Black History Month: A necessary and painful look back at our progress
One might think that Black History Month is no longer necessary, but don’t toss it out yet.
Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman made a statement in a 2005 interview with Mike Wallace that sent ripples through the hearts of the month’s supporters.
“I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history,” Freeman said.
Although some took issue with Freeman’s statement, his desire aligned perfectly with that of the creator of Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson.
Creating it in 1926 — a time when blacks weren’t truly American citizens — Woodson hoped that, eventually, there would be no need for the designated month. He counted on there being an integration so harmonious that the contributions of African-Americans would simply be known as American history.
Both of their hopes are more than reasonable and completely understandable. However, there are events occuring in this country that raise the question of whether this will ever be the case.
When the trailer for Oscar-nominated film “12 Years a Slave” debuted, Yahoo News! displayed it in its newsfeed, and to no real surprise, comments like, “Oh god, another movie about how all whites are bad and all blacks are good,” could be seen with just a few scrolls.
This type of sentiment is not necessarily the feeling of the majority, but there is a nagging notion shared by many that movies such as “12 Years a Slave” are unnecessary due to the plethora of slave movies that already exist.
Such ire is seldom seen for other things done into the ground, such as, for instance, a movie revolving around World War II. So it piques curiosity as to why people get angry when “slave movies” or other comparable films are produced.
The answer can be found by analyzing the intent behind a recent event involving Texas’s education system.
In 2010, certain Texas public schools were trying to rename what is known as the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the Atlantic triangular trade — robbing the original name of its transparent malevolence.
Ultimately, the effort failed. But in much the same way that Yahoo News! commentators were fed up with slave movies, even in the non-entertainment industry, some people seek to neuter history.
So let’s call this what it is: an underhanded form of racism. No, this didn’t consist of lynch mobs roaming the streets; no one was screaming for a reconsideration of Brown v. Board of Education. But there is no benign, logical reason for these types of actions and behavior.
Authors such as Mark Twain, Anne Frank, Charles Dickens and Howard Zinn circulate widely through school curriculums. However, the story of Solomon Northup — the main character in “12 Years a Slave” — has gone untold for many years.
In an interview, the director of the film, Steve McQueen, said, “Since first reading ’12 Years a Slave,’ it has been my dream that this book be taught in schools.”
Well, with individuals who don’t even want to include the word “slave” in the name of the Atlantic slave trade, it’s difficult for one not to be cynical toward the fruition of McQueen’s dream.
Believing black history and American history to be so fully synonymous that Black History Month is unnecessary is one contention.
Another take is that the month is inherently racist. Clint Comealy, a writer for Collegiate Times, surely agrees.
In his article, “Letter: Black History Month is racist by definition,” he argues that when people feel “individuals should be treated differently according to their racial designation,” that is racism.
He continues and says, “I’m not saying that we shouldn’t honor these individuals, but we should honor the individual, not because of what color he or she happens to have.”
He’s right about one thing: W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Octavia E. Butler and Charles Drew are being “treated” differently in the sense that their contributions to society are being highlighted in the name of a month dedicated to black history. But such statements blatantly overlook the reason it was instituted in the first place — historical contributions of African-Americans were being severely marginalized.
At that point in history, black men and women were in no way full human beings in the eyes of the law and textbooks. It’s fine to make the argument that we should be in a place where we’re making strides to rid racial distinctions among great American contributors. But it’s disingenuous not to acknowledge that there was ever a legitimate purpose for it.
Comealy’s comments are reminiscent of those who abide by colorblind philosophies.
Author and speaker Michelle Alexander appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher last week to discuss her book “The New Jim Crow.” She made the case that today’s federal laws — overly punitive towards minorities concerning drug charges, for example — parallel racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws that were instilled between 1876 and 1965.
During the interview she touched upon this notion of colorblindness.
It’s been said by many people of all racial backgrounds, “I don’t see color” — the statement granting those who say it a kind of moral high ground.
But Alexander tried to explain that it is to our detriment to put on rose-colored lenses, attempting to lump everyone into an undifferentiable category. We are not all the same. Culturally speaking, that is — race is just a mental construct used to describe perceived biological characteristics.
Alexander told Maher, “Being blind to the suffering of people of other races, being blind to discrimination, being blind to bigotry — that is a big part of the problem.” In the future, she hopes we can “actually see each other and actually care about one another as we are and be able to acknowledge our differences.” It’s OK to acknowledge differences; a lie to act like they don’t exist. And if not for them, what a boring world this would be.
The idea that Black History Month is bad because it focuses on a group of people due to their racial background is an oversimplification of why the month was implemented to begin with. But it’s not crazy for a dispassionate discourse to open up so that we as Americans may discuss why, perhaps, we should make efforts to do away with it. And until then, let us respect the wishes of those who still celebrate the month.
It’s not supposed to be 28 days of ethnocentrism; it’s 28 days of recognizing those who are still not properly recognized.
In the spirit of the month, allow me to acknowledge my favorite under-appreciated black figure in our nation’s history, W.E.B. DuBois. One of the most brilliant writers and political activists of our time, DuBois summed up all these issues nicely: “I believe that all men, black, brown and white, are brothers.
“The main thing is the you beneath the clothes and skin — the ability to do, the will to conquer, the determination to understand and know this great, wonderful, curious world.”
Opinion columnist Marcus Arceneaux is a print journalism junior and may be reached at [email protected]