By George E. Hardin
Published on 02/3/2011
Race is a crucial issue in almost every aspect of American life. Therefore it is figuring in the ongoing debate over whether Black History Month should continue to be observed. Those who say yes note that blacks – with a few exceptions such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks – are largely excluded from American history books. Those who say no contend that since separate but equal was wrong a separate month for black history is also not a good idea.
Those with varying views have expressed themselves on the subject with reactions ranging from mild irritation to furious anger. Memphis-born Morgan Freeman called the idea of Black History Month “ridiculous” and bristled with rage when he was asked about the celebration by TV reporter Mike Wallace. Freeman said, “You’re going to relegate my history to a month? I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history,” he said, indicating that there are no months dedicated to white history or Jewish history. Freeman said the best way to eliminate racism is to “stop talking about it.”
The historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week in 1926 after noting that black American contributions “were overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.” His efforts were initially opposed by many black educators and some historically black colleges. The week was expanded to a month in 1979 because it was felt that one week was not enough time to tell such a comprehensive story filled with so many achievements.
Sarah Willie-LeBreton, the African-American chair of the department of sociology and anthropology at Swarthmore College, said black history is “very relevant” and she looks forward to a time when black history, black sociology, black psychology and black literature and the arts are studied all year long.
Until then, it seems, Black History Month should have a place on the calendar and a section in the curriculum.
Each year Black History Month has a special theme chosen by its official sponsor, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the organization Woodson established. This month’s theme is “African Americans and the Civil War,” focusing on the ruinous conflict that divided the nation and established race-relations patterns whose influence continues until this day.
As the nation geared up to fight the war that President Abraham Lincoln saw as a conflict for the preservation of the Union, Frederick Douglass said that regardless of the intentions the war likely would end the chattel slavery that was one of the bedrocks of American life. Four million people of African descent, enslaved and free, supported the Union effort in the pursuit of freedom. Of that number about 200,000 took up arms in the Union Army. Others served as recruiters, scouts, cooks, nurses and spies. Carter G. Woodson’s father, James Woodson, born a slave, was among those who helped Union soldiers.
Although the month’s basic idea is to remember African American contributions, commercial efforts are making inroads. Nike, for example, has introduced a line of Black History Month sneakers to honor “the achievements and pioneering spirit” of Julius Irving, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
If it is true, as has been said, that history is a race between education an catastrophe, then by educating whites and other ethnic groups about black achievements might well help prevent a catastrophe between hostile factions with racially charged differences.
Some of those who object to Black History Month have the absurd opinion that black citizens have not made major contributions to American life and therefore are reaping the benefits of others’ efforts.
John Hope Franklin said “color and race are at once the most important and the most enigmatic” issues that affect the interaction between various people. “If the (American) house is to be set in order,” he said, “one cannot begin with the present; he must begin with the past.”