Black History Month disappoints professors
February’s Black History Month is celebrated by many, but was initiated by one, noted historian Carter Woodson.
“Dr. Woodson’s intent for Black History Month was to get African-Americans to reflect on some of the positive contributions they had made to American society and to world history so that they would begin to value themselves,” Assistant Director of African American Studies Malachi Crawford said. “He also established it so African-Americans would begin to see themselves as actors in history instead of objects of history, or people being acted upon (slavery).”
Black History Month has its origins in Negro History Week, which started in February 1926. Woodson, who holds the distinction as being the second black to earn a doctoral degree from Harvard, chose to observe the then-radical look into black history in February, because it was the birthday month of two instrumental figures in black history: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Woodson hoped to use the event to help mend the vast racial divide of the 1920s. The plan was to reduce the ignorance that dominated the history books of the era.
Over the years, Black History Month has become a caricature of itself. Most notably, some blacks feel they haven’t gained from the spotlight it shines on black achievement.
“I don’t see the benefit of Black History Month in my students’ education,” African-American Studies Program Manager Paul Easterling said. “They don’t know any of the people that made a difference in our history. They don’t know much about anybody outside of Martin Luther King. People are not more versed on their history. This month tries to bridge that gap, but little is actually ever done.”
Crawford agreed with Easterling and said that even figures like Harriet Tubman get overlooked.
“Here’s a lady who made hundreds of trips into the South to liberate black people,” Crawford said. “The resistance you might face just for things like that are enormous and for her to go into the heart of darkness and the American South during enslavement to liberate people, that makes for a very fascinating individual.”
Others feel that economic realities may be at fault for people’s lack of interest in Black History Month.
“I think no one sees the value in it because we live in a very capitalistic society, and the value of history and what history is able to do for human beings is not really impressed upon people,” Crawford said. “And with respect to black history, many individuals ask, ‘How is this going to get me a job?’”
Additionally, corporations such as McDonald’s and Budweiser have drawn ire from minority communities that feel the month is losing its significance due to commercialization.
“Neither of the companies have a vested interest in the month, but they use it to push their product,” Easterling said.
Easterling pointed out that his students are often amazed to learn of all the different contributions blacks have made.
When people gloss over February without any real investigation into the black experience or simply scratch the surface by revisiting figures that have already permeated the mainstream such as King, Tubman and Rosa Parks, other equally important contributors like Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, Sojourner Truth and Thurgood Marshall fall through the cracks.
“Many of them have never heard of these things before or have never been exposed to some of the information before,” Easterling said. “And ultimately, they always ask the same question: Why haven’t I been told this before?”