Sunday, February 02, 2014

Welcome Back to Black History Month

It’s February in America – which means it’s Black History Month, a tradition that began in 1926 with “Negro History Week,” initiated by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.  It became Black History Month in 1976 in conjunction with the celebration of the U.S. Bicentennial and the urging of then-President Gerald Ford.  It may surprise you to know that this occasion is also celebrated in the U.K. (starting in 1987) and Canada (as of 1995), because there are a lot of Black people in those countries, too, primarily (originally) from Africa and the West Indies.

In recent years, some Black Americans have taken to calling it African-American History Month.  This irritates me, because I have never liked the term, since most Black Americans know very little about the 54 countries on the planet’s second-largest and second-most-populous continent.  In addition, many Africans feel no sense of connection to American Blacks or even consider them to be Black, due to more than 200 years of interracial hanky-panky (both lovingly consensual and viciously imposed).

Other Black Americans have started to resist, even outright object to, Black History Month, because they see in what is meant to be a positive acknowledgment of long-ignored history, an unpleasant continuation of the separation of Blacks and Whites in the full picture of American history.  I myself fall into this category – sort of.  For one thing, so many people, events and milestone accomplishments are routinely left out of the telling of Black history – during this designated month and in general education.

 For another, if the widespread disrespect shown to America’s first Black President by both houses of Congress – indeed, the idea that he is not a legitimate President – is anything to go by, a new, more sophisticated racism is still very much with us and Black History Month does absolutely nothing to diminish that.  (I’m sure there are people who dislike Barack Obama because of what they perceive as his bad policies and ideas and nothing more.  But the ballyhoo about his birthplace, his college records and his religion demonstrates that there are a great many legislators and citizens who simply can’t abide the idea of a Black man in the White House.)

Last but not least, nearly 40 years of Black History Month has done very little to educate American Blacks about the fulsomeness of their own heritage – and virtually nothing to demonstrate to White Americans that Black history is an integral part of American history overall.  The young generations of Americans, Black and White, may be more accepting of each other than their elders – but they are still greatly uninformed about their country’s history, period.

So, what is the “appropriate” way to handle Black History Month: ignore it; celebrate it joyously no matter who does or doesn’t participate; or use it as an opportunity to expand the boundaries of American history at every level of education?  I don’t know what the answer is.  All I know is that we’re still a long way from having a complete and unified understanding of who and what we were and what we are as a nation, and that is a very dangerous and unhealthy state of affairs.

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