Black History Month Considered
Did you know that the model for the Statue of Liberty was a black woman?
Patrons of Boston-area McDonald's have received such tasty morsels of Black History along with their Big Macs and fries throughout the month of February. Did somebody say Black History Month?
Apparently someone at Bestfoods, makers of Hellman's Mayonnaise and Skippy Peanut Butter, did. They have assumed a noble telos this month: increasing awareness of Okra and similar vegetables. Why Okra? Because Okra is an especially black green.
Despite the politically correct grandstanding it inspires, Black History Month is on the whole a constructive experience, especially when viewed in the hazy glow of similar celebrations of black heritage. Since its inception in 1926, Black History Month has sought to correct misinterpretations of black history while promoting awareness of significant black historical, figures. Although this idea has, to some extent, evolved into thinly veiled self-esteem therapy for blacks and whites alike, such paeans to equality are not entirely without benefit. These hymns sing the praises of Martin Luther King, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, and others--black Americans whose contributions to the successes of modern blacks are undeniable.
In contrast, consider for a moment Kwanzaa, a black quasi-alternative to Christmas. The inspiration for Kwanzaa was born not in a manger, but in the mind of a would-be wise man, Dr. Maulana Karenga, a college professor in the 1960s. The holiday is founded on a fairly simple, if somewhat alarming, syllogism: blacks share a common African cultural heritage; blacks do not have a winter holiday of their own to celebrate; so blacks ought to have a holiday of their own with African underpinnings, festive rituals and all the trappings of a religious feast.
Kwanzaa's premises raise important questions answered persuasively by the practice of Black History Month. Is an assumed African cultural heritage the most preferable source of identity and ethnic pride for black Americans? Do blacks as such require separate holidays? Black History Month suggests otherwise.
Celebration of rightly famous historical figures, both American and black, supports a source of black identity and pride significantly more relevant and accessible to modern black Americans than any notion of common African cultural heritage. Also, both blacks and whites celebrate Black History Month. As McDonald's and Better Foods evince, Black History Month lacks all of Kwanzaa's exclusivity and divisiveness. Black History Month provides a unifying, healing celebration of black identity.
Of course, for all of its appealing inclusiveness, Black History Month--as opposed to, say, Independence Day--is by its nature the celebration of a minority group's achievements. This unavoidable feature does have some undesirable consequences which must be confronted.
Consider Inglewood High School in downtown Los Angeles. There, celebration of Black History Month has been canceled this year due to a small-scale riot instigated by Hispanic students last May. Their equity instinct was upset because the school reserved only one day, Cinco de Mayo, for recognition of Hispanic history.
Of course, had the principal been more creative, he might simply have created a Hispanic History Month. But then the question arises: what to do with the thirteenth disgruntled ethnic group? Such are the problems in our rapidly cooling melting pot.
Besides fanning the flames of identity politics, Black History Month sometimes inspires the shrill whines of those who make a living out of being oppressed. For instance, one prominent civil rights advocate has noted that the choice of February, the shortest month, is indicative of a racist culture. Never mind that February was chosen by Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Month, because it includes the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
And then there's the tendency to glorify the inglorious. Too often, through the lens of Black History Month, the Black Panthers begin to resemble the Twelve Apostles, and disreputable figures like Paul Robeson, a prominent actor and Stalinist during the Cold War, are mistaken for American heroes.
Nevertheless, the value of Black History Month is considerable. The name itself is revealing: not African-American History Month, but Black History Month; not an identity rooted in African culture, but in a distinctly American experience. However superficially, such a name suggests that any racial differences, and all racism, runs only skin deep. Indeed, this is the promise of Black History Month: for all its silly therapeutic excess, it promotes a black pride consonant with that of the larger American community within which, for better or worse, black Americans must live and contribute as citizens.
Not black or African-American citizens, mind you, but simply as American citizens.
Hugh P. Liebert '00 is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House.