Black History Month: Does It Fuel Racism?


Feb. 1, 2006 — -- Recently, Larry Watson saw proof in one of the college classes he teaches that Black History Month was needed more than ever.

"I asked the students in my class whether they knew who their Senate representative was," said Watson, who teaches music and sociology at three colleges in Boston. "No one knew. And when I asked who was Sen. Edward Kennedy -- the most activist senator in our country -- the only thing most of my students could say was that he was fat and that he was drunk. I hate to think what would have happened if I'd asked who was Shirley Chisholm."

For the record, in 1968, Chisholm became the first black woman elected to Congress. In 1972, she ran for president, receiving 151 of the delegates' votes at the Democratic National Convention. And Kennedy has represented Massachusetts in the Senate since 1962.

"Our schools do not teach the importance of politics to history," Watson continued. "Black History Month is needed now more than ever and needs to be taught all year around."

Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman raised eyebrows when he called the concept of Black History Month "ridiculous," noting that there was no white history month.

"You're going to relegate my history to a month?" he said, during an interview aired on CBS' "60 Minutes" in December. "I don't want a black history month. Black history is American history."

As February -- and another annual Black History Month -- begins tomorrow, debate on the necessity of the celebration continues.

"It's a shame that it [black history] hasn't been integrated into history courses all year round," said Dwayne McDuffie, a TV writer and co-founder of the now-defunct Milestone Comics, which showcased a line of comic books featuring black superheroes in the 1990s.

"It's important because you need to see yourself reflected in history. It's important for Asians to hear what they have contributed to [American] history, it's important for Latinos to hear what they have given to history. It is important also just to remind white people that they didn't do everything."

Black History Month has its roots in 1926, when historian and scholar Carter G. Woodson launched Negro History Week to bring attention to the contributions of black people to American history.

He chose the second week of February to recognize black history because it marked the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Negro History Week ultimately became Black History Month. Woodson had hoped, however, that one day the need to have a special recognition of black history would be eliminated and that black history would be fully recognized as fundamental to American history.

However, some critics argue that Black History Month has become a celebration full of clichés, familiar praises of Martin Luther King Jr., and "Living the Dream" commercials that focus on black leaders and sports and entertainment figures.

Year after year, you can count on hearing reflections on the horrors of slavery, and the bravery of Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement. Politicians and dignitaries invoke King's name as they say that much has been achieved. But much more needs to be done to fully realize "The Dream." The contributions of the black press, New York's legacy of slavery, or the existence of black slave owners are rarely publicized.

You can count on seeing flashback scenes of King's "I Have a Dream" speech but hardly any mention of his later, more controversial speeches that criticized the Vietnam War and called for economic reform. Someone with no knowledge of American history might believe that King was always universally loved. But universally loved, noncontroversial figures don't get death threats, don't have their homes firebombed, aren't watched by the FBI, and are not assassinated.

"There has been a transformation of values to a too-sanitized, corporate convenience mode that markets a 'Dream' motif," said Loretta Williams, director of The Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in Boston. "There is a tide that extols -- and extolled -- the wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King in a way that says that we are moving onward and upward. There is this tone of triumph that we have seen President Bush use when talking about the war in Iraq."

Conceptual artist damali ayo, the author of "How to Rent a Negro," who prefers to have her name lower-cased, said black history was not so much clichéd as forgotten, even though black history courses are often very popular -- they fill up quickly at Fordham University, New York University, Harvard and Yale, according to university officials.

But the extent of black history curriculum is a bit sketchier in grammar and high schools. And some black adults remember being expected by their classmates -- and sometimes their teachers -- to know everything about black history when the topic was explored each February.

"That's just not fair because they're there to learn, too," ayo said. "Much of the responsibility lies with the parents to make their children aware, but the schools have a responsibility to educate the children. I was very fortunate in that my parents made me very aware at an early age. I grew up in a Marcus Garvey-type household, and many times I found myself correcting the teacher in my classes."

Freeman, the actor, argued in his interview that one way to stop racism was "to stop talking about it." However, critics say those who suggest that Black History Month is just not necessary anymore or is a hindrance instead of a help in race relations have been deluded into thinking that the struggle for equality ended with integration and ignore arguments that racism today is just not as blatant as it once was.

"I call it the delusion of inclusion," said Watson, the college professor. "There are many people who benefited from the system of affirmative action -- checked the box -- got their education and left their communities. And instead of returning and uplifting their communities, they either never returned or when they did return, they looked upon it with scorn or had some denigrating remark.

"We've lost a lot of that courage that was shown in the civil rights movement, shown by those single mothers who kept on keeping on in their communities and raised their children," Watson added. "People are too busy trying to make sure they stay invited to that reception, that they get that next house. They've lost their integrity."

It's debatable whether Woodson would have believed that Black History Month was unnecessary. He believed that recognizing the past was the key to the future, and, indeed, the contributions of blacks to U.S. history and society are recognized more than ever today. But it's also important to remember that Black History Month is more than a "dream."