Is Black History Month Good or Bad?

February is Black History Month in the United States and Canada.

black-history-month

(And February is also National Bird-Feeding Month; March is Women’s History Month; April is Jazz Appreciation Month, Confederate History Month, and National Poetry Month; May is Neurofibromatosis Awareness Month, Mental Illness Awareness Month, and Jewish American Heritage Month; June is Caribbean American Heritage Month; September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month; October LGBT History Month, Filipino American History Month, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month; November is National Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Awareness Month; December is National Fruit Cake Month.)

Black History Month is a time when schools, colleges, and television programs feature famous individuals in the United States’s history who have been racialized as Black. People frequently learn about important individuals such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman during the month of February.

Recently, increasing controversy has arisen around whether Black History Month should even exist. I first became aware of these controversies when my doctoral advisor suggested I might enjoy the documentary More Than a Month. In this film, Shukree Tilghman goes on a mission to end Black History Month.

Objections to Black History Month focus on Black history being segregated from history collectively. People don’t learn how Rosa Parks worked with liberal White individuals of her time, such as the Durrs. People don’t learn about the centuries of codified violence against African Americans and learn little, if anything, about the true horrors of enslavement.

Except for a few symbolic gestures and celebrations during Black History Month, Black History Month really isn’t all that different from the other 11 “White History Months.”

Black History Month also focuses on a few of the “big names” – people know about Rosa Parks, but don’t know about Henry Box Brown, Anthony Johnson, Jourdon Anderson, Dr. Freda Celestine Gooden Richardson, Ida B. Wells, Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, Elmer Jackson, and an infinite number of other individuals who are specifically known to the historical record.

Some counter these objections and say that without Black History Month people would know even less about non-White individuals than they already do. Some suggest a month devoted to Black History is an indicator of respect and an effort to correct past injustices.

There are so many months commemorating different groups, foods, social concerns, and everything under the sun that any such month has the potential to bring true recognition yet also to be drowned out by other concerns. What prompts societies to have events honoring groups, such as Black History Month, and political motivations that contribute to its success or lack of success is also important to consider.

As a society, do we have commemorative months to bring attention to underrepresented groups and issues, or do we have commemorative months to avoid truly facing these groups and concerns and integrating them into society?

Finally – it is worth considering that Black History Month – a month ideally aimed at recognizing Black individuals and their contributions to history and Black history specifically – is segregated from history as generally taught and understood the rest of the time.

So, what are your thoughts: Is Black History Month a good/helpful holiday or not?



Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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19 replies

  1. Once again you have given us a thought-provoking idea to chew on. Is it good or bad? Well, of course there is no easy answer. When you point out the idea that Black history is isolated away from other history for a month, then of course this idea of a Black history month is too simplistic. Yes, Black history should be incorporated into U.S. history throughout the year. Second, highlighting one group always means the exclusion of one or more other groups. BUT . . . if you think about school kids in a classroom–usually teachers spend this month highlighting Black achievements by having the students do projects, etc. At least this is a time set aside to learn something specifically devoted to African American history, usually in more depth than whatever the students might have learned in their TAKS (or STARS?) prep materials. Also, many businesses highlight African American figures during this month. In this sense, the advertisers are reaching adults, making them aware at some level about the various figures of Black history. Personally, I think Black History Month is a good idea. Not perfect, but good nonetheless.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. @tristefantasma
    Thanks! 🙂 And thanks for your thoughts.
    I guess I tend to think that–at least given the nature of US society–Black History Month does far more good than any possible harm. It serves to specifically and directly remind EVERYONE that Black individuals, their history, and contributions are important. In a perfect society, things would be more “integrated” but we’re far from perfect as a society. Maybe the key is to get people and schools and businesses to celebrate Black History Month even more — the way Christmas is celebrated in most case — where signs and symbols of the month-long celebration are almost everywhere.

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  3. Without Black History Month, would you have written this article listing the less known people of black history?

    For those who don’t like Black History Month, they can boycott it and talk about every other culture’s history during Black History month; then talk about Black History during the other 11 months of the year.

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  4. @With Love Glenn

    Thanks for your comment. 🙂

    On this blog, in my teaching, and in my published articles, I have regularly focused on lesser-known Black individuals.

    I’ve actually been surprised that in all of my studies and classes on African-American history that Black History Month is never really discussed or celebrated. Perhaps it’s more of a “public at large holiday.”

    Except for outright racist individuals, those who “don’t like” Black History Month, from what I have seen, only hope to have every month be a “Black History Month” so to speak.

    Black History Month also always prompts ridiculous questions about “Why isn’t there a White History Month” – these people don’t recognize that every month is already a “White History Month.”

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  5. I really love your question here: “As a society, do we have commemorative months to bring attention to underrepresented groups and issues, or do we have commemorative months to avoid truly facing these groups and concerns and integrating them into society?” I think it raises some pretty important questions about the uses of commemoration and history in helping to heal past wounds and also challenges us to consider who owns history and who is entitled to speak on behalf of the past on behalf of a group, region, nation, etc.

    I believe that Black History month has done more good than harm and has raised public awareness of the need to not only study black history, although you are correct in asserting that the month does segregate black history from the rest the history curriculum. I do wonder if it might be appropriate to view Black History Months as means towards an eventual end-goal in which there is no more Black History Month someday, but of course we have no idea when that day might come, or if it’s even a good idea in the first place.

