Thursday, February 17, 2005

Black History Month

The South Bend Tribune has an editorial today regarding the dichotomy that is Black History Month:
Today, what was Negro History Week has evolved into Black History Month. In the midst of this annual celebration, it's clear that progress has been made in recognizing the role that blacks played in this nation's history.

But the idea that this month-long celebration is still necessary to fill in gaps that exist within the rest of the year suggests there's more to be done.

This uncomfortable reality was illustrated in a recent Associated Press story about high profile black Americans who refuse to accept speaking requests during the month of February. For many, the demands of the month highlight the fact that, come March 1, public interest in their work dries up.

As one noted, "Black people were visible during February, but the other 11 months of the year we became the invisible people.''

But that's not to suggest that Black History Month should be eliminated. Those interviewed for the AP story also say the celebration should continue, that black history would become even more marginalized without it.

That's a far cry from what Carter G. Woodson intended when he designated the second week in February Negro History Week. Woodson hoped the week could one day be eliminated when black history became fundamental to American history.

That goal means acknowledging the role of black Americans in this country's rich history -- not as a separate tale told once a year, but as an integral part of a larger story. It means that all of us, particularly those who teach and write about history, should take on the responsibility of telling these stories and recognizing their importance throughout the year."
During a conversation prior to a class, the subject of teaching history and trying to squeeze all relevant subject matter in so that "testable" (state mandated) material could be covered. It was mentioned that it was extremely difficult to cover pertinent African-American historical topics during Black History month because so many other topics had to be covered. Not being a teacher myself, I asked if it was possible to bring up such topics throughout the course of the year and within the context of the given topic. The response was an ambiguous sort of "Well, yeah..."

I bring this up because I'm not sure at what point these sorts of "mandated" celebrations or acknowledgements outlive their usefulness, if ever. It's not just Black History either, I believe next month is Women's History month, created to serve the same purpose. The need for such designations was clear: for too long, the historical roles of women and minorities were either understated or, more likely, untaught and unrecognized. However, in my graduate-level experience, no matter what the topic, instructors go to great lengths to discuss the aforementioned roles within their historical context. (Say, medieval women throughout a survey of medieval history). However, I would venture that it is not for grad-level History students that such periods of topic-specific enlightenment are designated.

As such, I am ignorant of to what degree blacks and women and other minorities are woven into the historical narrative taught at the Grade and High School level. Additionally, and by extension, I'm unsure of how many average Americans know about both the unique contributions of minorities and women to American history and, perhaps more importantly, the degree to which these groups shared in the common experiences of American life throught history. Thus, I think the "high profile black Americans" who refuse to speak in February are doing themselves and others a disservice. It is only through education and exposure that attitudes will change. Instead of sending a "message" meant to register their displeasure with the pace of historical enlightenment in these matters, they are simply self-censoring and ensuring that no message whatsoever is heard.

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