Friday, February 29, 2008

Let’s Make This the Last Black History Month

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963

It’s been nearly forty-five years since Dr. King spoke these inspiring words. During this time tremendous progress has been made in extending to all Americans the ideals expressed in our Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, however, we are no closer to fulfilling Dr. King’s dream. The United States is still a country in which people are judged and characterized by the color of their skin. Let’s face it dear reader, our country is one of the most race conscious on the planet.

This brings me to a discussion of Black History Month. February is our annual reminder that we are not one people but two. It reinforces the concept that African Americans are different from the rest of our population. We have no Irish American, Italian American, German American, Jewish American, Polish American, Mexican American or any other hyphenated American history month. It is only African Americans that are singled out for a separate history. Our schools teach only one hyphenated American history and it cannot help but instill in our children the idea that African Americans are different. If we are ever going to achieve Dr. King’s vision of a color blind America we have to stop observing Black History Month.

What was then called Negro History Week was created by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1926 as an attempt to publicize the accomplishments of African Americans, who were generally ignored by most historians or written of in a derogatory manner. In explaining why it was necessary to research and disseminate African American history, Dr. Carter stated:

According to our education and practice, if you kill one of the group, the world goes on just as well or better; for the Negro is nothing has never been anything, and never will be anything but a menace to civilization.

We call this race prejudice, and it may be thus properly named; but it’s not something inherent in human nature. It is merely the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind. The doctrine has been thoroughly drilled into the whites and the Negroes have learned well the lesson themselves; for many of them look upon the other races as superior and accept the status of recognized inferiority.

The fact is, however, that one race has not accomplished any more good than any other race, for God could not be just and at the same time make one race the inferior of the other. But if you leave it to the one to set forth his own virtues while disparaging those of others, it will not require many generations before all credit for human achievements will be ascribed to one particular stock. Such is the history taught the youth today.

On the other hand, just as thorough education in the belief in the inequality of races has brought the world to the cat-and-dog stage of religious and racial strife, so may thorough instruction in the equality of races bring about a reign of brotherhood through an appreciation of the virtues of all races, creed and colors.

Dr. Woodson then described Negro History Week as he envisioned it:

This is the meaning of Negro History Week. It is not so much a Negro History Week as it is a History Week. We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. What we need is not history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice. There should be no indulgence in undue eulogy of the Negro. The case of the Negro is well taken care of when it is shown how he has influenced the development of civilization.

Dr. Woodson’s Negro History Week has evolved into Black History Month. In my opinion it has accomplished all that Dr. Woodson had hoped for. The accomplishments of African Americans in the development of our society have been written into history text books. Most of our colleges and universities have significant African American studies programs. Our libraries and bookstores have hundreds of books on African American history. Dr. Woodson himself hoped for a time when Negro History Week would be unnecessary; a time when all Americans recognized the contributions of African Americans as a legitimate and integral part of the history of the United States. I think that time has come.

If Black History Month were benign, I could not object to its continued observance. However, it is not benign. It perpetuates and strengthens the separation between African Americans and the other members of our society. It teaches our children that African Americans are different from other Americans. It teaches that African Americans have a history separate from the rest of our citizens. Since its objectives have been accomplished, there is no further reason to continue an observance that sets apart one group in our society.

Each day, you and I live history. History of general interest is reported daily as “news” by the print, broadcast, cable and internet media. Some of this daily history is of short term importance; we read or hear about it and forget it rather quickly. Other items in our daily history are of great importance and we remember them for a long time.

Once a year, we review the accumulation of daily histories and decide what stories were particularly important. We reinforce these big events in our collective memories and further relegate the other stuff to oblivion. Over longer periods of time we look back at the yearly histories and we edit them down to the occurrences that have had a long term impact. These become the stuff of which history books are written.

It generally takes the lapse of a significant amount of time before we know which daily or yearly history events are really significant. I learned this in a government course I took more than forty years ago. The teacher brought in a copy of the N.Y. Times, which had several significant stories on its front page. (This would make a better story if I could remember what those front page stories were, but I can’t). He asked what the most important story in the newspaper was. After various students expressed their opinions, which all related to page one stories, the teacher turned to page four of the paper where it was reported, in a brief three paragraph story, that China had detonated its first nuclear bomb. He impressed on us (quite effectively because I remember it to this day) that what we think might be a minor event when it happens can turn out to be the most important.

I give my views of the process of writing and studying history because we need to judge whether the accomplishments of some of the persons we teach about during Black History month are really significant or are significant only because they were achieved by African Americans. During this month I have seen posters of famous African Americans displayed in two of Richmond’s public schools. Many of the people on these posters have made great contributions to our society regardless of their skin color. Others are there only because they were the first African American to do something that others in our society had already done. Some of them have accomplished something that would not be recognized as historic if it had been done by someone other than an African American. I think that these charts indicate that we have gradually changed the emphasis of Black History Month. We are now teaching African American history, rather than African Americans as part of American History as Dr. Woodson intended.

This approach to teaching about African Americans eliminates the culling and winnowing process that is a key part of writing and studying history. In trying to teach the accomplishments of so many African Americans, Black History Month has equated the major occurrences of our past with the historical footnotes. It gives a distorted view of history. To prove my point, let’s look at a Black History Month coloring book that I downloaded from the internet. (

Martin Luther King, Jr. Obviously, Dr. King is a major historical figure and his accomplishments must be stressed in a general study of the history of the United States.

