In 1926, Carter G. Woodson, through his organization, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (later renamed the Association for the Study of African American Life and History), founded and promoted Negro History Week. He selected February because Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass' birthdays fell during this month. His desire was for Americans to recognize and celebrate the achievements and accomplishments of black people. The response was overwhelming, as black schools, black churches and black and white community leaders around the country rallied behind this call and pushed Negro History Week to the forefront.
In 1976, the celebration was extended to a month and became internationally known as Black History Month. Since then, the world has slowly changed — and because the racial, social and political landscape finally looks different, perhaps it is time for us to agree that this will be the last year we celebrate Black History Month.
I have never been a supporter of Black History Month. Even as a young African-American girl growing up in Washington, D.C., I often wondered why we did not celebrate a White History Month or a Jewish History Month. Why just a Black History Month? Why did we need a special month where we could finally talk about black people?
I remember that the school cafeteria would always serve greens, fried chicken and cornbread and that the bulletin boards would have pictures of Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman (I dubbed them the "Big Three"). I was never taught about the accomplishments of black people at any other time during the school year. I never learned the full extent of black history; instead, for 12 years, I learned about this history in pieces: slavery was taught during week one, the civil rights movement was taught during weeks two and three, and during the final week we talked about King's dream and how we should believe in it, accept it and try to live it.
The first year that I became a Baltimore City middle school social studies teacher was the last year that I celebrated Black History Month. At first, I followed the history curriculum, played it safe, and in February tried to cram 400-plus years of black history into one month. When I asked my students at the end of the month what they had learned about black history, one said, "So, Harriet Tubman was Frederick Douglass' sister. She then married Dr. King and now they can ride in the front of the bus."
Even though I knew that she was joking, I realized then that this is what happens when teachers try to condense history; dates and events are no longer important, they just focus on getting through the material. My students would never have confused George Washington with Abraham Lincoln or thought that the Civil War and the Revolutionary War happened at the same time. They were well versed in what they thought was the complete story of American history because they had been learning it all of their lives. The white American history that erased black people for 11 months out of the year was the only history that they knew.
I vowed then not to ever separate black history from American history again. It is one story that has many different parts, but the parts all work together. We are a nation that has come through slavery and have moved past legalized segregation, and though we are not yet living in a post-racial society, we are not where we used to be. We have witnessed a slow but steady change in American race relations, and things that were once taboo are now commonplace. I believe that the next step in our development is to reintegrate black history back into American history.
(I know that this will not be an easy task, because there are some people in America who would rather not teach or discuss anything other than white history. Such people — the ones who seem to be trapped in Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," creating their own version of reality — really must be dragged, kicking and screaming, into a better world.)
We should no longer celebrate or recognize Black History Month; instead, we should teach black history alongside white history, Asian-American history, Latino history, women's history and others. By pulling all of these histories together, we can then finally call it what it is: American history. I am convinced that we will never become post-racial, or colorblind, or even better than what we are, until we do.
Kaye Wise Whitehead is an assistant professor of communication at Loyola University Maryland, a former middle school social studies teacher, and the 2006-07 Gilder Lehrman Maryland History Teacher of the Year. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun