educators spend time teaching kids about African-American history, that they relegate an hour or two each day in February — time spent usually learning about American Revolutionaries or the Spanish American War or basic systems of government — to teach “A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” about Langston Hughes’ “Harlem,” the Harlem Renaissance, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and the Civil Rights Movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

My education, a white male Utah education, was no different. I got snippets of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and was let to pore over accounts of slave ship crossings. Abraham Lincoln was heavily emphasized.

However, as soon as February was over and March 1 reared its windy head, the African-American history was duly sidled back to its place on the uppermost spot on bookshelves too rickety to climb.

Black History Month, as so many have said before, is marginalization at its most sinister. It allows white Americans the chance to feel reprieved from having to seriously consider the role and legacy of African-American leaders and sufferers eleven months out of the year. Morgan Freeman said it best, with velvety voice: “Black history is American history.” It should be treated thus.

A serious integration of African American history must take place. No longer should an entire cultural story be corralled to what David Olusoga in The Guardian aptly calls “a history ghetto.” With the continuation of Black History month, the risk this keeps happening is far too great.

Some may argue that it takes a month of determined celebration and recognition to reinvigorate enthusiasm for equality between races. Really, all the Month does is segregate parcels of history that should, ideally and feasibly, be taught and celebrated and honored and mourned in tandem with the rest of American history. A dual perspective of this kind would only help children and teens see the nuance inherent to the foundation of America and the troubled presumptions of “American exceptionalism.”

This doesn’t end with the integration of black history. So too should those traditionally marginalized voices and histories — Native American, Hispanic, female, post-colonial immigrant, etc. — be given greater (dare I say, equal) representation in American curricula.

One of the opening lines in Ellison’s “Invisible Man” speaks to this issue: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” For eleven months each year, this is wickedly true of the African American voice. Because of laziness or ignorance or discomfort or lack of resources and guidance, many Americans refuse to see the significance and applicability of voices cast to the margins of U.S. history. It’s time to integrate these voices. Time to let Black History Month go.

letters@chronicle.utah.edu

 

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