Does Black History Need More Than a Month?

Tom Jacobs, Miller McCune, January 23, 2012

Last February, Nike marked the annual celebration of all things African American with the limited release of four separate sets of sneakers. To quote from the company’s marketing copy describing the shoe: “The predominantly black upper of this Black History Month Air Force 1 is a nod to the past, because in the early days of the sport of basketball, shoes on the court were almost always black. The hints of gold all around the shoe are reminders of the golden moment we all are striving to achieve.”

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Shukree Hassan Tilghman makes only passing reference to Nike during his enjoyably droll documentary More Than a Month, which will be broadcast on PBS February 16 as part of the Independent Lens series. But there are so many comically absurd by-products of Black History Month to contemplate. Fifty years ago, African Americans in the South were forced to sit in the back of the bus; today, the sides of buses are splashed with ads urging riders to “Celebrate Black History Month with Heineken.”

Tilghman finds this commercialization—not to mention the shift of focus away from actual history—simultaneously amusing, puzzling, and disturbing. His film asks whether Black History Month has outlived its usefulness and, in the process, raises pointed questions about race, culture, and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

The idea of setting aside a period of time to focus on black history dates back to 1926, when African American historian Carter G. Woodson inaugurated Negro History Week. (The concept spread around the nation with surprising speed, morphing into a month in the wake of the 1960s civil rights movement.) {snip}

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Tilghman’s proposal to cancel Black History Month—meant to be provocative more than practical—is met with considerable resistance. Among the skeptics is his mother; without such a month, she doubts “anyone would say anything good about black people.” Others echo that theme, calling the filmmaker naive. Better to have the spotlight focused on our contribution briefly than not at all.

His counterargument is simple: Isn’t segregation by month still segregation? Making sure blacks have one month to tell their stories (a cold, short month) allows the mainstream culture to hold onto its dominant historical narrative, which centers almost exclusively on European settlers and immigrants. There’s no need to talk about the role played by black people; that’s what February is for.

So what’s the alternative? Tilghman finds a potentially empowering prototype in Philadelphia, a city with a long history of racial unrest. Today, Philly students must complete a yearlong course in African American history to graduate—a requirement that ensures black history isn’t confined to February.

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