Do we still need Black History Month?

27 Jan 2006

"When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder.”--Dr. Carter Woodson

"I don't want a black history month. Black history is American history," Morgan Freeman, the Oscar-winning actor of Million Dollar Baby and The Shawshank Redemption said to 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace last month. "You're going to relegate my history to a month?" he added as a slightly puzzled Wallace shrugged.

Some were shocked by the statements. But judging by the

... comments I read in the blogs and forums, many people agreed or at least accepted Freeman’s position. Every issue of this magnitude has a context that should be grasped. And to properly understand the source of Freeman’s frustration, it is important to know the history of Black History Month.

“Negro History Week” was instituted 80 years ago as a result of the efforts of Dr. Carter Woodson, a historian and journalist who felt that African-American contributions were not properly represented in the textbooks and in the consciousness of the country. The second week of February was chosen because of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (who issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the American slaves, born Feb 12) and Frederick Douglass (the self-educated slave who went on to become a prominent abolitionist and orator, born Feb 14). Later in 1976, the whole month of February became Black History Month. It should be noted that back in the 1920s and 30s, the image of black folks in North America and around the world was less than positive. Most of the African continent and the Caribbean (with the exception of Haiti) were under European colonial domination. The portrayal of black people in literature was mostly as servants or animalistic beings devoid of culture and reason. There were even expositions in France and Holland featuring black people in “human zoos”.

So Black History Month was a counter-culture project; a way of re-educating the masses, a way of allowing black people themselves to gain pride through the knowledge of the contributions of their forefathers. Recognizing the importance of that education, our Canadian Parliament (thanks to the efforts of former Etobicoke-Lakeshore MP Jean Augustine) officially recognized February as Black History Month in December 1995. Much progress has been made in the textbooks and in the mainstream understanding of our accomplishments and struggles. Martin Luther King Day is a National Holiday in the U.S. and last year the U.S. Senate after much wrangling finally approved a resolution to apologize to descendants of lynching victims. We are far away from the caricatures of the 1920s. In that respect, Black History Month has achieved one of its original goals. But should the celebration be shelved?

The Black History Month project after all wasn’t meant to be permanent. Carter Woodson himself hoped that one day there wouldn’t be a need for a Black History Month because African-American history would have been fully integrated into American History. So today that’s where the debate lies. How to define “integration”? And what if having reached that great mountaintop of “integration”, a socially conservative government gets elected in parliament and decides to…say toss us back downhill? What then? In some right-wing circles, these questions are not asked anymore. “Real racism has all but disappeared,” Margaret Wente, a columnist for the Globe & Mail wrote back in 2003. These words echoed one of the sentiments that fuel all the talk of ending Affirmative Action of any kind, dumping Black History Month and anything else that according to the same Margaret Wente is part of a “government-funded racism industry."

This debate is far from being settled.

One thing is clear, the reality of race and racial history is lived and documented differently in the U.S., so African-Americans will have to define for themselves what constitutes integration or acceptable integration requiring the abolition of Black History Month. Here in the Great White North however, I know, in my humble experience as a black man in Toronto that Black history is not quite Canadian history yet. As a small test, simply walk down your favorite Canadian street today and ask a few people if they''ve ever heard of Harry Jerome or Sam Langford or Marry-Ann Shadd or William P. Hubbard. Then with your best Rick Mercer straight face, ask them what they think of Prime Minister Stephen Harper''s idea of turning the Underground Railroad into a Disney theme park.

So, as an answer to Morgan Freeman’s question stated above, I’ll simply offer the following: No our history is not relegated to a month. It can and should be celebrated everyday of every year. February is merely about pausing to collectively acknowledge the efforts of those who came before us and those around us today, whose endeavors do not get the recognition they deserve; it is about standing together in a circle around the great campfire of our history and shouting at the top of our lungs: “We’re still here!!”

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