Schooled on black history

Black History Month was established in 1976, as an evolution of Negro History Week (founded half a century earlier by Carter G. Woodson), and has since become a staple of the nation's elementary school classrooms and textbooks.

Times editorials, on the other hand, have paid little attention. The editorial board's first mention of "Negro History Week" was little more than a half-hearted announcement of the Week's 40th anniversary:

Negro History Week
February 17, 1966 For 18 years, each time with added significance, Negro History Week has been observed in the United States. It is underway now, in the anniversary month of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. In public exercises throughout the Los Angeles area, the salient facts of American history as influence by Negroes will be stressed. This is a worthwhile, even necessary, endeavor. The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History deserves commendation for its dedicated effort to chronicle the role of an ethnic group that has done much and is doing more to make our country great.

Three years later, the board phoned it in again.

Negro History Week
February 11, 1969 Negro History Week is being observed in the Los Angeles area with a series of rallies, receptions and workshops. Theme of the nine-day observance: "Creating a New African-American Immage." The events, linked to Brotherhood Crusade Month and Brotherhood Week, are combined with a scholarship drive by the California Teachers Assn. to assist minority group candidates for teaching credentials. All residents of the area, both black and white should join in studying and appreciating the historic contributions of Negroes to Southern California and the nation.

The Times gave considerably more attention to Martin Luther King Jr. Day:

Holiday With History
January 14, 1985 Black Americans in general are better off and better educated than ever before. But, despite the overall progress and spectacular individual achievements that have resulted in career gains unimaginable in King's day, there is much ground still to be gained. As a group they are still twice as likely to be poor or unemployed. The current jobless rate is 15%. Worse, black long-term unemployment, the measure of those who have given up hope of finding work, rose 72% during the first term of the Reagan Administration. Black students still score lowest on the standardized tests that often open the door to economic success, despite recent improvements on college-entrance examinations and on tests in lower elementary grades. Progress comes more slowly than it did a decade ago. But movement toward equality is measured not in years but in lifetimes. King's successors are not sprinters but marathoners, and, thanks to him, the course is shorter. That history is worth noting even on a holiday.

By contrast the 80s saw growing interest in Black History Month on the Op-Ed page. And these commentators' views weren't quite so rosy:

Once-Popular Black History Month Might as Well Not Exist
By Shirlee Smith
February 17, 1983 …for the most part, blacks no longer celebrate their existence in February or at any other time of the year. Most have chosen to forget the past, and they are therefore neglecting to prepare their offspring for a future in white America. Cultural and historical deprivation is rampant in the black community. Several months ago, I spoke to a group of black high-school students at a career-day seminar. During my presentation, I mentioned people such as Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin. When the question-and-answer period came, it was obvious that my purpose in mentioning these black pioneers was lost. I had expected that these names would provide a context for putting today's black existence in proper perspective, but the names had fallen upon untrained ears. The students were perplexed as to who these people were, with the exception of Dr. King. Most of them did recognize his name, but few knew what he had done. Some people would say that our lack of knowledge about black America is due to white America's unyielding reluctance to certify our existence. I say that we have shortchanged ourselves because, in our quest for equality and acceptance, we have tried to forget who we are.

The board returned to give Black History Month a more enthusiastic endorsement a decade later:

A History Worth Working For
Sunday February 20, 1994 A history free of bias. That was the goal of Carter G. Woodson, an African American historian who in 1926--when this nation was racially divided by law and custom--proposed devoting one week to celebrate and study black history and culture…. For many non-blacks it is the only time to formally remember the ravages of slavery, the shackles of Jim Crow and the legacy of discrimination. For too many, it is the lone opportunity to acknowledge the battles to overcome discrimination and all the work that remains to be done. American history is the story of a rainbow of cultures and contributions. All should be included equally. Carter Woodson, an integrationist, envisioned a time when no separate celebration would be needed to call attention to the accomplishments of black Americans. His ultimate goal was an integrated history that reflected no bias. That remains a worthwhile objective.

Worthwhile or not, many commentators still didn't take well to having black history confined to the shortest month of the year:

Black History Is American History
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
February 24, 1997 … why aren't black contributions to American society celebrated every month? Many blacks say it's racism. Many Americans do prefer white heroes…. But a good deal of this ghettoizing of history can be traced to the fundamental error made by black historians during their big push in the 1960s for black studies courses. They forgot that black history can't be separated from American history. They failed to tell how the black experience in all fields of endeavor has enriched the lives of Americans of all colors. Black studies were "for blacks only." The wider academic community was happy to treat black history as little more than a footnote to the "real" history of America. When the furor over equality died down, even the footnotes became expendable. Some Afrocentrists had a large part in the omission of black history. In their zeal to counter the heavy-handed Eurocentric imbalance of U.S. history, some have crossed the thin line between fact and fantasy. They've constructed groundless theories in which Europeans and white Americans are "Ice People," suffer "genetic defects" or are obsessed with "color phobias." They've replaced the shallow European "great man" theory of history with a feel-good interpretation. They refuse to acknowledge African Americans' positive roles in shaping American institutions, reinforcing the myth that African American history is slavery and not much else…. When the experience of blacks becomes accepted as integral to the whole of American society, black history will be what it always should have been: American history.

True to form, the board again reverted to PSA mode at the start of the new millennium:

Celebrating Black Heritage
February 4, 2001 This weekend, Orange County's African American community launched its observance of Black History Month with its 21st annual parade Saturday in Santa Ana. African Americans make up only about 2% of the county population, but they are an active and vital part of the community. And each year the black history in the county grows richer…. We join in celebrating this rich heritage. Its continuing history has been an important part of the county's multiethnic growth and unity.

That was the last anyone heard from the board -- which didn't stop others from passing comment, especially on the commercialization of African Americans' heritage:

The Selling Out of Black History
By Jimi Izrael
February 14, 2003 Spike Lee chastised the filmmakers behind the summer smash "Barbershop" because if our children grow up lampooning important civil rights icons, then "we're in trouble." Note to Spike: If our children are getting history lessons at the movie theater, then we're already in trouble…. The black history establishment has invited parody on itself because it takes itself too seriously on some fronts and not seriously enough on others, allowing Nissan and McDonald's to exploit a few ideals. Black History Month has become the come-on for thousands of commercials and consumer products…. I agree that it's important to honor the great among us. King and Rosa Parks -- and Carl Stokes and Nelson Mandela and on and on -- proved that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. But the Starbucks promotion and the hundreds of others like it are something less than honorable. Black History Month has become a bait-and-switch to create one feel-good moment, in hopes that you will forgive and forget, totally absolved and refreshed -- and nothing changes.

And the real coup de grace?

Our history, your history
By Erin Aubry Kaplan
February 08, 2006 I hate Black History Month. I don't hate black history, just the month: the marketing tool it has become, the reductive and self-congratulatory tone of the "Honoring African Americans" public-service ads it sets off, the rush toward penance it inspires, as America overcompensates for the rest of the year in which we actively diminish or ignore the concept of black history, much in the way people rush to church or temple on major holidays to revive a faith they don't otherwise keep. … One hypocrisy is that Black History Month routinely ennobles the fight against slavery, when most of the time, Americans practically laugh any debate of it out of any room. What, that old saw? We sneer at the notion of black reparations, not because it's so outrageous but because it dares to invoke the possibility that some 250 years of slavery, 100 years of legal segregation and 50 years of something we still can't quite categorize just might have some bearing on the unqualified mess blacks are in today…. That such conditions continue to exist, unchanged, is one question we should be raising during Black History Month. But we never do. The problem is that black history is ongoing and unresolved. Although it's had bright spots of relative success, it's not pretty. It still demands accountability at a time when accountability is almost permanently out of fashion, and blackness itself is being subsumed by the rise of other ethnic groups and new paradigms such as multiculturalism and multiracialism. A good friend of mine says that blacks are on the wrong side of U.S. history and always have been. As a black person, I'm resolved to that fact, but as an American, I'm equally resolved to change it. Guess it's a hate-love relationship. Happy Valentine's Day.

And happy Black History Month to you, too.

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