It’s February, and the annual debate has begun. The subject of Black History Month becomes the centerpiece of many a water-cooler conversation.
A poll of almost 10,000 Americans conducted in January shows there is no consensus on the topic of Black History Month. The survey, conducted by MSN and Zogby International, found that 43 percent of Americans believe setting one month of the year to focus on a racially defined observance is a token gesture, while 39 percent say that is an opportunity to raise awareness of African-American history and accomplishments (18 percent are not sure).
Also see: MSN-Zogby Black History Month poll results
Is it a valuable and necessary way for African-American history—an essential part of American history—to be offered to the public?
Or is it, as one scholar wrote in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, “simply a guilt-driven public relations scam to pacify blacks who otherwise receive no attention on the bread and butter issues of education, jobs, and health care?”
African-Americans have varying opinions on the issue, too. The poll found that 28 percent feel that dedicating only February to black history is a token gesture. Celebrities Morgan Freeman and Bill Cosby have spoken out against it. “I don’t want a black history month,” Freeman said on 60 Minutes. “Black history is American history.” Comedians Chris Rock and Dick Gregory have made jokes about it. Recently, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart did a riff on the debate over Black History Month.
Yet, the majority of African-Americans—64 percent—says Black History Month is a good way to raise awareness of African-American history and accomplishments.
Bruce Slater, the managing editor of The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, wasn’t surprised by the MSN/Zogby Poll numbers. “I think generally in an ideal world we wouldn’t need a Black History Month. It would be great if we didn’t have to set aside a month to highlight the contributions of African-Americans,” he says. “It would be nice if it was more fully incorporated with American history in general.”
More and more, African-American scholars are beginning to resent the fact that in February “their opinions are sought out, and then they are ignored the rest of the year. . .. Some black scholars refuse to lecture in February because of that,” Slater says.
Or, as Sarah Willie, an associate professor at Swarthmore College, put it to the San Francisco Chronicle last year: “It was certainly a good starting place, but it was absurd to reduce any particular group’s history to one month of motivational speeches.”
Despite the controversy, Scott, of Howard University, says: “African-Americans have and will celebrate black history as long as they find their common identity important to themselves. . .. A good society is like a good marriage. You gotta work on it.”
The bigger problem, according to many, is the American public’s lack of knowledge of history overall. “Stop asking whether there’s too much black history and start grappling with the fact that there’s too little American history,” Scott says.
Black History Month: Come February, the now-familiar observance seems to inspire ever more—and ever more random—celebrations.
The players are both big and small. Multinational corporations mount billboard campaigns, while community centers hold fashion shows and tourist spots highlight their connection to black history.
But does saturation equal success?
While the concept of Black History Month has been widely embraced in pop culture, it means some of the nation’s most bitter history also is getting watered down into cliches or irrelevance. Some events have no historical tie-in at all—they’re merely topics of interest to African-Americans. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, black history is used as a kind of commercial brand, which can feel off-key.
Is this black history?
Though well-intentioned, the events are probably not what historian Carter G. Woodson had in mind when he created Negro History Week in 1926. He taught for decades that blacks must know their past before they could envision a brighter future.
Black History Month “does caricature itself at times,” said Linda Symcox, author of “Whose History?: The Struggle for National Standards in American Classrooms,” about revising American history to include minority groups. Though she believes the month is a good thing overall, she said some events cross the line.
“If I were an African-American, I would be offended by having the month of February be some kind of palliative,” she said.
At Christopher’s B&B in Bellevue, Ky., tourists can pay $137 per night for their National Underground Railroad Freedom Center package, which includes a stay in a “junior jacuzzi room” and two adult tickets to the nearby museum.
The promotion is part of a push by Bedandbreakfast.com to steer visitors toward 14 historic homes that have connections to the secret network that once helped slaves escape to freedom, said Sandy Soule, editor of the Web site.
“This is the first year we’ve done this,” Soule said. “I think we’re going to make this a tradition.”