It's March 1st. I've gone through yet another February without learning anything about Black History. Yes, I saw several pictures of Martin Luther King. TV moguls produced 10-second spots that displayed evidence of their superficial interest in our history. Programs in auditoriums all over the country were, for the most part, attended by black people who heard what they already knew.
When I was younger, it used to be Negro History Week. The joke in Harlem was that the rich whites would take their black maids to church during Negro History Week. With a rush of devotion to their black employees, they wore their religious "goodness" on their sleeves one Sunday a year. The other 51 Sundays found churches segregated as usual.
Carter G. Woodson had a good idea when he came up with the concept of Negro History Week. He saw it as a time when schools would focus on the rich history of black people that had been callously ignored by teachers and textbooks. Dr. Woodson wanted young people of all races to learn the truth about the multitude of contributions of blacks.
So a tradition was born, and it expanded. Soon it was Black History Month. Governments, corporations and universities used some time during February to do something that involved black employees, focused on black issues and only occasionally focused on black history. Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" developed at least a shadow. Sometimes serious discussions took place; most times, the focus was fleeting.
But as time has passed, a good idea has become something of a joke. The occasions in February were often exploited by those who cynically saw it as an "outlet" -- an occasion for black people in their organizations to talk about their problems and for those in corol to give the appearance of interest in those problems. White managers put on their "game face" and gave their black colleagues an impression that things were going to get better. If they did, it had little to do with the ceremonies of Black History Month.
Whites sit on platforms as heads of agencies and organizations and mouth the first and only thoughts they have had about blacks and their history all year. Each program is ended with a rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing." The words are sung with warmth and pride -- and after February, seldom sung and all but forgotten.
Black History Month is an idea whose time has passed. Yes, blacks and whites need to know a lot more about the history and contributions of black people. Historians need to trace the full range of activities of blacks here and abroad: Our children should be able to read about those contributions in detail and in depth. Textbooks and teachers have moved from ignoring blacks and their accomplishments to handling them sparingly and superficially. All of us, white and black, should insist on more historical reality.
What we don't need are more 10-second TV ads and programs in half-empty auditoriums. The point is to focus on real black accomplishments -- all year, and not just on a few days in February.
It is March 1st. There is no law that says you have to forget about black history this month or any other month. So think about black history in March, and try it one month at a time. You'll find if you stick with it that you will really have learned something by next February.