This semester I have had the privilege to serve as a dance assistant at the Stax Music Academy. The academy is part of the greater Soulsville Foundation which seeks to empower young people with the rich Stax Records music tradition. The students are incredibly talented—each of them channels the Stax spirit with an undeniable passion. We are now in the process of preparing for a Black History Month performance in February. The show will have drama, music, and dance. Students will use their talent to pay tribute to the African American experience. In helping the directors with crafting a suitable plot and dynamic choreography for this performance, I have felt a certain discomfort. How can one show fully represent a people’s history? What purpose does Black History Month serve? This question speaks to a much larger question that I have found myself wrestling with throughout the course. It does remind our nation of the distinct experience of blacks in our history. However, it also affirms the master narrative that we have sought to deflate this semester. It solidifies the identity of the African American as merely a supporting character in the greater white narrative. The African American becomes the anomaly against the steady pulse of whiteness.
However, it feels too easy to just dismiss the month as completely unnecessary. Some do believe that the month should simply be abolished. In an interview with Mike Wallace, Morgan Freeman called Black History Month “ridiculous” as it attempted to “relegate [his] history to a month.” Freeman seemed to be appalled at the audacity of our country to pay tribute to centuries of American history in four weeks. Some want to abolish the month for different reasons. Our friend John McWhorter has yet another provocative perspective on this question. In an article in the City Journal, which is appropriately entitled, “Do We Really Need Black History Month,” McWhorter argues that “America gets black history” and does not need to be reminded of it anymore.
[We] live in an era when history textbooks are dedicated to chronicling slavery to such an extent that critics decry the decrease in space devoted to other aspects of history, and when university leaders consider it more important that an undergraduate know what institutional racism is than what the Munich Agreement was. All of this is why a month dedicated to black history now feels like a month dedicated to seat belts. Both are now part of the fabric of American life, with black history almost as insistent on any wakeful person’s attention as the pinging sound in a car when you don’t buckle up.
As we have discussed in class, McWhorter’s words are meant to evoke a strong response. And they most definitely did in me. Seat belts? Seriously? It seems preposterous to me that America “gets black history.” If America “gets black history,” why do we still have educational and housing disparities within black communities? If America “gets black history,” why does only Tyler Perry dictate the black character in Hollywood? If America “gets black history,” why are black males incarcerated at a much higher rate than white males? If America “gets black history,” why does my grandfather refuse to watch a television show because it affirms an interracial couple? McWhorter would probably have a very pithy response to each of my questions that emphasizes the individual responsibility of the African American. But I personally cannot stand behind his simplified view. He has alienated nuance and complexity—which are dear friends of any good argument.
I have been changed by my experience with African American studies. I don’t think I will ever “get black history”—I don’t think anyone can. But through a more in depth study of this history, I am a different person. I honestly cannot say what I really think should happen to Black History Month. I do think that there is a better alternative—something that integrates the African American experience into our American history as a whole—but I am doubtful that this could really be implemented right now. I guess only time can tell.
What do you think about the month? Did you feel frustrated with McWhorter’s perspective or did you agree with him?