Should We Get Rid of Black History Month?February 27, 2012
That question is the premise of More than a Month, a new documentary that premiered, ironically, during Black History Month. African American filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman takes a sometimes tongue-in-cheek but ultimately serious look at a controversial question about the ongoing necessity for a seemingly isolated celebration of black accomplishments. Tilghman toured the country in 2010, speaking with people on the street, students, teachers, historians, civil rights leaders, advertisers who market special Black History Month products — including tennis shoes. He even talked to members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Lexington, Virginia, who are trying to establish a Confederate history month to explore what history tells us about power and empowerment. The film’s main issue is that Black History Month seemingly confines these stories to just one month a year — perpetuating a view of American history through a European, male narrative for the remainder of the year.
There are just a few days left in February, and once again we will close out Black History Month, not to be discussed again until next year. But why? As Tilghman ponders in his film, would America without Black History Month be a country without black history?
Black History Month traces its origins to Negro History Week, which was founded in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson through his organization, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. At that time, historical texts were as segregated as society, and Woodson sought to bring national attention to the contributions of black people. In 1976, President Gerald Ford extended the celebration to a month and declared it a national holiday in honor of the bicentennial.
Despite centuries of achievement and change in society, black history still has not been fully integrated into mainstream curricula. In schools, black history remains about the “big three” — slavery (Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass), civil rights (Rosa Parks), and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. My 8-year-old son recently had Jackie Robinson thrown in for good measure as well.
Woodson’s desire to write black Americans into the nation’s history mirrors contemporary efforts to recognize women’s achievements. Established by Congress in 1981 as National Women’s History Week and then expanded in 1987, March is Women’s History Month. And just like black history, women’s history is often a side note in school curricula and texts, limited to information about Sacagawea and suffrage. Like Tilghman, I wonder whether America without Women’s History Month would be a country without women’s history.
One way we can see ignored history being recognized beyond February or March is in the National Women’s History Museum, which for more than 10 years has been an online destination for scholarship about women in history. And now, the museum is working to secure support to build a privately financed museum near the National Mall “dedicated to preserving, interpreting, and celebrating the diverse historic contributions of women and integrating this rich heritage fully into our nation’s history.”
But the museum faces opposition. Some senators have expressed concern that it would be redundant with other women’s museums, including the Quilters Hall of Fame and the National Cowgirl Museum. Quilters and cowgirls, huh?
Until history is written as a complete story, recognition is not a bad thing — whether it’s months or museums. “History is about power, the power to control the story, even for a brief period of time,” says Tilghman. “And a history month is way to do that.”