Strange as it might sound, I bet most of you had already read this column before I had even penned its first line. “Black History Month” is an occasion about which our views are already decided. Accordingly, our reactions are prone to fall along predictable and well-rehearsed lines.
Some direct their concerns at when the event takes place. Singling out one month in a calendar of 12 is itself misguided, some charge, a reflection of tokenism and a striking image of the segregation of history. Others think the length of time inappropriate: an entire month overly indulgent; or, on the other hand, as one comedian famously quipped, while a month is fine, it is surely revealing that the event falls in February, the shortest month in the year. Reactions to the purpose of the occasion are similarly wide-ranging. For all who tout the occasion as an antidote to ignorance, others are wont to compare it to a “blood-letting” exercise, a self-exculpatory act designed to ease mainstream guilt. Those with a fondness for Nietzsche might comment that by focusing our attention on the past, the event acts as a dupe, distracting us from attending to the matters of the present. This is a view of some legitimacy when one considers that in 1983 President Reagan told Americans to take Black History Month as a “time [for] transcend[ing] past struggles for advancement.” With the lines of response so well set, it seems futile to consider further the merits of such an occasion.
But considering Black History Month further is precisely what I aim to do in this column. I might begin with an observation: Having canvassed opinion on this issue for a number of years now, I have come to realize that Americans are much more likely to tell me what they think about Black History Month than tell me what Black History Month is. The latter question seems settled and obvious. Even in spite of my British accent, it is assumed that we all know what kinds of events mark Black History Month.
Cast your eyes over the pronouncements made by presidents and Congresses in the years since the event was signed into law by President Ford in February 1976, and you will quickly see what Black History Month is supposed to be about. For two words have recurred time and again, as previous and present generations of Americans have been encouraged to think of Black History Month as a “celebration” of the “contribution” made by black people. Predictably, it is always a familiar parade of names that is recited, and sure enough, with unfailing certainty every February out come the beaming faces of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall. (High-school textbooks have a penchant for adding baseball legend Jackie Robinson, of course.)
It is no wonder that through the pallid and pat pronouncements that accompany such displays, most find Black History Month if not objectionable, then at least irrelevant. The official presentation of the event has neutered any productive use it might have. These reactions, I think, are not unlike the disappointed “groans” that columnist Steven Engler detected following the airing of Coca-Cola’s “Black Firsts” Super Bowl ad, or the “uncomfortable” feelings that Carmen Lee, chief whip of the Independent Party, experienced while debating whether Yale’s policies had sustained racism. It is precisely these feelings of unease and clumsiness that the current bundle of activities officially packaged as “Black History Month” are designed to quell.
So, what is to be done with Black History Month? Ought we to throw the baby out with the bath water? I wonder if remembering what Black History Month used to look like before it lasted for a month and was signposted as “Black History” might help us create a more invigorating occasion. Started in 1926 by African-American institution builder and polymath Carter G. Woodson as Negro History Week, the original purpose of the event was to commemorate the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln. Furthermore, for most of the 50 years in which Negro History Week was held, between 1926 and 1975, events were just as likely to focus on the life of John Brown — the white Connecticut-born abolitionist and insurrectionist — as they were on James Brown — the South Carolina-born soul singer. Woodson’s vision for what the occasion might achieve was quite different from the package of pantomime and historical caricature that plays out today. His words are worth quoting at length: “What is needed is not a history of selected races or nations,” he claimed in 1927, “but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice. There should be no indulgence in undue eulogy of the Negro. The case of the Negro is well taken care of when it is shown how he how influenced the development of civilization.”
Replace the mawkish allegories with greater occasion for self-reflection, the polish of presentation with prompts to problematize, and I have no doubt that the purpose of Black History Month will speak to us with the clarity that Woodson did 80 years ago.
Andrew Fearnley is a visiting fellow in Calhoun College and a Ph.D. candidate at Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge.