At this stage of my life, I have mixed feelings about Black History Month. The moment on the calendar, set aside to celebrate the past achievements of African Americans, has felt outdated to me for as long as I can remember.
And now that we’ve seen the United States’s first president of color sworn in for the second time and our first black gymnast win the women’s all-around competition at the Olympics, and with only a couple years until the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opens, I wonder: Has Black History Month lost its purpose?
No, but it has lost its way.
Back in 2005, Morgan Freeman famously declared the month as “ridiculous” during an interview on “60 Minutes.” Others have argued that, as a now-“post-racial” society, the month brings more division than integration. But the problem is not with the month, it’s with the history. At this point, with all the television ads, cultural programming and so forth that I see, February might as well be labeled “Ancient Black Civil Rights History Month.”
Black America’s history is more than just Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., obviously. But those are the names that I continually hear in the context of the celebration. I asked two educators what they thought about the month and how it could be updated.
Sharon Harley, associate professor of African American studies at the University of Maryland, thinks the move away from figures some might call “contributionists” is underway.
“Today, the programming and the scholarship focuses on women as well as men; prominent figures and the working class; the politics and culture of multiple groups of people of African descent in the U.S. and globally,” Harley said. “In speeches and presentations [I make] to a wide range of people and groups, I am often impressed by the large number of people who turn out, and their enthusiasm. I discover that when people are exposed to the diversity, richness and complexity of black history and how it intersects with the history of whites, Native Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans in the U.S. and globally, they are often compelled to know.”
Which is all well and good, but revisiting the same old stories as a matter of course is not really progress. Leslie Hinkson, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgetown University, thinks the message might have been lost on some of her students, who, admittedly, are in a different class profile than most blacks in this country.
“I think a lot of them actually believe that we have overcome, and I’m not just talking about white students. I’m talking about students of color, as well,” Hinkson, 40, said. “I think a lot of students do actually believe, ‘We’ve been there, we’ve done it,’ and I actually think that they don’t think that there’s a need for Black History Month. And it’s often very frustrating. You find yourself feeling like ‘I am just some old geezer? Am I not seeing this world that they’re seeing, just because I’m stuck in the past?’ ”
If you type “Black History Month” into the search bar on Twitter, you’ll get a range of results from condescending apathy to outright racism. And while that’s no barometer for all of America, it does give you an interesting look at what results have really been achieved from this nation’s annual history lesson.
“What I actually find very interesting about Black History Month is that it doesn’t really strike me much as a celebration of black history; it’s a celebration of individuals,” said Hinkson, who grew up in Brooklyn and never believed she’d live to see a black president. “Which is so American in so many ways. The struggles of black America weren’t the struggles of individuals. They were the struggles of this entire people and their allies.”
At this stage, I can’t really tell you the effectiveness of Black History Month. Maybe that’s because it’s worked on an educational level to the point that I just look at it as American history, or maybe not. But as long as it exists, it does force me to recall that, on a certain level, many people will view me as less than. And every February, that reminder comes loud and clear.
“I think having Black History Month at this point in American history — I think it keeps all of us a little bit more aware that maybe something isn’t quite right,” Hinkson said. “It’s something that I think is there to sort of push our subconscious, to understand that we need to keep moving forward.”
And that’s not ridiculous in the least.
Yates is a columnist for TheRootDC.
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