Many have long argued that African-American history should be incorporated into year-round education. Now, claims that Black History Month is outdated are gaining a new potency, as schools diversify their curricula and President Barack Obama’s election opens a new chapter in the nation’s racial journey.
“If Obama’s election means anything, it means that African-American history IS American history and should be remembered and recognized every day of the year,” says Stephen Donovan, a 41-year-old lawyer.
Ending “paternalistic” observances like Black History Month, Donovan believes, would lead to “not only a reduction in racism, but whites more ready and willing and able to celebrate our difference, enjoy our traditions, without feeling the stain of guilt that stifles frank dialogue and acceptance across cultures.”
Yemesi Oyeniyi, a 40-year-old stay-at-home mother, says that Black History Month feels like it’s only for blacks, “and therefore fails to educate the masses of non-blacks.”
“I mean, now there is a Hispanic History Month and quite honestly I haven’t paid more attention to the history of Spanish-speaking Americans any more now than I have in the past,” she says. “I think it all should be taught collectively–every month.”
Obama released an official proclamation on Feb. 2 lauding “National African American History Month” and calling upon “public officials, educators, librarians, and all the people of the United States to observe this month with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs that raise awareness and appreciation of African American history.”
Daryl Scott, chairman of the history department at Howard University and vice president of programming for ASALH, says Black History Month is still needed to solidify and build upon America’s racial gains.
“To know about the people who make up society is to make a better society,” he says. “A multiracial, multiethnic society has to work at its relationships, just like you have to work at your marriage.”
A common history
Steve O’Rourke, who has a kindergartner at Warren Elementary, says his son wants to ask Maathai, “You and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. both went to jail for doing the right thing. What did it feel like to be in jail?”
“Whenever we denote something as belonging in a certain month, it becomes tempting to say it belongs in that month alone,” says O’Rourke. “Ideally I would like us to have a common rather than compartmentalized history.”
New York is among several states that have passed laws mandating or encouraging teachers to broaden their history classes. New Jersey was the first to do so, in 2002, after Assemblyman Bill Payne conceived and wrote the Amistad Commission bill, named after the Africans who took over their slave ship, ended up in Connecticut and won freedom in court.
Several years later, many New Jersey teachers were unaware that the law existed, and many who wanted to comply did not have the resources or knowledge to diversify their lessons, Payne says.
Next fall, New Jersey’s Amistad Commission will deploy a new set of Internet-based lesson plans for teachers to use statewide.
“I’m concerned about black and white kids’ education,” says Payne, who is no longer in the legislature and travels the country lecturing about his Amistad Commission. “This is not a black history course. I’m taking about U.S. history. I’m an American.”
Yet even Payne thinks that Black History Month should remain, because “we should not give up our heritage.”