End Black History Month? Q&A with Filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman

In a new PBS documentary, a young black filmmaker decides Black History Month has outlasted its purpose, and tries to be proven wrong.

By Channing Kennedy Feb 29, 2012

"I was raised to question what is the norm, and why," says filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman in the opening of his debut feature-length documentary, More Than a Month, now showing as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series.

"Black History Month, with its stock characters and not-so-subtle message that black people only had history in slavery and civil rights–well, that was problematic, and indicative of a deeper American problem. If black people could be thought of as footnotes in American history, what does this say about how we’re viewed in American society?"

Tilghman, or the Tilghman we’re shown on camera, has a solution to the problem: end Black History Month, and integrate black history into the year-long curriculum (somehow). To this end, he launches a one-man campaign; armed with a sandwich board and a petition, he travels the country for insight and signatures, interviewing historians, sociologists, activists, ad executives, kids, his own parents, and some Confederate reenactors interested in their own month.

The result is a provocative 60-minute non-manifesto, one which happily raises more questions than it answers, and which combines smart politics with a kinetic sense of humor. (Fun fact: Tilghman’s previous gigs include editing episodes of "Dog The Bounty Hunter.") I spoke with Tilghman by phone about the African American core of America, the living document of history, and how he turned his Starbucks addiction into a celebration of black heritage.

This movie’s got two stories going on. There’s the A story about Black History Month, but there’s also a B story about you. You start with an interview with your parents in their kitchen, and while you’re not dismissive of their activist past, you seem ready to build beyond it. Plus, you begin the film coloring on your floor, and end it in a suit and tie. Is appreciating your history a part of growing up?

To be honest, I hadn’t thought of it like that, though it doesn’t mean it’s not true. This certainly was a journey of discovery. Because of the marketing–and because there’s me with a giant sign that says END BLACK HISTORY MONTH–people tend to characterize this film as being about ending Black History Month. And I always say that it’s a film about wrestling with the idea of what it would mean to end Black History Month.

That’s a subtle difference, but it’s a difference that I think is important. What happens along the way is what the film is really about; that’s why there’s no huge grand conclusion. I think, though, it’s clear that by the end of the film, while I still have some issues with Black History Month, I’m not the same person that I was at the beginning.

One could characterize it as growing up. I certainly was never dismissive–or never meant to be dismissive–of my parent’s activism, or of that sentiment. In fact, it’s that sentiment that allows me to have the, for lack of a better term, balls to take a sandwich board out to the street. It’s that same sense of activism and the same sense of wanting to challenge the establishment that forms the basis of the journey to begin with.

Your initial framing of Black History Month’s version of black history is that it’s "the same four people"–Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass. That means a lot of powerful stories aren’t included, including uncomfortable ones like Claudette Colvin’s. Do you think Black History Month suffers by being sanitized in this way?

I think that’s very true. That’s not to say that sanitization happens in every celebration of black history; there are cultural institutions and museums and publications that do a really good job of making sure that black history isn’t just the same four people over and over. But there’s only so much you can do in a month! So more often than not, you’re going to get, you know, trivia.

I’m a proponent of the continued and increased exposure of African-American history in the American historical narrative; I support the most effective way to make sure that that happens. And a history month is probably not the most effective way, for that very reason: there’s only so much you can do. A mandatory course, for example, though it’s not a perfect solution, is certainly more comprehensive than Black History Month. But unfortunately, the Philadelphia school we profiled in the film is still the only school with a mandatory black history course.

Speaking of the school, I was struck by something Ms. Collins, the class’ teacher, said. When she’s asked why black history has a separate class and other groups don’t, she replies that the difference is slavery: that slavery had an erasing effect on the history of an entire group of people for hundreds of years, and that merits a class. Also, a lot of the film sticks to a black-white dynamic; there’s not a lot of people brought in who aren’t black and aren’t white.

How do you feel about black history in relation to the histories of other disenfranchised groups in America? Do you think black history requires… not more attention, but a separate kind of appreciation?

Well, I think you’re right that the film is black-white-centric. The film is, specifically, about Black History Month. But the conversations in the film can be applied to other ethnicities, to other ethnic history, to the whole idea of how we view the American story, and who’s part of that story–how we decide.

In terms of what Ms. Collins was saying, I’ll piggyback on the point I think she was making. I think you got it mostly right, but slavery doesn’t just mean that there’s history that’s gone. It means that the very creation of this thing called Am

erica does not exist without the experience of the African-American. You can’t talk about the creation of America without understanding that experience; you can’t talk about the struggle for liberty, which is at the core of the American story, including the Constitution.

Certainly, other groups play into the American story, absolutely! But America’s very founding is on the concept of black people not being people, and that concept playing itself out over the next 400 years. Every city built before 1850, from Canada to South America, was built by black people. And that does make it a unique experience different from other groups. Not necessarily better or worse off, but certainly unique.

Talk to us about the mobile app you’ve developed alongside the movie, More Than a Mapp. This looks awesome.

Yeah, so we were on the road a lot, and I’m really obsessed with Starbucks coffee… So whenever I was trying to find it, I’d pull out my phone and use the Starbucks app and find the nearest Starbucks. [laughs] And we knew that at the end of this film, a lot of the questions would be, well, what do you do next? There are a lot of different answers: big picture answers, of which Philadelphia might be an example — but there’s also small things, individual things that people.

And we thought about what our solution would be, and we decided to create this mobile app like the Starbucks app, pointing you to locations relevant to African-American history in your immediate vicinity. The beauty of it is, because we’re only a few people and can only cover a certain amount of the map, users can upload new points, and upon verification, that point becomes part of everyone’s map. It’s a collaborative map-building project about African-American history, in the palm of your hand.

Our promotions budget for the app is literally zero, but we’re approaching a thousand downloads. It’s free on the iTunes store, with an Android version coming next month. Right now there’s something in every state. It’s kind of sparse at the moment, but new points are added all the time.

After making this documentary, what do you think the responsibility is of someone toward history, black or otherwise?

That’s a good question, and it speaks to one of the goals of the film. Because, honestly? I don’t care if people want to continue to celebrate Black History Month. Go ahead! I can’t stop it anyway. [laughs] That’s a collective decision that needs to be made by people over time. What I do hope people will do is to really think critically about how we form the American story.

History is not static. It’s a living thing. And I think we have a crisis in history in our society–we don’t pay much attention to it, it’s boring. We don’t really put social studies in standardized testing, so it gets taught less. I hope that people will engage more in this living history, and be involved in how we form and re-form the American story. As I say in the last lines of the film, how we tell the story of America really reflects who we are today. And we have to be passionate about that reality.

Right. One part of the film that I especially enjoyed was your visit to the Confederate reenactors who are lobbying for a Confederate History Month. It reminded me of the myth of black soldiers fighting for the Confederacy–a myth that’s very attractive to certain people, since it would show that the Civil War wasn’t about race. And this is a myth that’s begun to appear in textbooks, at the same time that ethnic studies are defunded or banned entirely.

Yeah, it’s really amazing. In fact, that myth ended up in an elementary school textbook in Virginia, and the group that I interviewed, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, was indirectly responsible for it. The woman who was responsible for the content of the textbook pulled it from their website! History lives. And it’s okay that history lives, but because of that, we have to be vigilant about the story.

In my opinion, and I think most historians would agree, history’s not supposed to make anyone feel bad or good; it’s just supposed to aspire to tell the truth. Ultimately, that’s impossible, because that would be perfection, but the aspiration is something that’s all of our responsibility. We have to take ownership of what the American story is.

So what’s next for you?

Well, we’re starting to develop a new film — it has no title yet, but it’s going to be about African-American women and marriage. We read the statistic that African-American women are the least likely to be married in the U.S., so we’re going to try to find out why.

Wow. That’s, um, a hornet’s nest.

Absolutely! I was saying the other day, we’re just wading into another controversial battle. It should be fun.

If you can get Melissa Harris-Perry and Steve Harvey to both be in it…

[laughs] Yeah, we’re using Melissa’s book, Sister Citizen, as one of our research tools. I like her show a lot.

I’ll be very interested to see how that film turns out.

Yeah, so will I! So will I.

This interview has been condensed and edited. "More Than a Month" can be watched for free on PBS.org through March 1.