Is Black History Month Broken’?

By Camille Jackson
Staff Writer,

   John Price, the only black county commissioner in Dallas, Texas, no longer makes public appearances during February.
    Neither does Nell Irvin Painter, a Princeton University historian.
  Overrun with speaking requests during Black History Month, they then see such requests come to a halt March 1. After that 28-day surge, commitment disappears.
     "I’m not going to be, as the kids say, ‘pimped’ during the month of February" only to become "invisible" by month’s end, Price told The Associated Press.
     The re-hash of black history has become too familiar and, some say, resulted in a backlash.
     "I think (Black History Month) has kind of peaked," Thom King, a local black leader told Pittsburgh’s Valley News Dispatch. "All we really do at this point is go through the motions."
   "I don’t think Black History Month works anymore," wrote Shay Stewart-Bouley in a Portland Phoenix essay titled Irrelevant Blackness.
    "I’m not sure how well it worked in the beginning, either, but I know it’s broken now."

In the beginning

    Scholar and historian Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week in 1926 in a fit of black pride.
    Tired of historians’ "whitewashing" of African American contributions, he sent educational mailings that appealed to students and working-class people, bringing African American history to the masses. Years earlier, he founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
    At first, Negro History Week was observed in black schools, churches and YMCAs around the country. Fifty years later, the week officially became a monthlong celebration.
   "When the holiday started, it was to address needs in the black community, needs that stem from living in a white-supremacist nation, one that taught the sub-humanity of the African," says Dr. Amilcar Shabazz, the director of the African American Studies program at the University of Alabama.
     "Over the last 30 years (Black History Month) can be analyzed as a litmus test of how genuine this (American) culture is about embracing African Americans."
   To celebrate Black History Month, President Bush welcomed black leaders to the White House and repeated themes from his inaugural address.
    "We cannot carry the message of freedom and the baggage of bigotry at the same time," Bush said in a Feb. 11 speech. "We need to teach (children) about the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, who by their courage and dignity forced America to confront the central defect of our founding."

Heroes and holidays
    Former chairperson of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Mary Frances Berry says education is paramount, but holidays and celebrations like Black History Month only skim the surface of black achievement.
   "The backlash against attempts to make the United States more inclusive continues," says Berry. "At a time when … we should have more multicultural education, we have less."

Shabazz agrees.

   "In my own estimation, the mainstream majority of white America has tuned out from black folks — other than in entertainment," he says.
     All too often, Shabazz says he hears the argument that Black History Month, originally designed as "internal group work," only serves to make whites feel bad and uncomfortable. In order to diffuse it, he says the celebration has been taken out of its context, causing damage to the original meaning.
     "Maybe it wasn’t designed to be something for the nation as a whole," says Shabazz. "I go into the schools and show children slides of black folks in dashikis, African robes, and they’re shamed to their heart to see something about Africa. What is the African in African American? We’re still stuck on black."

A black and white issue

     Maybe Black History Month can’t carry both blacks and whites. Race relations never have been easy in this country, and segregating black history to one month — when white history is the bedrock of American academia all year long — adds insult to injury.
    "We are still as ignorant in this country about African Americans as we have ever been," says Molefi Kete Asante, professor and chairman of African American studies at Temple University.
   Asante points to the lack of knowledge about African traditions carried from generation to generation, about the different ethnic groups brought to this country, about contributions to language, dress, ideas, philosophy, food, education — the list goes on.
   "I take it that many whites assume that they are not affected by the Africans’ presence. Thus, the job is big," says Asante.
   "And I do not believe that we have ever touched on the emotional issue of why it was necessary for Woodson to propose this black history thing in the first place."
    Asante refers to the lasting psychological torture of slavery. He also points to "the collective lack of cultural esteem, not personal self esteem," that makes Black History Month necessary.
    One way to honor the underlying reasons for Black History Month, some say, is to focus on the principles of the African Americans we celebrate.
   Professor and associate dean of the UC Davis Law School Kevin Johnson suggests celebrating by performing "some true work with the community."
   "Whether it be working with a local immigrants rights group, civil rights organization, soup kitchen or like group," he says. "Rather than simply honor the principles of Dr. King, for example, we should do what we can to live those principles."
   This essay originally appeared on, the news and activism Website of Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama.