Why is Black History Month important?
About 10 years ago, Shukree Hassan Tilghman tried to cancel Black History Month.
Equipped with a sandwich board with the words “End of Black History Month” written across the front, he scoured the streets of New York City looking for people to sign his petition to eliminate him.
To understand what Tilghman was doing, it helps to know that the other side of his sign said “Black history is American history.” It also helps to know that he was filming all of this for a documentary he did,”More than a monthThis film explored an ongoing question about Black History Month; rather than highlighting the accomplishments of African Americans, does it instead maintain a segregated history of America?
“Some people think it was a stunt,” says Tilghman. In some ways it was, but it was also authentic.
Tilghman says the “main impetus” for her petition to end Black History Month was rooted in her childhood. Both of her parents were teachers, and those posters of famous black people that appeared on classroom walls and in school hallways every February were in her home year-round. When he was little, Black History Month was exciting, but since he heard the same stories of a few sanitized heroes repeating themselves one month a year, it started to feel insulting. “We were invisible for 11 months of the year, but now suddenly we were visible in February,” he says.
“What did it mean that we had Black History Month,” he began to wonder.
“And what would that mean if we didn’t?”
Why did Carter G. Woodson invent it?
Talk to any group of historians about the significance of Black History Month and they will all mention the same name: Carter G. Woodson.
“We call him the father of black history,” says Diana Ramey Berry, chair of the history department at the University of Texas at Austin.
In 1926 Woodson founded Negro History Week – which would become what we now call black history month.
“The idea was to make resources available for teachers — black teachers — to celebrate and talk about the contributions that black people had made to America,” says Karsonya Wise Whitehead, founding executive director of the Karson Institute for Race, Peace, and Social Justice at Loyola University. Whitehead is also a former secretary of ASALH – the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which Woodson founded in 1915.
Woodson chose the week in February marked by the birth of Abraham Lincoln and the chosen birthday of Frederick Douglass, as those days were celebrated in his community. In this way, Woodson built on a black tradition that already commemorated the past.
“He also understood that for black students to see themselves beyond where they are now, they needed to be able to learn more about the contributions their ancestors had made to this country,” Whitehead said.
The historical context of the moment is also key, according to Berry. “African Americans were about 50 years out of slavery trying to find their place in the United States,” she says.
This space was violently demarcated by white supremacy. “We were living through segregation, lynchings, mass murders and massacres,” Berry says. A few years ago it was the so-called 1919 red summer, when white mobs attacked black neighborhoods and towns. Then in 1921 came the Tulsa Race Massacre.
Along with white supremacist violence was an attempt to whitewash US history, excluding both the contributions and realities of black people. It was the time when statues of Confederate soldiers were erected and the myth of the lost cause – the lie that the Civil War was about preserving a distinguished way of life and that slaves were treated well – became a dominant narrative. “Not just in the South,” says Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a history professor at Ohio State University.
“A complete revision and distortion of the Civil War, slavery, emancipation, reconstruction was deeply embedded in the American public education system,” he adds.
“Let’s Talk About Blacks”
Growing up in New York public schools in the 1980s, Jeffries says Black History Month was a lot like “let’s talk about black people for a few days.”
“It was the usual cast of characters,” he says. Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, a few black inventors – “and then we’d move on.”
Said Whitehead, “At school, all of a sudden it all turned black, didn’t it?”
“So you put your macaroni and cheese and your collard greens in the cafeteria. You line the halls with all this black art that would then be taken down at the end of February,” she says.
Black History Month can sometimes seem symbolic, but it’s still necessary, says Whitehead. “You can go to places,” she says, spouting the names of states, “where if you didn’t have Black History Month, there wouldn’t be any conversation.”
What we need is an inclusive and accurate American history, according to Berry. But American history remains a segregated space. “When you take American history classes, a lot of those classes are taught from the perspective of only Americans and white students,” Berry says.
The paradox of Black History Month today, says Whitehead, is that we still need it, even if it’s not enough. “We want black history to be American history,” she says. “But we understand that without Black History Month, they won’t teach it in the American history curriculum.”
Which brings us back to Tilghman and an answer to his question: what would it mean if we didn’t have Black History Month?
“If, but for Black History Month, those stories wouldn’t be told,” Tilghman says, “then we have a bigger problem that isn’t Black History Month. isn’t really a reason to maintain Black History Month.”
“It’s a reason to fight for something better than Black History Month.”
Parallels to Woodson’s time
There have been efforts in some states, and in some programs to integrate American history throughout the year, progressing slowly. But Hasan Jeffries says the moment we find ourselves in right now parallels perfectly the period in which Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week and January 6th. Once again, at the center of it all is a battle over who controls history.
“We see the same pushback now with these divisive topics and these divisive issues,” Jeffries says, referring to ““divisiveness” laws in Republican-led states that forbid acknowledging that America was founded on racist principles.
“If we can just take Rosa Parks out sitting on a bus and put her back on the bus without talking about it, that’s fine,” Jeffries says. “But we don’t want to talk about the society as a whole that supported and embraced Jim Crow. And how inequality is literally written into the American constitution.”
Integrating black history into American history is not a simple act of inclusion, says Jeffries. You can’t just insert black people who have invented things or made notable contributions into a timeline, he says.
“You start to have to question what you assume to be fundamental truths about the American experience, the myth of perpetual progress and American exceptionalism – it all comes crashing down,” says Jeffries.
But change is coming, he notes.
The undergraduates Jeffries teaches don’t necessarily start out with a complete understanding of United States history, but many now show up in his class precisely because they feel they haven’t been told everything. the story.
“They’ve seen all of this happen over the last four or five years – the rise of racism, white supremacy and hate,” he says of some of his white students. “And they come to college saying, okay, something’s wrong.”
Feed the appetite for a solid story
This thirst for black history, for robust American history, is something high school teacher Ernest Crim III has tapped into on social media. His tiktok videos about black characters in history have gone viral, racking up tens of thousands of views. One of these the videos were about Carter G. Woodsonand the origins of Black History Month.
Crim is a black teacher who teaches black, Latino, and white students in a Chicago suburb, which means he’s in many ways like the teachers Woodson created to serve Black History Week. “Woodson created Negro History Week for a particular purpose,” Crim explains. “So we could get together and discuss what we’ve been doing all year, not celebrate it for a week, which eventually turned into a month.”
That’s why in Crim’s history class, February isn’t the only time they talk about people of color. “In each unit of study, I look for examples of what black people and Latinos were doing at that time,” he says.
“We’ll get to my class’s civil rights unit, probably in March,” he says. “They’re going to think it’s February, with all that we’re talking about black people.”
For Crim, in teaching history, separate is not equal.
Illinois, where he teaches, has no divisiveness law, but even without an outright ban, he says many of his students don’t learn anything about systemic racism in American history. “Even though not every state bans it, it’s not necessary because most history teachers don’t do it at all,” Crim says. You don’t need to ban something that isn’t really taught in the first place.
Teaching history, teaching integrated honest history, can be transformative, says Crim. “It’s about changing your thoughts and it can change your whole generation. It can change your family. It might change, just the trajectory of your whole life,” he says.
“The story that we as Americans tell about who we were, that story tells us who we are,” says Shukree Tilghman.
Tilghman’s campaign to end Black History Month left him with a renewed respect for the rich history of the month itself. In recent years, it may seem like history has resurfaced as a battleground for American identity, but it has always been that way. “History is about power,” says Tilghman, “and who has the power to tell the story.”
Black History Month, at its best, has the ability to open the door to some sort of narrative repairs, says Hasan Jeffries. “I mean, that’s part of the power of Black History Month. It holds America accountable for the narrative it tells about the past.”
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