What’s so special about February?

By Michelle Chen Feb 13, 2009

Amid the confusion and excitement about the shape of racial politics under the new administration, the idea of Black History Month has taken on new shades of appreciation—and derision. Some thoughts about the purpose of Black History (or African Heritage) Month in an era when activists are wrestling with the delusion of post-racialism: Some dismiss Black History Month as pageantry, or even intellectual apartheid. Michael E. Ross at the Root wonders whether Obama’s inauguration attests to the obsolescence of the event:

“Black History Month has become more or less a reflex in American life, with many observances reduced to rote and repetitious rituals. Many of those observances seem to be as much about marketing products as they are about the collective national memory. … “But this year’s Black History Month will be different, taking place as it does against a backdrop of unprecedented change in the national leadership. As the events of the last month have convincingly shown, there’s no separating the current fortunes and histories of 37 million African Americans from the rest of the America. “When black American history intertwines so completely with American history in general, what’s the rationale for separating them?

Cynthia Tucker sees Black History Month as history lite–a cop-out for the educational community:

“Black Americans have been shortchanged by history as it is popularly transmitted. But giving us our own month of ‘Black History’ makes matters worse. For one thing, it lets the academy off the hook, allowing textbook writers and history teachers to continue their superficial history lessons that gloss over Reconstruction and Jim Crow, ignore the 19th century’s black entrepreneurs and pretend that GI Joe was always white. The picture on my mantel of my uniformed father says otherwise.”

Or maybe Black History Month is primarily for white people now, and should remain, precisely for that reason, according to this contrary view. Earl Ofari Hutchinson argues for cultural and pedagogical activism to draw Black history into the mainstream.

“Here’s the way to end the racist white-out and the exaggerations by some blacks of black contributions to history. Publishers should revise all classroom texts that pigeonhole black achievements into a single chapter such as slavery, civil rights, jazz, and include them in all chapters. School administrators and teachers should make sure that black achievements are laced throughout the curriculum from science and technology to the humanities. Politicians and public officials should commemorate black achievements in ceremonies throughout the whole year. Corporations should regularly feature black achievements in their advertising and promotional materials. When the experience of blacks is accepted as part of all of American society, black history will be what it is and should have always been, and that’s, American history. There shouldn’t be any debate about that.”

But maybe all these months are just silly. Asian Heritage Month was established to commemorate the completion of the transcontinental railroad by exploited Chinese laborers—a historical contribution to be sure, but probably not a pillar of ethnic pride in today’s APA community. Besides, Black history a concept may be a separate issue from Black history in practice. In New York, a commission set up to enhance the teaching of the Black experience still has yet to get off the ground after four years. If one goal of this month’s designation was promoting public recognition of race and ethnicity in our collective memory, then "Black History"—despite perhaps seeming redundant in the current political climate—remains on the margins of America’s historical canon. What do you think? Are we past the era of using the calendar to mete out racial and cultural consciousness? Image: Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation