Black History Month trivializes black history

ATLANTA — ATLANTA -- If Carter G. Woodson had been clairvoyant, he might well have kept his idea for a week celebrating Negro history to himself. Had he known that the commemoration would become another exercise in marginalizing the contributions of black Americans, he might have stuck to educating more limited audiences through books and scholarly journals.

Instead, in 1926, Woodson proposed an annual Negro History Week to be celebrated in February. It has metastasized into Black History Month - an annual slog through elementary school reports on George Washington Carver (as The Daily Show's Jon Stewart memorably put it, "the fellow who invented the peanut"), Harriet Tubman and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Thank heaven it's nearly over. I'm sick of walking into bookstores that have pushed all their books by black authors to the front of the store and lumped them together - no matter their subject. Or worth, for that matter. I'm tired of TV productions that offer a shallow salute to a handful of relatively well-known black inventors or politicians. And I'm disheartened that this annual trek through Disney-fied history has done little to place black Americans at the center of the American story.

Black History Month does much to suggest that the contributions, struggles and individual sagas of black Americans belong outside the main body of American history: Give elementary school kids a month to digest the Underground Railroad, the civil rights movement and the accomplishments of Condoleezza Rice, and they've learned all they need to know.


Nothing could be more wrongheaded or shortsighted. There is no American history without black history. We were here from the beginning. In 1619, dark-skinned men and women, kidnapped from Africa, arrived at Jamestown - established in 1607 as the first permanent English settlement in North America.

According to Tim Hashaw, author of The Birth of Black America: The First African Americans and the Pursuit of Freedom at Jamestown, pirates captured a Spanish slave ship carrying men and women from what is now Angola. They sold about three dozen of them to Jamestown colonists. During the next few decades, some of those men and women purchased their freedom. A few purchased their own farms.

Since then, black folks have been part and parcel of this country - its culture, its history, its wars, its science, its art, its politics. Among those felled in the Boston Massacre that helped ignite the American Revolution was - well, you know this from Black History Month, don't you? - Crispus Attucks, who was black.

Black citizens aren't a single patch in the American quilt, a small pattern separate from the rest. We are threads in the American fabric, without which the entire thing unravels. How can a single month convey that?

The social history of this country tended to be less segregated than many of us think, since many of our assumptions come from Hollywood. John Wayne movies notwithstanding, there were black cowboys, including acclaimed rodeo riders. Cherokees owned black slaves, whom they were forced to free after the Civil War. Those freedmen were made citizens of the Cherokee Nation, and, according to a recent newspaper account, voted in tribal elections until Jim Crow laws forced blacks and Cherokees apart.

Some cultural historians argue that tap dance grew out of the close proximity of black laborers and Irish immigrants living in the ghettos of New York City.

By next week, I will have heard from countless academics, parents and activists who will be irate about this column, who believe that Black History Month provides the only opportunity for teaching not just white or brown children, but many black children as well, about the countless ways in which black folks have enriched and ennobled American life. That may be so. But that's hardly an excuse for continuing this exercise.

Instead, the battle should be fought over every elementary school textbook, every lesson plan and every history curriculum that fails to place black Americans in the larger American story. Without black history, there is no American history.


Let's make it an entire year of truth-telling, not a month of slender profiles.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is