When did everybody start hating on Black History Month? I have yet to find a person, black or white or anything else, looking forward to the February festivities. At one point, when speaking to a well-known black intellectual about participating in a video NEWSWEEK is putting together, I was stunned by the vehemence of his refusal. It’s not as if I was asking him to march to Birmingham. But I get it. It seems ghettoizing and patronizing to spend one month of every year proving that black history is a holistic part of American history. As Morgan Freeman once famously told Mike Wallace, “You’re going to relegate my history to a month? … Which month is White History Month? … I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.” Because today the divisions between black and white are not as cavernous or ugly as they once were. The contributions of famous black Americans, from Frederick Douglass to Oprah Winfrey, are widely known. Martin Luther King Jr. has his own federal holiday. The president of the United States is black. If tens of millions of white people voted for Barack Hussein Obama, the lesson has been learned, right? As if. Despite the election of Obama, African-Americans still live in a culture that is overreliant on stereotype and slow to explore the complexity of racialized issues such as the ghetto or Haiti. So you can complain about Black History Month all you want. But there’s still work to be done.
When Carter G. Woodson began Negro History Week in 1926, he chose the second week of February to encompass the birth dates of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Its purpose then was to teach some and remind others that the history of black people in America was not simply the story of subjugation. Woodson recognized that, shell-shocked from slavery and demoralized by Jim Crow, black Americans had to build a vision that would give them the confidence to partake in the fruits of freedom. “We have a wonderful history behind us,” Woodson said. “If you are unable to demonstrate to the world that you have this record, the world will say to you, ‘You are not worthy to enjoy the blessings of democracy or anything else.’ ” But Woodson—himself a historian and only the second African-American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard (W.E.B. Du Bois being the first)—recognized the radicalism inherent in a call to educate and inspire African-Americans. For, if Negro History Week asked blacks to slough off the scars of oppression, it also demanded that whites acknowledge their role as oppressors. Woodson’s aim was also to rebut the inaccurate and insulting stereotyping that then passed for knowledge about African-Americans—such as the canards that black people aren’t as intelligent as other races and are more prone to criminality and dancing. And sadly, nearly 100 years and a civil-rights movement later, too many people still believe that.