Oh, I’m going to get it now. But I don’t care; this needs to be said. I’m not even the first person to say it, and I’m certainly not saying it with my face on national television like others have. No, I have a point to make, and I’m going to make it while there is still some veil of anonymity shrouded over my identity. So far most of you only know my first name and home state, and there is no guarantee that either is even what I’ve said it is. Nevertheless, I stand by what I’m saying here today, and I hope that, rather than unleashing unnecessary anger, these words will help people to see how silly assigning a month as the official history of anything is.
Let’s begin with, appropriately, some history. Before there was a Black History Month there was Negro History Week. Started in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard educated historian born to former slaves, Negro History Week took place during the second week of February because of the proximity of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14). The focal point of this week was to teach American public school students about the history of American blacks, but it didn’t take off soaring right away. Nonetheless, it carried on enough that in just a few years it had been taken up in schools, churches, and other communal organizations throughout most of the United States.
Fast forward to 1969 when student leaders at Kent State University encouraged stretching the week into a month. In February 1970 they celebrated the first Black History Month on KSU’s campus. Six years later, in the mix of America’s Bicentennial Celebration, President Gerald Ford announced the official recognition of Black History Month every February in America.
With the benefit of historical hindsight, I am on-board with Woodson’s creation of Negro History Week as a means of promoting more study into black history in America during a time when the impacts of the American Civil War were still felt and when black Americans were fearful that the good and bad of this and other significant events in their country’s history could be forgotten. Woodson and his supporters were attempted to preserve history and educate the masses about it, and this is always an admirable and necessary task for the advancement of any society.
I can also understand the desire for this celebratory week to be expanded, and I don’t have an issue with that sentiment, yet I think that Black History Month was better suited for the time it started than it is now. Bear in mind, I wasn’t alive for the start of either Negro History Week or Black History Month, but I have taken a few history classes and have been to Kent State University’s campus, so I’ll try to justify my beliefs based upon what I’ve learned from observance in the time I have been here and, well, history. I feel that the adoption of Black History Month in the 1970s was similar to the advent of Negro History Week in the 1920s in that it started as a means to promote the recognition and continued education about the history of a specific group of people in America – a minority group that had endured great oppression in recent memory, no less. That being said, I think that placing a month of special emphasis on the specific history of such a group of people is not a bad idea for that time. I don’t believe that Black History Month was bad from the start, but I do believe it is bad for America now. In order to explain why I feel this way, I will piggy-back on the dulcet tones of one of my favorite actors, the great Morgan Freeman, who had this to say during a 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace in 2006.
This took many people aback when it aired. Why would a black man not want there to be a Black History Month? The answer is simple: black history is American history. Just as Jewish history is American history. This is true, of course, only when the people we are studying are from America, but you get the idea. Americans, whether they are black, Jewish, or whatever other color, race, ethnicity, or creed anyone assigns them are Americans. We have a better and broader understanding of this now than we once did thanks to great people of many different heritages from America and other countries. People like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as his great non-violent civil disobedience influence, Mahatma Gandhi. Let us celebrate their contributions to human society always. We can place extra emphasis on dates of significance, such as the officially recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January here in America which is held always on a Monday close to King’s birthday (January 15). Nowadays our schools teach the history these men made and fought to preserve alongside the history of every other ethnic group, so what need do we have for a Black History Month anymore?
I don’t feel that there is a need for such a month, and furthermore believe that it does more harm now than good. As Freeman said in the interview, it serves to relegate a specific group’s history to a confined window of time. Sure, it’s a month, but that’s only 1/12th of the calendar, and it’s the shortest one! Let’s face it: February sucks. The weather is shitty, single people get a heavy dose of lonely reality in the midst of it, and every four years it goes on for an extra day! Fuck February! If I wasn’t born in this month I would have nothing to look forward to about it. So who really wants some of their history crammed into one month, this one especially?
Going by this logic, Black History Month strikes me as an example of further segregation of black Americans. What’s more, as a white man, I’m not sure how much of Black History Month today is meant for me. I always enjoy learning about historical figures, especially Americans (because, hey! I’m one of those!), but some of the celebrations of the lives of black Americans who are highlighted during this month seem to be put on exclusively for black Americans. Closes things off a bit, doesn’t it? Do we really want to respond to years of other groups shutting off their worlds from blacks by having blacks do the same? I know it’s a natural tendency, and many past actions of shutting off of the “white world” in the past were done with some unforgivable actions, but we’re never going to be one big, happy family if we’re too busy splitting into cliques and closing the doors behind us.
I have an issue not only with the continuation of Black History Month, but the continuation of incorrect terms of identification. I don’t give a crap what you call me as long as it’s accurate. Am I white? Sure. I am also descended from English and Polish families, so feel free to call upon my heritage there. However, I do not hail from the Caucasus region between the Black and Caspian Seas, so calling me a “Caucasian” is not accurate. Similarly, using the term “African-American” to identify someone based solely on their skin complexion and not their recent family history is incorrect and ignorant. And I say recent family history because if you trace any human being’s lineage back far enough you’ll end up in Africa. Certainly specific families come from African ancestors more recently than others, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are black. One of my favorite examples of how stupidly used the term “African-American” is comes from one of my favorite interests: movies. In 2001, Halle Berry won the Best Actress Oscar for Monster’s Ball and was declared the first African-American to win the award for an actress in a leading role (Hattie McDaniel was the first black person to win an Academy Award, Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind in 1939). Halle Berry may be black, but she was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, so she wasn’t born in Africa or directly descended from parents from Africa. Her parents actually met in England and her mother’s side also traces back to Germany, so she has a globally-rich family background, but not anything to justify calling her African-American. More accurately, Halle Berry could be considered an English-German-American. Fast forward two years to 2003 when Charlize Theron won that year’s Best Actress Oscar for Monster (there are many similarities in this example). Even though Theron is a white actress, she is actually the first true African-American actress to win the award because she was born in Benoni, South Africa, and later moved to America, thereby making her African-American.
In today’s America we have succumbed to “political correctness” so much that we no longer use such identifiable terms properly. Do you really want to identify the background of a citizen of this country without insulting them? Let’s call them what they are: Americans. Unfortunately we still base so much on color – contrary to the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that we hear so frequently every February.
I’m not asking for a “color-blind” world, or for equal slots of time throughout the year dedicated to each ethnicity. I want to be able to live in a world where we manage to embrace our differences while recognizing that we are all one people. It’s easier said than done, to be sure. Racism has certainly not gone away with our recent societal progressions. It may not be as harshly prevalent across America as it once was, but it has unfortunately stuck around quite stubbornly in certain ways. Where once were constant audacious instances of oppression against black Americans from white Americans in the Deep South are now softer, more passive aggressive, yet still wrong, occurrences of continuing racial demeaning from any and every group towards any other. Such tendencies are kept alive in the little things that we do and don’t do. It may not be easy to tell grandma off for recounting a racist whim of yesteryear, but at the very least we should educate our children (and remind ourselves) that such comments are inappropriate. We cannot let hate of any sort continue along even at a lessened pace lest it finds ground to thrive in once more, and you sure as hell don’t want that ground to be in the hearts of your children.
Perhaps it’s my more pragmatic, biology-background side, but as far as I’m concerned we are all animals on this Earth, and we are all part of the same (sub)species: Homo sapiens sapiens. The rest is genetic variation that arose from natural factors and our own choices in mates. We should be glad that no matter what we look like that we are alive. Is there anything else as important as that?