Published February 4, 2013 by Lafayette Journal & Courier
As director of Purdue University’s Black Cultural Center, Renee Thomas has a bird’s eye view on the importance of Black History Month, as she sees how revelations and information of past events affects current students of all races.
But Black History Month, created in 1926 as Negro History Week to bring attention to the accomplishments of blacks, seems to be in trouble. In an era where the U.S. just re-elected its first African-American president, a growing number of people — including some prominent blacks — are questioning the need of such an annual recognition.
None of those people, though, sits where Thomas does.
“When individuals understand their history and culture it empowers them to fulfill their potential and contribute to society,” Thomas said of the need for Black History Month. “We must take a look at how we are preparing our current student body to be successful Purdue alumni. We must prepare all students to succeed in an increasingly global economy.”
Still, the Black History Month boo-birds persist. The problem with Black History Month is that some see it as passé, amounting to little more than ethnic cheerleading. Nearly every Black History Month detractor has already retreaded Morgan Freeman’s 2005 interview with the late Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes,” where he seemed to blast the concept. In the interview, Freeman called Black History Month “ridiculous” when responding to Wallace’s question, and added: “You’re going to relegate my history to one month? I don’t want Black History Month. Black history is American history.”
Charles C.W. Cooke, of the conservative National Review Online, says Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month and similar recognitions, do nothing more than build the wall of separation rather than bring people together.
“But a profusion of multi-culti months doesn’t improve things any more than a profusion of wrongs make a right. In a country that is supposed to be a melting pot, are we truly supposed to take comfort in having our complex history cut up into little slices and distributed with varying emphasis to students throughout the year?”
Looking at the largest point, Freeman is right. It is ridiculous to think anyone can contain the contributions of African-Americans to one month. He is right when he says black history is American history.
Where he is wrong is that Black History Month doesn’t “relegate” black history to one month. From the very day Carter G. Woodson birthed the original concept, it was never meant to separate black history from American history. Actually, it was designed to do just the opposite.
Woodson’s creation was in response to the shameful dispensing of black contributions in America society and sounding out about the critical role blacks played throughout history around the world. Black History Month makes sure black contributions are part of the conversation about American history.
When you really think about it, adding up the roughly 250 years of legal slavery in North America, followed by “separate but equal” laws in the South after the Civil War, while many in the North practiced something akin to Jim Crow-lite, the relative freedom African-American enjoy in the U.S. today is still something rather new. Through that time, black history was often ignored, dismissed and deemed unimportant.
Noted educator Ravi Perry, assistant professor of political science and Stennis Scholar for Municipal Governance at Mississippi State University, said incorporating black history into all facets into American history remains a work in progress — one that won’t end anytime soon.
“We need Black History Month because the ‘social revolution’ taking place that defined and continues to define the agenda of blacks in American history and to the present, continues,” Perry says. “The country’s election and re-election of the first black president is not an indication of racial progress meriting the end of the study of black history. If anything, the president’s election and re-election creates an opportunity to re-engage black history and remember that black history is, in fact, American history.”
Would it be nice to think one day that the accomplishments of blacks were so apart of American history that Black History Month would be obsolete? You bet. But we are not even close to that point yet. Now, that’s ridiculous.
Hughes is a member of the Greater Lafayette Commerce’s Diversity Roundtable.