Rethinking Black History Month

—Kidada E. Williams, author of They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I

It happens every term. An enthusiastic African American student comes up to me after lecture, bursting with frustration over the disparity between what they learned about black history from K-12 or popular culture and what they learn from my history course. Several years have yielded a collection that includes: “Why don’t they teach this in grade school?” “This class makes me think Black History Month is a total joke.”

© Virginia Historical Society

Most of the statements about the relevance of BHM come in February, a month that is filled with documentaries, festivals, celebrations, and lectures on African American life and culture. I use this time to educate my students about the history of the history of BHM and as an opportunity to encourage them to be agents for change in how we remember African Americans’ experiences and their contributions to history. I explain Carter G. Woodson’s establishment of Negro History Week in 1926 to foster the study, teaching, and promotion of African American history. The “Father of Black History” was not interested in the uncritical celebrations of black people’s achievement that have typified BHM since it began. Woodson was interested in the study and teaching of African American history, believing it to be essential in the protection of African Americans’ political and civil rights.

Woodson was not the first African American to grasp the importance of black history. Frederick Douglass spent much of the late 19th century trying to ensure that Americans understood the realities of slavery as an institution and its place at the heart of the conflict of the Civil War. According to the historian David Blight, he waged this battle in an effort to create a “usable past,” or a collective understanding of a past event or experience that informs the actions of people. Unfortunately, Douglass witnessed opponents of emancipation rewrite the ways Americans remembered slavery and the Civil War and then use this revised history to strip African Americans of many of their newly established citizenship rights. In the 20th century, activists and scholars ensured the survival of the study and teaching of African American history, rewriting American history textbooks to include African American contributions and impart new research to students. In all, these women and men have transformed understandings of African American history and created a “usable past.”

Unfortunately, little of this newer history trickles down to the masses. Much of what the masses consume, outside of higher education, is on the realm of problematic “edutainment,” as seen by the popularity of such disturbingly ahistorical films as “The Help” and “Red Tails.” There are, of course, some exceptions. PBS documentaries like this month’s “Slavery by Another Name” and “Freedom Riders” not only educate viewers about a specific event or episode but also awaken the desire in some to learn more. Black History Month programming can provide such opportunities for more people to learn about African American history, but too often that is not what happens. Most of the “knowledge” imparted at these events or through these publications is superficial, which leads some to suggest, as does Shukree Hassan Tilghman, the documentarian behind More Than a Month, that we should stop celebrating the month. Indeed, looking at some of the offerings, I envision Woodson and Douglass spinning in their graves.

None of the ways that Americans “celebrate” or honor Black History Month are wrong, per se. However, they point to the real problem with Black History Month, which is that there is too much celebration and not enough education. This reality, which has dogged BHM since its establishment, is quite sad because many people prefer the usable knowledge to the superficial fare they receive. Indeed, my students’ responses to my African American history courses are a testament to the power of education over celebration. Every term they want to know more about black history than we have time to cover. They bombard family members and friends with the new insight they acquire and drag them to Detroit’s Wright Museum of African American History. They impart this knowledge to their K-12 students and challenge inaccurate representations of this history. It is only with this usable knowledge of black history that audiences become agents for change.

In the end, I don’t believe that we need to eliminate Black History Month as much as we need to change how we commemorate it. Popular culture producers, politicians, misguided educators launch too many revisionist assaults and denials on African American history for us to surrender any opportunity to enlighten. These distortions may seem benign but as Douglass knew, they can be a precursor to an assault on citizenship rights. To address people’s frustration with random facts and vacuous celebrations, those who develop BHM programming should perhaps seek more help from specialists on ways to do it and do it well. More scholars, however overburdened by their work, should in turn answer the call and provide meaningful insight and train more people to do the same. Only then will we be achieving Douglass’s and Woodson’s objectives of honoring African Americans’ contributions to American history.

David W. Blight, “The Burden of African American History: Memory, Justice, and a Usable Past,” in Thomas C. Holt and Elsa Barkley Brown, eds., Major Problems of African-American History, Volume I, 1619-1865 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000).

Kidada E. Williams is Assistant Professor of History at Wayne State University and author of They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I.

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