Beyond heroism: Rethinking Black History Month

—Dayo F. Gore

As we begin the annual celebration of African American achievements known as Black History Month, I am struck again by the promises and perils of this type of accounting. Initially founded in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson as Negro History Week, it was intended to rectify the exclusion of African American experiences from the national record. It has become a bonanza of lectures, luncheons, and special programing centering the black experience and, more often than not, a collective celebration of “how far we’ve come” as a people born into slavery and a nation built upon it.

Black History Month tends to highlight the most venerable leaders and singular figures in African American life and their most inspiring moments of victory. Yet the messy and complicated details of centuries of oppression and resistance, which I believe make African American experiences so imperative in the national narrative, rarely garner attention during this brief month. Instead, black heroes and heroines are appointed to stand along side white leaders and adventurers, serving as examplars of American progress and triumph.

Now I don’t want to discount the importance of this month of celebration and study, nor the crucial role of historical recovery and inclusion. It is understandable (and maybe even necessary) for Americans to hear heroic narratives about those too often marked as a suspect class and denied access to the halls of power. However, in making their voices fit the dominant narrative of triumphant democracy and progress, we diminish and distort the histories of struggle from which they emerged. Thus we are treated to the oratory power and charismatic leadership of Marin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington (with no mention of the jobs theme or political conflicts over message that shaped the event) and engage the victorious moment of Brown V. Board of Education (but with little attention to the long fought battles in the North and South to make law into reality). Too often we are reminded of the unique achievements of particular individuals, while ignoring those who held them up.

I want to encourage a different framework for Black History Month. One that still embraces historical recovery but does so by expanding our conception of “leadership” and looking beyond “victory.” I want to spotlight some of the less successful moments in the black freedom struggle, to look to less well-known leaders and indeed to those who, for all intents and purposes, failed. Paying closer attention to these experiences illuminates a rich history of struggle built on collective action, persistence, and long-term commitments to creating change.

My recent book Radicalism at the Crossroads, which uncovers the voices, intellectual work and activism of a community of black women radicals operating within New York’s black left during the height of the Cold War, embraces such an approach. In making visible the powerful but largely obscured activism of this network of women, which included well-known figures such as playwright Lorraine Hansberry and activists such as Vicki Garvin, my work joins a host of new scholarship that moves beyond heroic narratives of the black experience.

In so doing these studies demonstrate that even in complicated moments of constraint and seeming defeat, there is still much to learn and celebrate about African American life in the U.S. Perhaps if we can make these stories a larger part of Black History Month, we would all gain a better understanding of African Americans’ lived experiences. What’s more, popularizing these narratives might a spark interest in black history that last for more than just one month.

Dayo F. Gore is Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and Critical Gender Studies at the University of California, San Diego and has previously taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She is the author of Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War (NYU Press, 2011) and co-editor (with Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard) of Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle (NYU Press, 2009).