So much of what gets said during Black History Month implies February is an obligatory observance to which blacks are entitled because of their difficult past. That’s not what was originally intended.
In 1926, Dr. Carter G. Woodson established “Negro History Week” because mainstream America refused to acknowledge the tremendous contributions black Americans were making to society. He said, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”
Negro History Week was intended to inspire black Americans to strive for more by reflecting upon past accomplishments. For example, how many Americans–of any color–know that the first successful open heart surgery was conducted in 1893 by a black physician, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams? Negro History Week was a time to tell young black children, “If Dr. Williams can succeed in a society blinded by color, so can you.”
Each year, communities across the country decide that in observance of Black History Month they will hang posters in their libraries or have public lectures at their schools–all with an exclusive focus on famous black Americans.
As a black American, I agree our history has a great deal to celebrate. But to say that one month gets Americans–white or black–off the hook for remembering famous black figures in their study of history would be selling short an entire race’s contribution.
Why should black history be considered separately from the rest of American history? Having a “Black History Month” implies that black history is different from other Americans’ history. It sets the stage for thinking about history as being “black” or “American,” but not both. Shouldn’t the study of black history be integrated into a much broader study of our nation’s past?
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” was not an acceptable way of educating American children. But when we use Black History Month to distinguish black history from American history, we’re doing the same thing all over again.
Stories about Harriet Tubman and her underground railroad or Rosa Parks’ refusal to go to the back of the bus need to be heard. But these stories are important to all Americans, not just black Americans. These stories must be more thoroughly explored in discussions of how America has come to be in 2005.
We can only hope our nation will soon reach a point where black history isn’t recognized for just one month a year. Instead, that recognition should be year-round, as part of the American history taught in our text books and classrooms.
Latreece Vankinscott ([email protected]) is chief operating officer of The Heartland Institute.