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The Childish Debate Over Black History Month

New America Media, Commentary, Earl Ofari Hutchinson Posted: Feb 10, 2009

It seemed ludicrous when several black scholars proposed that Black History Month be eliminated. The proposal got a lot of tongues wagging on Web sites, in chat rooms and e-blasts. The debate even stirred up enough controversy to get some ink from AP.

The good professors reasoned that Black History Month is an anachronism that fuels racial ill will, discord and just plain jealousy. It isnt needed anyway, they argued, since black accomplishments are generally recognized by nearly everyone in society. The election of Barack Obama supposedly was final proof that black America's accomplishments are known, accepted, and even admired by most.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Even Obama in his Feb. 2 declaration on Black History Month virtually implored educators, businesses and politicians to do more to make black history an integral part of everyone's celebrations, and not just a black celebration by and for blacks. That won't be easy either.

Most Americans knowledge of the historical contributions of blacks still begins and ends with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and even they are nothing more than names.

 Many adults still don't know that African Americans played a major part in shaping America's institutions.

Black inventors, explorers, scientists, architects, and trade unionists helped construct the foundation of American industry. Black abolitionists, religious and civil rights leaders helped shape law, politics and religion in America. Black artists, writers and musicians gave America some of its most distinctive cultural art forms.

The modern day civil rights movement not only broke down the legal barriers of segregation; it also opened the door of opportunity in government, business and at academic institutions for the poor, and minorities as well as many white women, and men.

The cruel irony is that Black History Month still has done little to make most Americans aware of this.

 Eighty-three years ago, when pioneer black historian and educator Carter G. Woodson initiated what he called Negro History Week, he wanted to rescue black people's accomplishments from the netherworld of American history and the shroud of slavery and make those accomplishments a source of pride for all Americans. He succeeded and failed. Black History Month is indeed an established tradition. Politicians designate special days, issue proclamations, and sponsor tributes to notable blacks during the month. TV networks shove in most of their specials, documentaries and features on blacks. When February ends, it's back to business as usual and black achievements virtually vanish from the screen, the concert halls, and the speeches of politicians.

The obvious solution to this disappearing act is to make sure black contributions to American society are celebrated every month.

But since this isn't done, many blacks scream racism. They are partly right. Many Americans are over weaned on white heroes. The crusade against slavery was led by Abraham Lincoln not Frederick Douglass. The great American novel was written by John Steinbeck not Richard Wright. The king of swat in baseball is still Babe Ruth not Hank Aaron, and certainly not the much reviled Barry Bonds. The most renowned American composer is George Gershwin not Duke Ellington.

Yet pointing the finger at racism for America's failure to recognize black contributions is much too easy. The painful truth is that many black historians and educators made a big error during their push for black studies courses during the 1960s, and in the years after. They failed to tell how the black experience has enriched the lives of all Americans. Black history was jammed into a tiny cubicle labeled "for blacks only." It was treated by many academics and textbook writers as little more than a sidenote to the "real" history of America. When the furor over equality died down and the assault against black studies and later multicultural studies began with a vengeance in the 1990s, these courses were knocked away like bowling pins.

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 or 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 always should have been, and that's American history. There shouldn't be any debate about that.

NAM contributing editor Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).

Related Articles:

A Post-Racial Era? Lets Not Be So Quick to Forget the Past

Obama: The Son of Many Soils

African-American Educators Talk about Change and the Unchanged

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