Black History Month (hereafter BHM) was originally started by a well known minister named Jesse E. Moorland and a Harvard historian named Carter G. Woodson. In 1915, these men formed and organization that highlighted the achievements and accomplishments of African-Americans and others of African descent. What began as a two week recognition, beginning in the second week of February, eventually became a full month and was given the name BHM. The motivations for such recognition are apparent. But, is such recognition still necessary or appropriate in 21st century America?
Over the years, I have had conversations with at least two dozen people who expressed some objection to there being a BHM. The vast majority of these individuals were white Americans. Regardless of the person’s ethnic background each had various reasons why they thought BHM was inappropriate. I was always open to hearing their reasons. Many waived them off as inconsiderate racists (if the objectors were white) or as sell-outs if the objectors were among any of the darker hues.
In no particular order, some of the objections included:
1. If we’re going to do it for African-Americans then every group should (or will want) have a month too.
2. Why can’t we all just be Americans and have no such months for any group?
3. Many of the African-Americans recognized during BHM were racists
4. Why do African-Americans always have to bring up race and the past?
5. How many African-Americans would like to recognize White History Month?
6. Where does this all end? It’s one month now. Will it need to be 2 months or a year later?
7. I’m not “black” or “African-American”
As a child, I thought BHM was great. It was one of the rare times each year that the positive contributions of African-Americans were mentioned in school and the general public. As I moved into my teen years, high school and eventually college, I had become a voracious reader of African-American history. Some of my African-American friends and family members called me militant because I was always encouraging them to read up on this history. I believed then (and still do) that the benefits of doing so are numerous. Not the least of which learning why and how certain social norms, political views and modes of thinking have evolved through this experience.
The “history” I remember in grade school and middle school regarding African-Americans was pretty brief and grim. You were a slave in Africa. European Christian crusaders and explorers brought you to the Americas as slave labor. You were able to learn some English and specific parts of the Bible. There was a man named Martin Luther King Jr. who preached nonviolence and turning the other cheek who you should try to emulate. Other than that, you are all mostly poor and criminals (insert statistical data here) but are pretty good at singing, dancing and playing sports. Pictures always depicted African-Americans in very submissive postures, bug-eyed and afraid of white people. Or they were showed working in fields, standing naked on selling blocks for sell in the market. If you were lucky you got to where shoes and work inside the master’s house. That experience has had the effect of completely destroying the self esteem of scores of African-Americans.
The above can be contrasted with learning the virtues of the Founding Fathers, the creative genius of Alexander Bell, wealth of the Rockefellers and Carnegies and the clever writing of Hawthorne, Webster and Twain. These one sided and incomplete stories made me angry because even while in grade school, I was reading children’s books about people like Nat Turner, Booker T. Washington, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglas and W.E.B. Dubois outside of school. People like this, if mentioned at all publicly, were mentioned during BHM. If they had any substantial mention in my school education I can’t recall a single instance.
I’d like to share two experiences related to this topic. They both involve a book written by Alex Haley called The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Malik El Shabazz (formely known as Malcolm X) was a prominent leader in the civil rights movement. He began as a black nationalist and member of a group called the Nation of Islam founded by Elijah Robert Poole also known as Elijah Muhammad. Eventually, Malik’s ideas and global humanitarian views caused him to leave the NOI. He traveled to Mecca for a holy pilgrimage and embraced the global faith of Al-Islam. I read this book in 10th grade. It completely shut down my life for three and half days. I did not pay attention in class, go to football practice or do most of my homework. I read this book until my eyes could not stay open. It is several hundred pages long but at that time I didn’t even realize it because I was so enthralled by it. It changed my life forever…
Several years later, while a sophomore in college, I had the second experience with this book. I had a classmate in political science whom I routinely debated during class. He was a self proclaimed “hardcore conservative Republican” and I was more of an extreme philosopher (some thought quite radical) full of idealism. I’ve never had a deep appreciation for either political party, Democrats or Republicans. (still true today and why I remain an Independent) One day after class it really escalated and started to become heated. We both were yelling at each other at the top of our lungs. This was totally uncharacteristic of all of our previous debates. While we were barking at each other and exchanging expletives (only time we had gone this far) about each others “flimsy arguments” there was a sudden break in the action.
I asked him what he new about African-American culture to which he responded he knew all he needed to know about it. I asked him what books about African-American culture or written by African-Americans he had read. We both shared a deep love of reading, reason and solid debate. (not arguing) I then started naming books and authors of white Americans that I read, some by choice and some by force. He saw where I was going with this. I told him that I had been forced to learn about his experience. I ended by asking him how he could truly call himself educated when had not read a single book about African-American culture. That point was not lost on him. He always had a quick retort but this time he just stood there with a look of disgust.
He then said “name a book.” Now I was caught off guard because I had not thought that far through my point. My mind began searching but I was a little bit flustered and so I blurted out “read the Autobiography of Malcolm X!” He replied, “who the [expletive] is that?” He turned and began walking away. When he was about 10 paces or so away I yelled out the title of the book again and added “it’s in our campus library.” He never turned around. He simply waved his hand as if to say “go away…I’m not even listening to you right now.” That was a Thursday or Friday.
The following Tuesday (only a few days after our last exchange) We crossed paths in the hallway. He was always clean cut and had the classic yuppie-like appearance. He looked really tired, almost sleep deprived. I asked him what he wanted. I was ready to do battle again. He just extended his hand and said “I’m very very sorry.” It was really sincere. I had never seen his face like that in all of our exchanges. I paused because I had no idea what he was talking about. He then told me he had read the book. He had picked it up that day we had the blowout outside of class and read the whole thing in just a few days. He said it caused arguments between him, his parents and some family members. They were appalled that he was reading such a book. I remember how he just kept saying “I had no idea about this and that thing…”
From that day forward we never raised our voices again at each other. In class, we still continued to debate the issues in the readings but there was an even deeper mutual respect and understanding of each other’s point of view and how our respective experiences influenced our perceptions. I remember in our last conversation he said he was always going to be a conservative and Republican but that he had learned something valuable by reading that book. He mentioned several things in the book that he said he did not know if he could have been able to endure without feeling very vengeful and angry. I saw him sometimes the following semester but we never stopped to talk. We just nodded and smiled without breaking our individual strides.
For me, BHM, if it has any value lies at least in part in the opportunity to learn about the experience of a segment of the American population who has a rather unique relationship to the nation. It’s an invitation to observe this history. As with all invitations it is not mandatory to accept it. Many feel they don’t want to accept this invitation. They are within their rights, for whatever reasons, not to do so. That said, anyone desiring a fuller picture of America would be doing him/herself a great disservice by not taking a moment to familiarize themselves with at least some of the events and people which make up the African-American experience.