    As it stands now, I think there are two serious shortcomings with the way we commemorate Black History Month:

    1. Too much focus on nationally recognized figures like MLK, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, etc. etc. and not enough on the people (of all colors) that fought for freedom and equality within a local context. Growing up in St. Louis, I never learned about figures like John Berry Meachum or even Dread Scott and Elijah Lovejoy until I got to college. My guess is that this is a problem in cities all over the country.

    2. Too much focus on the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement with little surrounding context. Who were the people who continued to fight for freedom after the Civil War? What came of them? Ditto for Civil Rights leaders during the 1970s-1990s. Too often I think we view 1865 and 1969 as historical “endpoints” in Black history. I think we can do more to illuminate leaders during Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Progressive Era, and even today.

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    • @Nick Sacco

      Thanks. 🙂
      The question about “who is entitled to speak on behalf…” reminds me of the article my dissertation group is going to look at for the next time called “Can the Subaltern Speak?” It’s apparently an important article. Have you read it? There is all too often an idea that “poor people” or “un/under-educated people” don’t have a historical voice or can’t speak for themselves. Meryl Streep (who is a wonderful actress) is cited in one of my film books as saying (to paraphrase), “I give a voice through various characters to those who don’t have a voice.” Such, of course, is really impossible from an actual authentic POV.

      I like how you frame it in terms of “who owns history” too. I haven’t looked at things from that specific POV before. I’m thinking about how that applies to my studies of film and memory. In some ways, academic historians “own” the history of say enslavement more than the people studied because of our shifting methodologies, biases, and interests.

      How would “Black History Months” work in your mind? Would there be another month-long celebration? Or maybe one month for pre-emancipation and one for post-? Interesting thought!

      And Absolutely agree that context and a fuller range of actors is missing.

      I first learned about Lovejoy as a TA my first year as a grad student – His story is absolutely incredible! I haven’t heard of John Berry Meachum. I’ll have to look him up.

      ttyl

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  6. Some day in the future, hopefully not too far, there would be no need for any X group history month, but at the present time I think they do much more good than harm for not only the group being recognized but for society as a whole.

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  7. Thanks for the response, Andrew. I have not read the article “Can the Subaltern speak,” but a book that I’m working myself through right now is the recently deceased Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s “Silencing the Past,” which addresses the relationship between power structures and the making of history. I’m about 40 pages through and enjoying it immensely so far. http://www.amazon.com/Silencing-Past-Power-Production-History/dp/0807043117/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1391655408&sr=1-1&keywords=Silencing+the+Past Although I have not read this book yet, Eric Foner talks about ownership and history in the aptly titled “Who Owns History?” http://www.amazon.com/Who-Owns-History-Rethinking-Changing-ebook/dp/B0052Z3IUM/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1391655779&sr=1-1&keywords=eric+foner+who+owns+history

    I don’t know about “Black History Months.” I wonder, instead, if we can do something like mark January 1 as “Emancipation Day” and then use this day to explore life after slavery. Or maybe something on Juneteenth? What do you think?

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    • Thank you!
      Silencing the Past is a good book. I read it a few years ago. I need to revisit it again soon for dissertation stuff.
      Archive Stories: Facts, Fiction, and the Writings of History is a similar and very good book you might like.

      I just worry with day-length celebrations Black History might be even more easily ignored. I don’t know.

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  8. Hi Andrew, you mentioned the article, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” I read this article maybe 2 years ago in the feminist theory class and it really was a very interesting article. Also, I’m not sure if you had seen an earlier blog entry of mine but I addressed the question of who has the right to tell whose story. It’s here if you want to check it out http://tristefantasma.wordpress.com/2013/07/08/who-has-the-right-to-tell-their-story-a-historian-speaks-out-about-race-class-and-scholarship/
    So much history to share. So little time. 🙂

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  9. “people know about Rosa Parks, but don’t know about Henry Box Brown, Anthony Johnson, Jourdon Anderson, Dr. Freda Celestine Gooden Richardson, Ida B. Wells, Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, Elmer Jackson, and an infinite number of other individuals who are specifically known to the historical record.”

    I’m slowly working my way down that list. So far I got Box Brown and Ida B. Well, and it was a total surprise to me that I had not known of them before. Because frankly they are super interesting people.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr. Freda Celestine Gooden Richardson’s memoir about the Montgomery Bus Boycott is excellent. Let me know if you would like to borrow a copy. It’s a quick read. She was one of the main masterminds behind the idea!

      In a second I’ll email you an article I wrote that discusses Elmer Jackson and other things you might be interested in. It’s a series of mini-articles actually.

      There really are SO, SO many neat people who were Black that we don’t hear enough about!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I would love to borrow the copy of Dr. Freda Celestine Gooden Richardson’s memoir if you have an extra copy!

      I also am looking forward to reading that article.

      Thanks so much AJP!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Just have one copy but you are welcome to borrow it! Will put it in my bag now.

      Liked by 1 person

Trackbacks

  1. Why isn’t there a White History month?!! « Andrew Joseph Pegoda, A.B.D.
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