OPINION | Three perspectives on Black History Month

We have reached February, for decades identified in the U.S. as Black History Month, which has generated a host of mixed reactions. A result of Carter G. Woodson’s efforts almost a century ago to call more attention to the achievements of African-Americans, it started with a week-long focus (the second week of February, encompassing both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays). The expansion to the whole month happened in 1976, and is now cause for themed work by historical societies, public agencies, and media programming.

In schools, Black History Month usually falls squarely within the “Heroes and Holidays” stage of multicultural curriculum. It’s distinct from mainstream curriculum swathed in privilege, but still a far way from more comprehensive stages like integration or structural reform, to say nothing of genuine multicultural awareness and social action. If our schools are to become genuinely anti-racist, Black History Month alone definitely won’t get the job done.

Below, I’ve compiled three different perspectives on Black History Month, each of which I strongly recommend you read in full. (You may want to read at home, though, since some of the language gets NSFW.)

1) Shrug at the Shallowness

Back in 2009, Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates posted, “Black History Month. Meh.” It is not by any means an argument against the concept, opening with, “I think people who want to get rid of Black History Month are only slightly less annoying than people who complain about Kwanzaa.” However, it also calls out why the typically shallow names-and-dates approach to Black History Month is woefully insufficient.

“The goal seemed to be to prove that my history took to rote for just as well as anybody's,” writes Coates. “I too can be reduced into a list of facts, America.” As he’s pursued his own study, though, Coates has found a much richer narrative. “It's been a great relief to read black history as an adult and find much more compelling, human stories. It helps to know that Booker T was a schemer, that Du Bois was arrogant as all hell, that Monroe Trotter was a little off,” he writes.

This isn’t so much a condemnation of Black History Month as it is a condemnation of shallow history instruction. That sort of shallowness isn’t the kind that will show up a standardized test, however, and it’s tough to eliminate through policy alone.

2) Protect History from the Victors

Two weeks after Coates posted his piece, Latoya Peterson at Racialicious spun off her own thoughts in, “It Is Safe to Desegregate History?” She brought in her own experiences with Black History Month, as well as others’ experiences with the portrayals of Asians and Native Americans in U.S. history. The overarching conclusion: “They say that history is written by the victors, but this is ridiculous.”

Peterson expresses the concern that abandoning Black History Month would leave history even more whitewashed than it is at present. “Until history is seen as something to be analyzed and understood, rather than just memorized,” she writes, echoing Coates, “I have little hope for anyone reaching an understanding of our nation’s past through the presentation of facts and timelines.” The examples she provides show that -- left unchallenged -- history textbooks, standards, and curriculum tend to reinforce existing social privilege. One purpose of Black History Month, then, is to present a standing challenge to that tendency.

Again, we see a call for a deeper, more inclusive history that better grapples with the multifaceted history of all the different faces of America.

3) Imagine Black Future Month

Finally, and more recently, speculative fiction writer N.K. Jemisin posted a piece last September asking, “How Long ‘til Black Future Month?” Her essay covers more than just the way Black History Month is handled in schools, and it’s a testimony to the power of art and culture both to inspire and to oppress.

Science fiction and fantasy, after all, are devoted to imagining worlds other than the one we inhabit right now. If ever there was a place for work that challenged existing norms and created a different vision for society, SFF should be the genre for it. However, Jemisin points to many, many examples where this potentially aspirational genre instead reiterated and deepened existing inequities.

The piece also sustains a hopeful thread that should be encouraging to those who do want to fight the enduring racism in our society.

Closing Thoughts

Each of these pieces illuminates aspects of how our schools and culture simultaneously demand that something challenge society’s norms. In their own way, each explains how Black History Month is not enough on its own. We cannot treat Black History Month as a checkbox that absolves us from grappling with racism during the rest of the year. Instead, we need a deeper, richer, and more human approach to our country’s history.

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    Michael Diedrich's picture
    Michael Diedrich

    Michael Diedrich is a policy associate at Minnesota 2020.