It's coming to that time of the year again. You'll see no shortage of functions organized by historical societies, libraries, and schools. You may even catch the corporate giants sponsoring short vignettes on black history, or perhaps a rerun of Amistad, Roots or Malcolm X.
Yes, on February 1, get ready to welcome Black History Month.
The celebration has come a long way since 1926, when Harvard-educated Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week. Woodson, popularly known as "the father of black history," chose the second week in February to correspond with Abraham Lincoln's approval of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery, and with the birth of prominent black advocate Frederick Douglass. Woodson's goal was not only to educate his own community about its rich heritage, but also to make American society aware of black contributions. In 1976, during the U.S. bicentennial, the commemoration week was expanded to National Black History Month.
Many look forward to this month, during which a marginalized people's history is given prominence in the mainstream. There is a newfound appetite for anything about black history during these magical twenty-eight days. Indeed, on a personal level, an article I had written on Malcolm X was tossed around from editor to editor until black history month was around the corner. The initially unwanted article turned into a hot piece and three publications decided to use it.
Others question its relevance and consequences. Is black history not part of Canadian, American, or world history? Why should it be condensed and highlighted only during this month? Indeed, some with conspiracy theory leanings even ridiculously wonder out-loud why the shortest month of the year was selected. During our school years, we spend months, perhaps even years studying history. Yet how much importance is given to the history of blacks? On far too many school curricula, outside of this month, black history shows up once just before the U.S. Civil War, disappears and then reappears with the civil rights movement.
Even a cursory glance at the tremendous contributions of the black community is beyond the scope of this column. Suffice it to note that the accomplishments and contributions by this community have benefited all of us, not just members of one group.
It's not hard to understand the pride felt in having one's history and contributions remembered and honored. "We need such a month to help us arrive at an understanding of our ourselves as Canadian," says Rosemary Sadlier, president of the Ontario Black History Society. But in our increasingly multiracial and multiethnic societies today, does it make sense to celebrate or commemorate the history of only one particular race or people in a discreet and isolated fashion? Don't the Natives deserve a similar honor? The history of all peoples should be celebrated and taught all year round. And by limiting the remembrance, study, and celebration to one month, are we not undermining and devaluing it?
Interestingly, Black History Month comes and goes like a holiday. As one commentator noted, it's as if the sun rises on black history every February 1 and sets on black history every February 28. This not only diminishes the contribution of blacks, but also minimizes their very prominent role in shaping society, as we know it today, particularly in America. Moreover, dissecting and isolating black history from Canadian, American or world history gives others the chance to label it as "revisionist history." It leaves the impression that the Eurocentric history, taught for the bulk of the year, is the "real" history, with black history merely being worthy of mention as an aside.
Don't get me wrong. It's good that there is a month dedicated to acknowledge the achievements and contributions of blacks. Some time to remember is better than none at all. As Woodson wrote, "The achievements of the Negro properly set forth will crown him as a factor in early human progress and a maker of modern civilization." But this is just a first step. The whiff of patronization and complacency is too strong during this month. Some blacks sit back with a sense of pride, while the rest of us feel good for allowing "their" history to be told and recognized. Rather than merely being what it is today, Black History Month should be a symbolic moment when we begin to appreciate the contributions of a people throughout the rest of the year. And perhaps then we can slowly move away from the Eurocentric history that still permeates all levels of society from the media and the educational system to the courts.