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.
Instead of using Black History Month to demand that the promise of freedom inherent in the Constitution be given to all its citizens, our culture has given in to the impulse to see the month as the commemoration of "a civic fairy tale," as NEWSWEEK editor Jon Meacham wrote in his book Voices in Our Blood. "Everything came together in August 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and conjured his Promised Land … A moment later, it seems now, the 'White Only' signs came down, the polling booths opened up, and the Dream was more or less fulfilled." For Black History Month to once again seem culturally relevant, part of its time must be spent asking why there are still so many negative portrayals of black people in our culture—we can't just spend all 28 days talking about the nice ones. And 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?
Black history is American history, no doubt. But 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. Thus, it works in exactly the same way as Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October or Gay and Lesbian Pride Month in June. I understand the desire of Freeman and others to do away with what seems at times like a catalog of complaints. Trust me, I'm not always thrilled to be the radical—constantly reminding people that half-full is still half-empty. But despite the burden, consider that without me, without Morgan Freeman, without all of us, "absent, too, would be the need for that tragic knowledge which we try ceaselessly to evade: that the true subject of democracy is not simply material well-being but the extension of the democratic process in the direction of perfecting itself," as Ralph Ellison wrote in What America Would Be Like Without Blacks, "and that the most obvious test and clue to that perfection is the inclusion—not assimilation—of the black man." When Black History Month returns to that work and moves away from the limp B-roll it has become, then it will be working not only toward a noble and patriotic goal but also as Carter Woodson intended—toward its own irrelevance.