Because it’s the month of February, there will emerge a familiar debate over whether or not Black History Month has outlived its usefulness. Outside of perhaps the racial bigot, those who wish to end Black History Month typically fall into one of two camps. There are those whose consciousness or perspective resides almost exclusively in a pre-Civil Rights past. The people in this camp argue that designating a single month for the purpose of celebrating a group’s cultural contributions is condescending and smacks of tokenism.
Then there are those whose perspective remains linked to a post-Civil
Rights present. (The term “post-racial” comes to mind.) The people in this camp believe that the mere mention of race is somehow racist itself. To avoid talking about race altogether, they might suggest that racism no longer exists and has been all but eliminated from the historical record.
Where the first group believes that the month-long commemoration is an excuse for emphasizing race with too little intentionality, the second group believes that it emphasizes race with too much. Both camps arrive at the same conclusion: the act of deliberately isolating one month out of the year for any sort of racial attention risks perpetuating the very injustices it serves to address.
Each mindset has its flaws. On the one hand, for Black History Month’s obvious shortcomings, members of the pre-Civil Rights group advocate scrapping the notion entirely instead of searching for ways to build upon its undeniable virtues. Such a belief seems impulsive for its excessive measure.
On the other hand, a belief that ideals such as diversity and multiculturalism ought to be lived and not engineered prompts members of the post-Civil Rights group to condemn the month for being too much of a contrivance. Such a belief seems equally rash on account of its naivete.
Both beliefs are founded upon a notion that incorrectly draws a distinction between nature and nurture, when actually, the relationship between the two is integrated and fluid.
As in many cases related to life, reconciliation of these two beliefs takes the form not of an either/or proposition, but rather of one that is both/and. One perspective may even flow from the other and produce a causal effect. To take a page from the 18th-century moralist,
Samuel Johnson, “What we hope to do with the ease of nature must first be done through the diligence of nurture.” As with any clock we desire to have run on its own, the one governing justice and equality must be wound by the action of our very hands. Therefore, the nurture of a pre-Civil Rights intentionality may beget the nature of a post-Civil Rights utopia.
Reality now dictates that we must remain deliberate about tending to black history if it is to become a natural part of our year-round awareness. Proof still lies in our nation’s public schools. As a handful of states currently review the adopted standards for their
K-12 curricula, many still find the concessions to black history lacking.
Purposely or not, the standards for subject areas such as social studies, government and history still fail to promote a thorough examination of black cultural contribution.
The persistence of such a bitter reality only confirms the extent to which race remains ingrained in our nation’s DNA. So stubborn is the inheritance that acting on its impulse is nearly instinctive. Even in those instances when we think we might not be acting on race, it acts on us in ways that make its presence extremely difficult to quantify.
To get rid of an implement like Black History Month takes far too much for granted, for doing so would assume that race-based judgment — much of which is hidden from conscious thought — has been all but eliminated from everyday experience.
Though post-racial “types” may point to the example of our shifting demographics as evidence for why race no longer matters, the inequalities that persist along racial lines in many areas of life tell a different story. Such disparities hint at a system of skin privilege so seamless and pervasive — indeed, so historic — as to be invisible itself.
Our nation has not yet matured or evolved to where we can assume that the issue of race will work itself out naturally. Purposive intervention is still necessary, for justice itself must be nurtured into existence, not just casually, but with the most deliberate form of conscious intent we can muster.
Where Black History Month gets it right is regarding this level of intent. However, Black History Month will only outlive its usefulness if we are able to appreciate this intent and augment it as a promotion for talking about black history more comprehensively. We would be wise in considering the elimination of Black History Month to be as great a mistake as keeping it in its current form.
From the standpoint of pre- and post-Civil Rights, both perspectives present rather noble ambitions. Yes, the yearly ration of black history during the month of February is grossly unsatisfying and leaves us starved. And, at some point, diversity must be lived beyond any contrived engineering of outcomes.
But, as James Baldwin once wrote, “Nothing is ever escaped.” The present is grounded in response to past reality.
Therein lies the virtue of such a mechanism — so artfully contrived — as Black History Month. Its intention — of the most deliberate, conscious, and systematic kind — is perfectly suited to combat a strain of racism, which, in this country, remains particularly resilient. In fact, it’s a strain of racism so purposeful in its own right that its fate must be akin to that of a cancer, the existence of which it is necessary to laser into oblivion.
David H. Roane is a Boston-based artist and educator.