Black History Month: still necessary after all these years

I don't like the Black History Month designation, but I absolutely recognize its necessity.

President Barack Obama, like each of his predecessors since Gerald Ford, has recognized February as Black History Month, or more formally, National African American History Month.

I actually dislike this designation. But I absolutely recognize its necessity in a nation that seems to take special pride in rank ignorance of any kind of history, and certainly that which involves black people who have had a presence in this land since 1619 — that's before the Pilgrims arrived. That is only one reason that black people like me push back when ignorant interlopers of more recent European vintage incessantly vow to take back their country.

From formation of a White Student Union at Towson University a couple of years ago to current battles over public monuments honoring the defeated Confederacy to misquoting Rev. Martin Luther King in support of causes that would repel him — I see the consequences of this absence of knowledge everywhere from presidential politics to the neighborhood barber's chair.

Consider the modern civil rights movement. A study by the Southern Poverty Law Center a few years ago found that most states "mistakenly see it as a regional matter, or a topic of interest mainly for black students." And what they typically emphasize in public school curriculums — a kind of Trivial Pursuit or greatest hits version all crammed into brief February presentations — is inadequate.

"For too many students," an education specialist at the law center said, "their civil rights education boils down to two people and four words: Rosa Parks, Dr. King and 'I have a dream.' " The study "Teaching the Movement: The State Standards We Deserve" noted: "The reduction of the movement into simple fables obscures both the personal sacrifices of those who engaged in the struggle and the breadth of the social and institutional changes they wrought. The King- and Parks-centered narrative limits what we teach students about the range of possible political action. Students deserve to learn that individuals, acting collectively, can move powerful institutions to change."

Mind you, Black History Month — an expansion of an idea for one week each year that the scholar Carter G. Woodson championed in the first decades of the last century — is no panacea. As a nation, we know little history, period. In fact, most born-and-bred Americans should thank their lucky stars that they are not required to know even as much as immigrants seeking citizenship. Consider just a few questions they encounter on a civics test during the naturalization process:

•The idea of self-government is in the first three words of the Constitution. What are these words?

•If both the President and the Vice President can no longer serve, who becomes President?

•The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U. S. Constitution. Name one of the writers.

•What did Susan B. Anthony do?

As much as ignorance abounds, so does a willingness to exploit it for political aims. Just as some blacks were gaining traction for a boycott of the Academy Awards after blacks were so thoroughly ignored in Oscar nominations this year, along comes Stacey Dash, an actress-turned-Fox News contributor. In her mind, fellow black actors like Baltimore's own Jada Pinkett Smith and civil rights activists like the Rev. Al Sharpton are hypocrites for condemning Hollywood's whiteout while themselves supporting Black Entertainment Television (BET), the NAACP and their respective awards shows, which celebrate excellence among people of color and their allies. "I think it's ludicrous," she offered Fox viewers who received her words as if they were Yoda's pearls of wisdom. "We have to make up our minds. Either we want to have segregation or integration."

As she spews it, businesses and advocacy groups that were formed precisely because blacks were excluded from jobs and financial backing perpetuate separation. "If we don't want segregation, then we need to get rid of channels like BET and the BET Awards and the [NAACP] Image Awards."

Clearly, Ms. Dash and the fans who urge her to continue such balderdash have been deprived of even the greatest hits version of the history of blacks. For school-age children, yes, we need meaningful history curriculums. Until that day, and especially for the Stacey Dashes, the white student unionists and even some presidential contenders, we need Black History Month.

So here's to as many museum exhibits, theatrical works, musical concerts, lectures, walking tours, television documentaries, culinary samplings and crafts fairs as can be crammed into this shortest month of the year.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: er.shipp@aol.com.

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