Is it time to end Black History Month?
Jesse Washington | 2/11/2009, 4:28 a.m.
Racial attitudes can also vary greatly from person to person and place to place.
Lee Eric Smith, the first black editor of the University of Mississippi’s student newspaper, isn’t ready to get rid of Black History Month, “because, to start quoting clichés, those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.”
“If Mississippi ranks last in more categories than I want to talk about, at the same time, so many issues we’re facing are rooted in not understanding how these problems came to be in the first place,” said Smith, a native Mississippian.
Mississippi memories point to a different America where, in response to institutionalized racism, concepts like “Black Power” and the Afrocentric holiday of Kwanzaa were created. As that racist reality faded, so did many of those creations.
Obama’s triumph, to some, means that we can all put other assumptions — like the need for Black History Month — behind us.
“I propose that, for the first time in American history, this country has reached a point where we can stop celebrating separately, stop learning separately, stop being American separately,” Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, who is black, wrote in a Feb. 1 column calling for an end to Black History Month.
At Daniel Warren Elementary in Mamaroneck, N.Y., kindergarten teacher Jane Schumer has dedicated many hours this year to the story of Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for leading a movement that planted millions of trees in Africa.
Schumer connected Maathai’s story to Obama, who planted a tree in her program and whose father was from Kenya. She connected Maathai to Martin Luther King Jr., who like Maathai was jailed for fighting injustice.
Schumer doesn’t have any special black history plans for February.
“It can’t be contrived,” said Schumer. “It’s a way of thinking, a way of life … to me, the whole year has built up to this month … the emphasis we have is what people would want to accomplish with Black History Month.”
Steve O’Rourke, who has a kindergartener at Warren Elementary, said his son wants to ask Maathai, “You and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. both went to jail for doing the right thing. What did it feel like to be in jail?”
“Whenever we denote something as belonging in a certain month, it becomes tempting to say it belongs in that month alone,” said O’Rourke. “Ideally I would like us to have a common rather than compartmentalized history.”
New York is among several states that have passed laws mandating or encouraging teachers to broaden their history classes. New Jersey was the first to do so, in 2002, after Assemblyman Bill Payne conceived and wrote the Amistad Commission bill, named after the Africans who took over their slave ship, ended up in Connecticut and won freedom in court.
Several years later, many New Jersey teachers were unaware that the law existed, and many who wanted to comply did not have the resources or knowledge to diversify their lessons, Payne said.
Next fall, New Jersey’s Amistad Commission will deploy a new set of Internet-based lesson plans for teachers to use statewide.
“I’m concerned about black and white kids’ education,” said Payne, who is no longer in the legislature and travels the country lecturing about his Amistad Commission. “This is not a black history course. I’m taking about U.S. history. I’m an American.”
Yet even Payne thinks that Black History Month should remain, because “we should not give up our heritage.”
And it does seem unlikely that it will disappear anytime soon.
“Yes, we do need it for the time being, if only because we’re in uncharted territory,” said Smith, the Mississippi native.
“We’ve just experienced a seismic shift in the identity of America,” he said, referring to Obama’s election. “We’re in the process of transforming into something, we don’t know exactly what that is yet. Until we have a better grasp on that, it’s hard to understand how we should teach history.”