Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Buckle Up: Thoughts on Black History Month

           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.
            He continues:
[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? 


  1. First, I would just like to applaud you for writing such a well-written, thought-provoking post. I never really questioned Black History Month until I got to college and even then I do not see the need to abolish it. If this month of recognition did not occur, would people know as much about prominent African Americans and their contributions to society or would they learn it all in history class in the textbooks? I doubt it. Some people are only aware of the history and the contributions made by some of the people highlighted because it is continuously emphasized throughout the month of February, rather than them personally seeking the information or having an intimate tie to the history. It's interesting that McWhorter would state that history books greatly expound on the topic of slavery. Is Slavery the only topic concerning Black History? And what textbook does he have, because I want it! Never have I come across a textbook that is not a repeat of the master narrative or an objective view of any aspect of history, so African American history would not be an exception. Black History Month has a purpose and if we are going to challenge the necessity of it then we also have to challenge other months dedicated to other minorities.

  2. This is a really interesting issue that I have also thought about quite a bit since beginning this course. To answer your question, I do think Black History Month attempts to serve a purpose in American society, but I do not believe that it always accomplishes its purpose. By calling attention to the history of a minority group of people in a certain month of the year, Americans are reminded of our country’s rich diversity as well as the struggles and obstacles that minority groups have had to overcome in order to achieve status as Americans. However, this is pretty much the extent of what months like “Black History Month” or “Hispanic Heritage Month” do for Americans. These months merely acknowledge that minority groups exist and that they have had to struggle to attain freedom and equality in the United States, but there really is nothing further said or done to make people aware of the historical complexities and unsung heroes of minority groups. For example, images on Black History Month posters are usually limited to the faces of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, even Oprah. Yet how many Americans know the work of Ida B. Wells? Or Fannie Corbett? Or James Lawson? These people were also important figures for helping blacks achieve equality as American citizens, yet their efforts and struggles are overshadowed by the problematic, and often times hollow, master narrative that seems to dominate the media and history books. While I do think it is important to remember the history of minority groups in America, I think our society needs to be more aware of that history every day, not just one month out of the year. Unfortunately, this change in mindset will be very difficult to achieve and I do not think it will happen in America any time soon.

  3. Jenna, I am so glad you brought up this issue. I would argue a continuation of what Morgan Freeman said when asked what should be done about racism, which is, "stop talking about it." A black history month only encourages the master narrative and often fails to celebrate those outside of it. While I do not agree at all with McWhorter that black history is sufficiently taught in school, I think distinguishing black history from "US" history for a month does more harm than good. To compromise, I would like to see a single day set aside as a celebration of black history and a mourning for the lives destroyed by discrimination. I realize that we already have MLK day, but that is a celebration of a person rather than encompassing a rich history of the African American journey. Spreading black history over a month of recognition causes notice of black history to be lost amongst the other things going on within that 28 day period. The length allows people to feel as if they can just be concerned with learning about black history during February, while it would be impossible to learn a significant amount of information about black history in a day. By default, having one day set aside will cause the greater knowledge about black history to meld into learning about American history as a whole throughout the rest of the year. This day also solves Gabrielle's concern about the importance of recognizing diversity and the sacrifices of the African American community.

  4. I completely agree with Gabrielle. In high school, during Black History Month, we learned of various African-American pioneers who spearheaded the Civil Rights Movement. However, we were constantly drilled on the names of these African-Americans. We were never given background knowledge concerning their accomplishments and the obstacles they rose above. Instead, their achievements were simplified to a trite statement taken out of its historical context, such as “Harriet Tubman led the Underground Railroad.” I feel as if this almost diminishes the significance of their struggles and contributions. I think that in order for Black History Month to be effective in relaying the narratives of various African Americans and their contributions to our society, it is imperative that their contributions are weaved into a historic perspective. A few of my peers in the past have mentioned that perhaps Black History Month is inherently racist, which I didn’t find true because the month doesn’t promote the superiority of one race over the other. Instead, Black History Month emphasizes the significance of overlooked accomplishments of various African Americans. However, as Morgan Freeman posited, I also do believe that the accomplishments of African Americans shouldn’t only be relegated to one month, but I do see the merit in the publicity and the raising of awareness that comes with Black History Month. I think that until history books emphasize and weave the contributions of all minorities to the American narrative instead of just a mere chapter dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement, it is necessary to raise awareness through Black History Month.