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Social Studies

Black History Month

By Vincent Williams | Posted 2/18/2009

So, you know what I realized? I don't remember the last time I celebrated or even acknowledged Black History Month. Oh, we recognize the 14th day of Black History Month, because my wife has sworn not to be manipulated by the greeting card companies into buying stuff for a made-up holiday but, y'know, she still wants the chocolate. But, besides that, Black History Month hasn't been a part of my life in years. And it's not because I don't acknowledge the various aspects of black history--just the opposite. I spend a great deal of time studying and taking part in my history and culture.

Hell, the only reason I'm even thinking about it is because of my daughter. We realized we haven't been doing anything specifically to do with the month and, unlike Kwanzaa, there is no ritualized activity to let you know you're doing what you're supposed to. The thing is, I just don't know what we could do differently in February that we don't do the rest of the year. We have dozens of story books and children's history books. We support the various African-American exhibits that come to museums throughout the year. Plays, television specials, speakers, you name it, all year long our family supports black culture.

And it's not just my family. I'd wager that the vast majority of people reading this participate in activities that have been traditionally seen as the province of Black History Month. We all listen to music that could be called "black music." Between TV One, BET (!), and, incidentally, PBS, CNN, and MSNBC, there's non-fiction programming broadcast about aspects of black history regardless of the calendar. Mayors, doctors, lawyers, uh, the president--there's no shortage of successful African-Americans in the public sphere. When you factor in children's programming like Sesame Street and Yo Gabba Gabba! and the plethora of multicultural shows on Nickelodeon and the like, on any given day, footage of the Roots, Miriam Makeba, Biz Markie, Jill Scott, and Wynton Marsalis graces my television screen, and in the past few weeks, I've watched documentaries on post-Katrina New Orleans, the reality of life for four married black gay couples, and the manner in which integration influenced a small town in Arkansas. Many of us do more Black History Month activity in any given day than you could fit into a month of trying.

Yes, there is more history of the civil rights movement-centered activities during this month. Right now, I'm focusing on contemporary Black History Month awareness, but even as a kid, what I remember the most about the various programs that we attended was the propensity of old members of SNCC or the SCLC relaying their experiences and playing a version of Six Degrees of Martin Luther King Jr. And I have to say, I've always been uncomfortable with the manner in which this would happen. It's like they would wheel out the civil rights guys like the presidential automations at Disney World, along with the official corporate sponsors of Black History Month, McDonalds and Anheuser-Busch, and they'd do their spiel and then go right back into storage until the same time next year. And I've always thought it was wrong to compartmentalize this vital part of American history. But that has always been the nature of Black History Month.

Of course, in past years, the annual February revisiting of the civil rights epoch was the full measure of black history that many of us received all year long. But, again, just yesterday, my daughter watched an episode of Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, a children's show focusing on the adventures of a little Chinese girl, where one of her little talking animal friends was trying to figure out how to rhyme words because he wanted to be an MC. This has always been one of the potential side effects of truly living in a multicultural society though. As we teach our children that there is only one history, and find many facets of our culture becoming more inclusive, it's becoming more and more difficult to see a reason to have a separate month for just black history. It has been an exciting, yet a bit sobering, process for me to realize that many of the books that I was first exposed to in African-American literature classes in college--The Bluest Eye, Their Eyes Were Watching God, A Gathering of Old Men, etc.--my niece and nephew have already been introduced to in their high-school English classes.

So, am I advocating the dissolution of Black History Month? I don't know. Regardless of what I've been thinking, after generations of clawing and scratching out a space for our story, it seems counterintuitive to suggest that we give it back. And, certainly, if there are schools that are still censoring Catcher in the Rye and Harry Potter books, I know kids aren't being exposed across the board to the work of African-American writers. Still, I have to think that all those years ago when Carter G. Woodson envisioned Black History Month's precursor, Negro History Week, it would have done his heart good to know that a time could come when, even for the sake of argument, someone could say that the only thing that needs to be commemorated by such a month was that there even had to be one in the first place. ?

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