On February 18th, three white students competed on College Jeopardy. In the second half of the show, which, thanks to the Internet, can be viewed on YouTube, the contestants sped through five of the six categories, which included obscure topics such as “Weather Verbs” and “International Cinema Showcase.” For 10 minutes, I waited for any of them to choose a question from the sixth category labeled “African-American History.”
It was not until 15 minutes into a 20-minute video, when nothing else was left, that they began tackling the category. Of the five questions, the students answered “Martin Luther King Jr.,” “Apollo Theatre,” and “Phyllis Wheatly” correctly while missing questions about the “Scottsboro Boys” and “1st Rhode Island Regiment.”
This one example highlights the fundamental flaw of Black History Month: its existence does not lead to any increased knowledge of or change in the status of blacks in America.
Black History Month began in February 1926 as Negro History Week. Created by Carter G. Woodson, a notable historian and founder of the Journal of Negro History, the week encouraged members of the black community to extend their knowledge of black history beyond that of Fredrick Douglass. His goal was to create a week (not month) that would go beyond recognizing individuals and move toward celebrating the race as a whole.
Besides diversifying how the week was celebrated, not much changed about Negro History Week until the 1960s—a decade that represented a dramatic shift in the study and celebration of blacks. By the end of the decade, Negro History Week became Black History Month.
Fast-forward to today. The current state of Black History Month is roughly as follows:
Every year, students in our nation’s schools are asked to pick from a handful of “notable negros” and write a report about their contribution to ending racial discrimination in America. These figures include, but are not limited to: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X (for some controversy), Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and most recently the Obamas.
For the succeeding years of their formal education, students are subjected to the same vague general historical facts and figures. By the end of the month, we are at the Civil Rights Movement, the Obamas occupy the White House, and America, according to some, has become “post-racial.”
Once people enter the workforce or university, the celebration of Black History Month becomes niche—reserved for black people and those who seek out events and information.
This approach leads to scenarios like that of College Jeopardy. Students are able to answer surface questions about Martin Luther King Jr. and not about the Scottsboro brothers, though both hold great significance in Black history.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s story has been packaged to create a very Disney version of his life. We are taught that his story began with him as a preacher, and along the way he advocated for black rights through successful and peaceful approaches such as boycotts and sit-ins. His famous March on Washington speech, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream speech, propelled his career and acts a fodder for all “Introduction to the Civil Rights Movement” lessons across the nation.
On the other side of this is the story of the Scottsboro Boys—a group of nine black teenagers accused of raping two white women in Alabama. Despite the fact that there was no evidence connecting the boys with these women and all the trials (which included a biased all-white jury) were rushed, the boys were still found guilty and sentenced to death. Historically, this case represents a gross miscarriage of justice in our legal system because even though there was no evidence that connected the boys with these women they were found guilty and sentenced to death.
While Dr. King’s life and work remain impressive and continue to represent a significant milestone for Black America, omitting stories similar to that of the Scottsboro Boys paints an inaccurate picture of Black history in America. Without confronting the painful legacy of the Scottsboro Boys we cannot teach our children to adequately appreciate or understand the magnitude of the later triumphs of individuals like Martin Luther King Jr.
With the original intention of Black History Month in mind, its current state continues to be a disappointment amongst members of the black community.
Since 1926, there have been 88 black history months. We have had 88 chances to properly educate America about the unhealed wound that is slavery, 88 chances to integrate the black identity into the American narrative, and 88 chances to acknowledge that race is still very much a problem.
However, in 2014, 88 years later, we, as a nation still struggle to discuss the root causes of racism and its injustices. The way we package Black History Month creates the impression that we live in a post-racial society even though this is far from true.
Consider the controversy and tension around the murders of black boys like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. Consider the fact that we, as a nation, are still unable to discuss or even acknowledge their racial implications. Consider the fact that these tragedies further polarize our nation because what one group sees as injustice the other sees as a mere tragedy. Consider the fact that we grow unsettled at the thought of our black president acknowledging that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon and therefore be automatically subject to unequal treatment.
Black History Month was intended to celebrate blacks as a part of the American identity. However, instead of unifying and educating, our current celebration of the month “other-izes” the black experience. For example, it fails to acknowledge important details such as the 1st Rhode Island Regiment (also known as the Black Regiment) fighting in the American Revolution. It frames the African-American narrative as this separate history that merely took place alongside the larger American narrative.
If Black History is to reclaim its place in the American consciousness, it needs to do more than merely educate. We must use it to help us, as a nation, develop a more nuanced attitude toward modern race relations. Instead of being passive participants and merely accepting a Disney-fied history, we must reevaluate modern tragedies and race issues in their proper historical context.