It being February, we are hearing much this month about the roles black Americans played in the nation’s history.
The annual focus goes back to 1926 when historian and scholar Carter G. Woodson, a son of ex-slaves, promoted the idea of designating a week in February as Negro History week. That observance evolved into Black History Month which has been recognized by the federal government for the past 29 years.
As black-studies pioneer Woodson once put it, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”
But the celebration of black history has a message for everyone, not just black Americans. So our Februarys are now packed with classroom presentations, public events, special speakers and television documentaries that explore a past filled with stories that were absent too long from our cultural awareness. Not to mention other stories that we’d prefer to forget but mustn’t.
Black History Month’s value remains important, but it should be asked whether these past decades of expanded awareness are paying off in deeper understanding and greater appreciation of racial diversity.
By at least one measure, they are not. As a recent Associated Press story explained, some of the black Americans who are regularly called upon to make Black History Month presentations are balking. They have some issues with the idea of being a hot ticket one month of the year, telling stories and explaining history that, in their experience, attract little interest the rest of the year.
Princeton historian Nell Irvin Painter describes it as an industry: “It became a corporate holiday, a way for corporations and museums and the U.S. Postal Service to declare they’re multicultural bona fide.”
Painter is among those who no longer accept speaking requests in February even though she values the observance and wants it to continue.
America has reason to be proud of the progress it has made toward racial harmony, but the frustrations expressed by Painter and others are evidence that the journey is far from over. Historic manifestations of bigotry such as slavery, lynching and institutionalized segregation may be largely eliminated, but they have given way to subtler but still troublesome concepts such as stereotyping and tokenism.
Many black citizens have information to share with the community at large about their cultural history. But true progress in human relations also requires broader understanding of the present and of our expectations for the future.
A rainbow of faces needs to be around the table when the conversation is about race. But the same is true when the conversation is about Social Security or potholes. We must include all viewpoints on all issues — and do it all year long.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.