Black History Month Does Not Erase a History of Racism
“This is a very racist society,” says Professor Noam Chomsky commenting in the wake of Ferguson protests late last year. The noted public intellectual then traced the history of anti-black racism in America. Immediately after the abolition of slavery, he said the country witnessed the criminalization of black life and (referring to the prisons) the creation of “a perfect labor force, much better than slaves.”
Almost 90 years of Black History Month and various legislative and social initiatives, the situation remains. Indeed, even after numerous pyrrhic and partial victories, “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it,” writes Ohio State Law Professor Michelle Alexander and the author of the best selling The New Jim Crow.
While the status quo continues, over the next few weeks, you will see no shortage of functions organized by historical societies, libraries, and schools dedicated to Black History. You may even catch the corporate giants sponsoring short vignettes on black history, or perhaps a rerun of Amistad, Roots or Malcolm X.
The celebration has come a long way since 1926, when Harvard-educated Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week. Woodson, popularly known as “the father of black history,” chose the second week in February to correspond with Abraham Lincoln’s approval of America’s 13th Amendment to its Constitution, abolishing slavery, and also with the birth of prominent black advocate Frederick Douglass.
Woodson’s goal was not only to educate his community about its rich heritage, but also to make American society aware of black contributions. In 1976, during the U.S. bicentennial, the commemoration week was expanded in the U.S. to National Black History Month.
The celebrations are supposed to make a difference in the perceptions and attitudes of blacks and whites. Yet, since its inception, there has been a raging debate within and outside the community about whether the month has had a positive or negative effect.
Many people look forward to this month, during which a marginalized people’s history is given prominence in the mainstream. There is a newfound appetite for anything about black history during these magical 28 days. Others question its relevance and consequences.
“You’re going to relegate my history to a month?” asked Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman. “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.”As Freeman points out, is black history not part of American or world history? Why should it be condensed and highlighted only during this month?
Indeed, some with conspiracy theory leanings even wonder aloud why the shortest month of the year was selected.
During our school years, we spend months, perhaps years, studying history. Yet, how much importance is given to the history of blacks? On far too many school curricula, outside of this month, black history shows up once just before the U.S. Civil War, disappears, then reappears with the civil rights movement.
Even a cursory glance at the tremendous contributions of the black community is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to note that the accomplishments and contributions by this community have benefited all of us, not just members of one group. Minorities, and indeed all of us, owe a great deal of gratitude for the great civil rights strides advanced by the blood and sweat of blacks.
It’s not hard to understand the pride felt in having one’s history and contributions remembered and honored. Yet, others question whether in our increasingly multiracial and multiethnic societies today, does it make sense to commemorate the history of only one particular people in a discreet and isolated fashion?
Should the history of all peoples not be celebrated and taught all year? And, by limiting the remembrance, study and celebration to one month, are we not undermining and devaluing it?
Interestingly, Black History Month comes and goes like a holiday. As one commentator noted, it’s as if the sun rises on black history every Feb. 1 and sets on black history every Feb. 28.
This not only diminishes the contribution of blacks, but also minimizes their very prominent role in shaping society, as we know it today, particularly in America. Moreover, dissecting and isolating black history from American or world history gives others the chance to label it as “revisionist history.” It leaves the impression that the Eurocentric history, taught for the bulk of the year, is the “real” history, with black history merely being worthy of mention as an aside.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s good there is a month dedicated to acknowledge the achievements and contributions of blacks. Some time to remember is better than none at all.
As Woodson wrote: “The achievements of the Negro properly set forth will crown him as a factor in early human progress and a maker of modern civilization.”
But this is just a first step. The whiff of patronization and complacency is too strong during this month. Some blacks sit back with a sense of pride, while the rest of us feel good for allowing “their” history to be told and recognized.
Even after nine decades of celebrations the cycle of racism has not diminished. As Tyrone Williams notes, “Whatever ameliorating effects Black History Month was supposed to have had, the fact remains that it has failed to have any lasting impact on race relations in the United States.”
While the actual output of prison labor may now be relatively minor, the economics generated by the prison-industrial complex, law enforcement and ancillary industries to sustain black incarceration is certainly nothing to be minimized. “In the nation that elected Barack Obama, black men are seven times likelier than white men to be incarcerated,” notes University of Minnesota Law Professor Michael Tonry.
“This is American history. To break out of that is no small trick,” says Chomsky.
Agree or disagree with Williams and Morgan, the fact remains that until anti-racism and social justice initiatives are part and parcel of the mainstream zeitgeist we will have to continue grasping onto Black History Month.
Faisal Kutty is an assistant professor of law and director of the International LL.M. program at Valparaiso University Law School and an adjunct professor, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University. He is also a co-founder of KSM Law. He blogs at theHuffington Post and his academic articles are archived at SSRN. Click Here for Faisal’s legal profile.
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