Thurgood Marshall Justice Marshall is a major historical figure. However, the description of him as “the first African American to serve on the United States Supreme Court” ignores his significance in American history. He needs to be remembered as a great lawyer who was instrumental in using litigation to desegregate various segments of our society. He also needs to be remembered as a great jurist for the wonderful decisions he wrote while on the Supreme Court.

Jesse Owens In a history of sports Jesse Owens should be recognized for the gold medals he won at the Munich Olympics. However, as a figure of general history he is more in the category of footnote.

Langston Hughes Langston Hughes was a great poet. In an American literature course or in a study of cultural history Langston Hughes is a major figure. However, in a study of general history Langston Hughes is a footnote.

Bill Cosby Bill Cosby makes me laugh. He also wears a Temple University sweatshirt like I do. But unless we are studying the history of television, or the history of American comedy, he is not a major historical figure.

Jackie Robinson In a study of the civil rights movement Jackie Robinson is a major figure because he overcame great obstacles to play major league baseball. Of course, the other half of the story—Branch Rickey—needs also to be remembered because he insisted on integrating baseball despite the strong objection of his fellow team owners and his own players. Remembering Jackie Robinson in the category of an “African American first” really lessons his significance if we are studying sports history. Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, I watched Jackie Robinson play. He was a perfect baseball player. He did things on a baseball diamond that were nothing less than remarkable. I never thought of him as a Negro (or “colored” as my uncles would have called him); he was simply a great player.

Louis Armstrong In a study of jazz or American music or entertainment, Louis Armstrong is a star. He was one of the five greatest trumpet players of the twentieth century, he set the standard for jazz singing, and in my opinion was the greatest entertainer of the twentieth century. But in a general study of American history, he is a footnote.

Wilma Rudolph If we are studying the history of track and field or the history of the Olympic Games, Wilma Rudolph should be remembered as a wonderful athlete. However, as an “African American first,” she is a historical footnote.

Ralph Bunche In studying the history of the relationship between the State of Israel and the Arab world, Ralph Bunche must be remembered for his significant role in ending hostilities in the 1948 war. Likewise, in a study of the history of the United Nations, or a history of the Nobel Peace Prize he is a significant figure. But, I can’t see him as a major contributor to the general history of the United States.

Benjamin Banneker In a study of the history of American science, Banneker made significant accomplishments. However, as a figure in the overall history of the United States, he is a footnote.

Patricia Roberts Harris As the first African American woman to serve as United States ambassador to a foreign country, Ms. Harris is a footnote.

Shirley Chisholm (Member of Congress), Guion Bluford (astronaut), Marion Anderson (opera singer), Phyllis Wheatley (poet) All four of these people were African American firsts. Other than in a specific study of their respective areas of expertise they are historical footnotes.

I am not trying to discredit the accomplishments of these and other honorees of Black History Month. But, we do need to look at people and events in their historical perspective. We also must look at historical figures without regard to their ethnicity, religion or sex. If a person or his/her contribution to our history would be treated as a footnote if it were done by a man, we must not turn the person or the accomplishment into a major historical event merely because it was done by a woman. Likewise, if the person or accomplishment would be a footnote when done by a Caucasian, we must not view it as historically significant because it was done by an African American. We must remember Neill Armstrong as the first human to step onto the surface of the moon; we should not remember him as the first American Caucasian male to do so. We should remember Louis Brandeis as a great Supreme Court justice, not as the first Jew appointed to the Supreme Court. Would we remember the name of the inventor of the shoe lasting machine (Jan Metzeliger) or the ironing board (Sarah Boone) if they were Caucasian instead of African American?

America in 2008 is vastly different from what it was in 1926 when Dr. Carter Woodson created Negro History Week. Nobody in this country, other than a white supremacist or other “hater”, denies the significant contributions that African Americans have made to the birth and growth of the United States. We have amended our history textbooks to include the accomplishments of African Americans as well as other Americans. We can now teach a history to our children that does not foster the race prejudice that Dr. Woodson thought was an integral part of written history a hundred years ago. Negro History Week and its successor Black History Month have accomplished their objectives. However, because Black History Month adds to race consciousness in our country, and because it distorts history by assigning equal importance to all events, it is time to end it.


Clairese Lippincott said...

As someone who is bi-racial, I must point out that your summation that only "haters" disagree on the "vast" contributions to America that have been made by the so-called African-American/Negro community.

When taken on balance with all of the crime, illegitimacy and generations spent on the welfare roles, those rather few accomplishments (many of which are embellished to the point of fantasy) always paraded out during Black Propaganda Month, are very meager.

While this may sound harsh at first, my point is that the leadership of the African American community needs to heed the advice of men like Bill Cosby, who have condemned all crime and violence and called for parents of Black kids to teach the tradition of learning and building, rather than the culture of crime and victimhood.

It is a new Century and it is time for the African American community to leave that hyphen behind and become fully enfranchised in American society, not through more government programs or freebies, not through preferential, race-based quotas, but through the strengthening of the African American family; a family that creates a tradition of learning and achievement.

Anonymous said...

"overall history of ...." interesting phrase, and vague. if benjamin banneker is unimportant then so is benjamin franklin. your thoughts on the subject of BHM are irrational and epitomize undeveloped child-like ideas. a coloring book, really? that's some fine ammunition you have there- take it to Congress and report back on how far you got.