By Vrinda Saxena
Every year, February marks the annual commemoration of the ‘Black History Month’. Also known as the African-American History Month in the United States of America, it is an annual observance in Canada, UK, and the US. Since 2016, it has also come to be marked in the Netherlands, where it is called the Black Achievement Month; though in the UK and the Netherlands, October marks the commemoration. It began as a way of remembering important people and events of the African diaspora. The UK version is not limited to bringing into focus contributions of those from African and Caribbean cultures, but that from Asia too.
How did ‘black month’ come about?
Black History Month was proposed by Black educators and Black United students at the Kent State University in February 1969 and came to be celebrated from the next year onwards. Six years later, when the then President Gerald Ford recognised the event during the celebrations of United States Bicentennial, the tradition caught on among institutions all across the country. Subsequently, in 1987 it was first celebrated in UK, and Canada in 1995 when its House of Commons officially delegated February as the Black History Month.
The event grew out of “Negro History Week”, the brainchild of noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African-Americans. In September 1915, almost half a century after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in US, Woodson and Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for Study of Negro Life and History (now Association for the Study of African American Life and History), which chose the second week as the Negro History Week in 1926, coinciding with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, perhaps the two most important figures before Martin Luther King Jr. advocating for black rights in US. Fair enough that February is the shortest month of the year, but that was definitely not the intention behind it being designated as the ‘Month’.
Voicing his opinion on the importance of the history of the blacks in the study of race, Woodson said, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in the danger of being exterminated.”
It was in 1976 when President Gerald Ford coined the term that is being used even now. In his message, Ford said, “In celebrating the Black History Month we can seize the opportunity to honour the too often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavour throughout our history.”
Theme of the month this year
Since then, every February endorses a specific theme. The Black History Month 2018 theme, “African Americans in Times of War”, marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, and honours the roles that black Americans have played in warfare, from the times of the American Revolution to present day.
However, this event too is mired in its share of controversy and has not escaped the critics’ lens. Questions have been raised on the credibility of dedicating one separate month for the celebration of the history of a race and what prudential purpose it serves. What has also come under the scanner is that whether under the guise of this one month and its commemoration for the namesakes, the actual issue of aligning Black history with mainstream history has been sidelined. A lot of people have suggested an alternative of not treating Black history and American history separately, but combining the two and teaching it throughout the year instead of a particular month specifically. In the same spirit, actor Morgan Freeman declared, “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.” Adding, he argued that they did not have a White History Month because the Whites did not want their history to be relegated to just one month. Hence, it comes as no surprise that the Black History Month is criticised also on grounds of being racist.
Then there is the clichéd problem associated with most commemorative periods like this. Schools encourage students to delve into the history of African Americans, as the title almost invariably implies. However, it is mostly the same few celebrated figures- like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, who remain in the limelight. The central idea revolves around the Civil Rights Movement, more like saying in a way that black history lost its significance post-Dr. King. Whether the celebration actually encourages students to learn about newer time periods and perspectives remains an ambiguous area.
It has also drawn flak for being contrary to its intended objective. It has been said that while the idea was to redress the manner in which American schools failed to represent black historical figures as anything but slaves and colonial subjects, the celebration of the Month has, in fact, reduced the entire idea into hero worship of over-simplified ideas and figures.
Most criticisms that ask for its disbandment base their arguments on the post-racial mythology. However, if we come to look beyond the theory into reality, we would know that post-racialism is more like asking the brown and coloured races to dissolve and become part of the whiteness, in asking for discontinuation of racialism.
Having said that, there is no denying the fact that black history is a part of American history. However, being taught history in a way that its spectrum is largely dominated by white accomplishments and ideas- will that help? Theoretically and ideally, doing away with the Black History Month might be a good option- but are we really in the ideal state?
If during this time, children are actively taught about black history. What’s the harm? For the African-American children, having an idea of their past would help in having firm roots for the future; whilst for the whites, it would imply integration in all senses, classroom representation as well as the past.
Like every campaign that comes up to look into socially relevant issues, the Black History Month can also be viewed from that perspective. Every year of its celebration renews the society’s vow to fight for racial equality more than ever and focus on other such related matters, which often cross over into oblivion in the daily course of life – not for the eminent, visible popular men, but the commons at large.
Featured Image Source: Flickr
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