Black History Month wasn’t created for white people, so maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that it has colossally failed to foster a broader understanding and appreciation among whites for how African Americans helped make this nation great. But that doesn’t make it less disappointing.
Historian Carter G. Woodson came up with the idea of Negro History Week in 1926. He chose the week that included the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln, Feb. 12, and Frederick Douglass, Feb. 14. Initially, only North Carolina, Delaware, West Virginia, Baltimore, Md., and Washington, D.C., signed on to the idea – and only for their black schools, which is exactly what Woodson wanted.
Segregation, by law or tradition, was prevalent in the 1920s. Woodson never envisioned white students learning black history. His concern was that black students, deprived of a thorough education about their ancestors, would grow up accepting the yoke of inferiority that white people insisted they wear.
“If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself,” Woodson said in his book The Mis-Education of the Negro.
Woodson criticized segregated black schools for not teaching students about the accomplishments of their race. “If you teach the Negro that he has accomplished as much good as any other race he will aspire to equality and justice without regard to race,” he said. “Such an effort would upset the program of the oppressor in Africa and America.”
Black educators took Woodson’s criticism to heart. By the time I started school in the early 1960s, Negro History Week had become an integral part of the curriculums at most black schools. At mine in Alabama, we wrote book reports, illustrated posters, and held assemblies featuring musical and dramatic productions to remind us that we, as a people, had a glorious history that overcame slavery.
Negro History Week was ours alone, but Black History Month became something else. Inspired by the black power movement, black students at Kent State University organized the first Black History Month in 1970. The idea caught on and in 1976 President Gerald Ford included Black History Month as part of the nation’s bicentennial celebration.
With segregation gone, more schools reserved time each February to study the contributions of prominent African Americans in history – from Denmark Vesey to Thurgood Marshall to Barack Obama. But unfortunately, learning names, dates, and events was typically as far as their studies went. Too often the necessary attention to context and relevancy was missing from the lessons.
That lack of historical context was evident in the results of a study released in January by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which showed only 8 percent of high school seniors knew slavery was the main cause of the Civil War. Two-thirds didn’t know it took a constitutional amendment to end slavery. That’s a sorry testament to how history is being taught in America’s schools
Instead of going beyond Woodson’s original idea to focus on the positive contributions of individual African Americans, too many schools use Black History Month as a vehicle to teach a catalog of events and people without making tangible connections to the status of black Americans today.
One result is white Americans who don’t believe slavery has anything to do with today’s United States. Neither their regular history classes nor any additional study they may have done during Black History Month helped them connect the dots among slavery, segregation, and the poverty found in too many black communities today.
Woodson wanted to help black teachers overcome the distortions of textbooks written by white historians, which misrepresented slavery as benign and blamed the Civil War on the avarice of Northern aggressors who coveted the South’s agricultural wealth.
Those textbooks didn’t mention slave uprisings, the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, poll taxes, separate but equal, redlining, or white privilege. During segregation it was up to black teachers and parents to fill in the gaps to prepare black children for what they would face as they grew up.
You can’t deny the truth forever. I’m reminded of a visit to Germany last year that included a sightseeing trip to the Birkenkopf war memorial in Stuttgart, a city bombed relentlessly by the Allies during World War II. After the war, the tallest hill overlooking the city was topped with tons of rubble from the bombings, raising its peak to 511 meters.
That pile of bricks, stones, concrete, and plaster is the memorial. On one piece is a plaque with an inscription that roughly translates as: “This mountain piled up after World War II from the rubble of the city stands as a memorial to the victims and a warning to the living.” Instead of denying their history, the people of Stuttgart have embraced it.
So too have the people of my hometown, Birmingham, Ala. After decades of cringing at TV film footage and old newspaper photos of snarling police dogs biting civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s, they decided it was better to accept the city’s history than try to deny it. That led to creation of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which opened in 1992.
Black History Month has had a different effect. Too many schools, rather than using the annual observance to acknowledge the nation’s history of racism and confront its remaining tendrils, go through the motions without taking the time it takes to put that history in context. You can’t properly study the history of African Americans in one month.
Maybe it’s time to shelve Black History Month and instead encourage school districts across the nation to follow Philadelphia’s lead, which in 2005 began requiring all high school students to take an African American history course to graduate. Do that and Woodson’s goal to teach black students to be proud of their past would be achieved and white students would learn what really caused the Civil War — and why it still matters.