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Why Black History Month?

Every February, college professors like myself are tasked with reminding students and the general public of the significance of Black History Month. Undoubtedly, many people understand the potential value behind a designated month dedicated to this part of American history. Our country is strengthened by recognizing the contributions of ethnic groups representing its social fabric. Yet I sense a growing apathy among students influenced by a dominant ideology that positions Black History Month as a chore rather than an opportunity to observe individuals and events in the history of the African Diaspora.

Hegemonic forces chip away at our efforts to raise consciousness about the struggles and success of descendants of Africa. If I did not know better, I might be tempted to believe that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. solved all the nation's problems. I might also believe that current events associated with race are mere coincidence or figments of my imagination. But I know better. If educators taught black history all year long, then perhaps we could afford to bury the designated month. The reality is that students can graduate from high school and college with little to no knowledge of the African American journey.

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In a December 2005 interview with Mike Wallace of CBS' 60 Minutes, actor Morgan Freeman argued against calling it Black History Month because "black history is American history." Mr. Freeman's words sound good in theory, but black people tend to vanish under the weight of Eurocentric approaches to American history. This is why many students are thoroughly familiar with George Washington or Patrick Henry but less so with Benjamin Banneker, Rebecca Lee Crumpler or Daisy Bates.

The United States has experienced progress. However, we should avoid the tendency to romanticize this nation's history. History is not a fairy tale that ends happily ever after. Times change for better and for worse. An educated society will learn from the bad times. Recent protests over the horrific deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice reveal that equality feels like an elusive goal to many individuals and groups. Without knowledge, we are destined to repeat history. It is important to inspire within the next generation an understanding of history's impact on life today.

In 1926, educator Carter G. Woodson led the effort to create Negro History Week. The idea was birthed within a social structure that failed to acknowledge black achievement. The Negro presence had long been minimized in business, politics, education, law and other areas of social life. The name itself flew in the face of oppression. Woodson's Negro History Week was meant to frame a space and time to popularize the contributions of his people in the midst of legal and illegal efforts to eliminate those contributions. He hoped the annual event would inspire the world to shake off the mental chains.

In 1970, Kent State University's Black United Students proposed a Black History Month. Extending the week to a month increased opportunities for additional thought, discussion and vehicles for change. Symbolically, the word "black" sought to connect and empower persons across the country. Black also became a proper noun when referring to racial and cultural identity. By 1976, President Gerald R. Ford urged the nation to recognize the accomplishments of black Americans in every area of human endeavor.

Carter G. Woodson never meant for designated black history periods to be limited to educating only black people. His goal was to educate all people about black contributions to the world. I probe this idea when I ask students: What does it mean to regulate learning to specific groups of people? Can Women's History Month help educate everyone regardless of sex or gender identity? Can National Hispanic Heritage Month help educate everyone regardless of ethnic identity? Can LGBT History Month help educate everyone regardless of sexual and social identity? These designated months emphasize the struggles of people who fly below the radar much too often. These are times for people to come together for the sake of learning.

Knowledge is the goal of heritage months. A lack of knowledge can lead to ignorance about cultural groups. Ignorance can lead to apathy about the struggles of cultural groups. And apathy can lead to irresponsible actions toward cultural groups.

Society will no longer need specific heritage months when we eliminate racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression that minimize the value of all lives in general, and black lives specifically. Until then, I will keep reminding people of the significance of Black History Month.

Mark C. Hopson is associate professor of communication at George Mason University. His email is mhopson@gmu.edu.

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