February 08, 2010

Do We Still Need Black History Month?

Unfortunately, we do still need Black History Month.  I say "unfortunately" because many African Americans find it unfortunate that an entire corpus of literary excellence and a long history of scientific contributions, dating back to the turn of the late nineteenth century, have been reduced to a 28-day public service announcement.

I say "still" because the intent of the original "Black History Week" was to generate discourse about and compensate for the larger society's neglect of African American contributions.  Since American History and Social Studies texts had omitted African American stories from school curricula, "Black History Week" would pay tribute to those neglected Americans.  That was 1926.  Now, 84 years later, aside from a sprinkling of color, relegated to the margins of texts, African American history is "still" largely trivialized and marginalized.  Just as the Civil Rights movement has been reduced to The March on Washington and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, African American history has been reduced to a sort of "who's who" in black popular culture.

The problem here is that we still see African American history as somehow separate from American History.  We still need the qualifier - "African."  If there is doubt, one need only open any public school Literature or Social Studies text.  Undoubtedly, there will be a chapter (probably near the back), entitled, "Harlem Renaissance", in which all Black writers, regardless of whether or not they really were Harlem Renaissance writers, will be included.  In the Social Studies texts, African Americans are mentioned a bit more generously, but only to the extent that they reify their white counterparts.  History texts fail to depict African Americans in a subjective inclusive way.

As reductive as Black History month may be, what would happen if we scrapped it altogether?  African American stories would never get told. Africans in America would just become invisible.  The racial purging that slavery, jim crowism, and crack cocaine could not do would be accomplished by simply writing the African out of American history.  Africans in America would become the ahistorical people that many have claimed them to be for centuries.  Therefore, if we disapprove of the mockery that Black History month has become, we should transform it.  Better yet, we should challenge the American system of education to tell all of the histories, not simply the version of history that serves white hegemony.