Friday, December 16, 2005

Is Black History Month Helpful?

On the upcoming edition of "60 Minutes," Actor Morgan Freeman opines about Black History Month:
Morgan Freeman thinks the whole idea of a month for black history is “ridiculous.”

The actor tells Mike Wallace he opposes designating a special month because it separates black history from American history, and is part of a labeling process that abets racism.

“You’re going to relegate my history to a month?” Freeman asks Wallace. After noting there is no “white history month,” he says, “I don’t want a black history month. Black history is American history,” he tells Wallace.

The notion of a special month for black history may be hurting rather than helping efforts for racial equality, Freeman believes. When Wallace wonders whether racist attitudes may be harder to eradicate without the education that Black History Month provides, Freeman retorts: “How are we going to get rid of racism? Stop talking about it!”

Freeman believes the labels “black” and “white” are an obstacle to beating racism. “I am going to stop calling you a white man and I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man,” he says. “I know you as Mike Wallace. You know me as Morgan Freeman. You wouldn’t say, ‘Well, I know this white guy named Mike Wallace.’ You know what I’m saying?”
When Freeman says that the way to stop racism is to "Stop talking about it!" I don't think he's saying that we should ignore racism, but that we should stop distinguishing ourselves by race. This essentially reflects the practice my wife and I have followed with our own kids. We make no overt allusions to race or color--people are people (to quote Depeche Mode)--and we have been telling them from an early age that "People come in all different colors, shapes and sizes." Now, it's obvious that our kids notice that people are different, but it simply isn't a big deal. So far it's worked, but they are young and haven't been confronted with racism--to my knowledge--and also aren't aware of all of the negative historical baggage.

Freeman's statement that "Black History is American History" prompted me to wonder: at what point does the segregation of history into Black or Women or Native American or Jewish History Month serve less to laud the contributions of these groups and more to set them apart? This is what Freeman believes has happened. In effect, having a Black History Month may improperly convey that the only time to talk about Black History is then. This is not true amongst historians, but I've gotten the impression that it is the case in our public schools.

There can be no question that there is value in setting aside time to recognize the particular contributions or travails of different groups throughout American history. An important part of what makes us who we are is knowing from where we've come from. Equally important is to share that knowledge with others. I would hope that we are at a point in American society where we could follow Freeman's prescription and include such points of view in the course of any survey of American History. However, I also realize that the reality is such that there remains a deep, abiding--and understandable--distrust among many that their group will be short-shrifted in any such grand narrative. Thus, the question: will we ever come to a point when it will be considered redundant to set aside such special months of recognition? Perhaps future historians will have to decide.

UPDATE (12/22/2005): Columnist Clarence Page offers some thoughts on the Freeman interview and Black History Month:
When Wallace started to ask "How are we going to get rid of racism" without Black History Month, Freeman cut in: "Stop talking about it!...

Not quite. How, I would ask, are you going to solve a problem unless we talk about it? The French tried that. They swept their race problems under "le tapis" (the rug, carpet) in the spirit of "liberty, equality, fraternity." They refused as a matter of French law to recognize that different races exist, which made it hard, if not impossible, for the law to deal with racial discrimination. The result, after decades of long-standing racial and ethnic grievances, are the recent riots by poor, largely unemployed Arab and African youths in towns across France.

Back here in the good ol' USA, I have often thought that African-Americans would have preferred to be "just American" from the time the first 20 of us arrived in Jamestown Colony in 1619, but that choice never has been left up to us.

Instead, we add our own cultural flavor to the great American gumbo of ethnic and racial groups. From St. Patrick's Day to Cinco de Mayo to Columbus Day and beyond, we're all "just American" except for one day a year when we allow our ethnic identity, whatever it may be, to express itself.

We Americans need not run from our own racial past. It is very much a part of our turbulent history, from the great debate the framers of the Constitution staged over how to count the slaves for purposes of reapportionment ("three-fifths of a person") to today's first black female secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.

The bad old days of separatism tried to erase black folks from American history. Black History Month puts us back in. It is not "ridiculous" to study the tragedies and triumphs of the many people who made this country what it is. They have a lot to teach us. We need Black History Month. We don't need to limit it to blacks only--or to a month.


Anonymous said...

You can ignore racism up to a point with small children, but there comes a time when they will be exposed to it, and then I firmly believe it is your responsibility as a parent to help them understand what it is. My best friend growing up was the only black child in our town. My parents did not help me to understand at all, but I knew they were not racist, and she was just the most fun, interesting person so we were great friends. But then when she had the highest grades for our school, she was not honored, and the honor was given to a white boy. This was when my parents finally had to acknowledge racism. It was a little late. I could have used help earlier.

Marc said...

Thanks for sharing your own experience. I still wonder if you were better prepared to face racism at an older age as your own experience proved contrary to the intellectual poverty that lay behind racism. Anyway, it's something I'm approaching more from a parents perspective than a historian's and you've given me something else to think about. Thanks for commenting.