Ask older African Americans if the contributions of blacks were highlighted in textbooks, school curricula or the nightly news when they were growing up, and the answer you'll likely hear is a resounding no. For centuries, the role that blacks, not to mention Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian Americans, played in shaping American society was left out of history books. To counteract this problem, historian Carter G. Woodson campaigned for what was known in 1926 as Negro History Week. Later, this week morphed into Black History Month, a time for the nation to recognize the major milestones and key figures in African-American history. But in today's society, where blacks are widely represented in U.S. government, popular culture, literature and elsewhere, the need for Black History Month has been called into question. Is Black History Month still relevant, or worse yet, is it racist? The benefits and drawbacks to celebrating black history may be more complex than you think.
The Argument for Black History Month
The United States is now headed by its first president of African descent. Moreover, blacks are widely represented in government, literature, film, athletics and other arenas. Given this, is it still necessary to set aside a month for the express purpose of celebrating the accomplishments of African Americans? Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates and writer Raina Kelley have both argued in Newsweek that Black History Month deserves to be celebrated, as it not only connects blacks to the struggles endured by forebears but also addresses the progress still to come in the black community.
"These sorts of gestures are necessary to reclaim the past," Gates explained in Newsweek. "Black History Month has been very effective in resurrecting the stories of our ancestors and in integrating those stories into our history. But we're not even on the horizon of the time to end Black History Month. When as many Americans are as familiar with Harriet Tubman as they are with Paul Revere, then we can talk about ending Black History Month."
Kelley noted that she understands why people, even African Americans, question the need for Black History Month, but stresses that the month can remain significant by highlighting the challenges facing black America at present.
"Rather than wasting time bemoaning the existence of Black History Month, why don't we use it to proselytize for the issues that need to be more fully covered and understood the other 337 days of the year-such as failing inner-city public schools, institutionalized poverty, health-care disparities, and job discrimination?" Kelley asks. "Black History Month is a measure of how fully or accurately our story is being told and a reminder of the work yet to be done."
When President Barack Obama proclaimed February 2010 African American History Month, he echoed some of the sentiments expressed by Kelley and Gates about why such a month should be acknowledged.
"Each February, we recognize African American History Month as a moment to reflect upon how far we have come as a nation, and what challenges remain," he remarked. "…In the volumes of black history, much remains unwritten. Let us add our own chapter, full of progress and ambition, so that our children's children will know that we, too, did our part to erase an unjust past and build a brighter future."
The White House makes the celebration of Black History Month relevant by adopting a different theme for the month each year. For instance, the theme for 2010 is "The History of Black Economic Empowerment." Such a theme encourages Americans to look back at how African Americans became entrepreneurs and skilled workers in spite of virulent racism, while pointing out how blacks can navigate the business and employment sectors today.
In his 2010 proclamation of African American History Month, President Obama pointed out how his administration aims to help blacks, and all Americans, by giving credits to small businesses, slashing tax breaks for companies that outsource work and giving breaks to companies that create jobs domestically.
"We are also reinvesting in our schools and making college more affordable, because a world class education is our country's best roadmap to prosperity," the President remarked.
If Black History Month is used as a platform to outline strategies to help the black community continue advancing, the 28-day celebration can remain relevant. And if the enormous challenges the black community has already confronted are spotlighted during Black History Month, African Americans may have faith that they can continue making progress. Despite potential benefits such as these, Black History Month continues to have its detractors.