Why we still need Black History Month in the US

In an ideal world, Black History Month wouldn’t be necessary. But we don’t live in one.

Lucy Nicholson
Critics of Black History Month aim to extinguish the optimism of black children, writes Morgan [Lucy Nicholson/Reuters]

Earlier this month, US Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged the beginning of Black History Month by noting Abraham Lincoln’s effort to re-unite the union through the 13th amendment.

Let’s consider the optics of this for a moment.

A month celebrating the accomplishments of black people was introduced by a vice president celebrating the accomplishments of a white man. I guess even Black History Month isn’t safe from appropriation.

This should come as no surprise given Black History Month’s mainstream treatment as a token gesture. This is largely the case everywhere, except for inside elementary school classrooms, where at least during February, black figures get the same simplified treatment as historical figures of other races.

So, when the most powerful people in the US demonstrate their own gross misunderstanding of not only the point of Black History Month, but of black history itself, why is the necessity of the commemoration still debated in the 21st century?

I am less interested in the impact of this celebration on Mike Pence, and more concerned about its effect on black children. Often times, disapproval of Black History Month isn’t really given out of concern for the well-being of all students. It’s done to extinguish the optimism of the black ones.

Post-racial mythology

This is the same old anti-blackness framed now as a post-racial mythology.

Whenever someone invokes the post-racial mythology, what they really mean is that black and brown people must disappear into whiteness. In the post-racial mythology, everyone is racialised, except white people who are just people. If the burden of the post-racial is only on non-white people, what does “post-racial” actually mean?

When Black History Month is construed in these same terms, what critics of this commemoration are ultimately saying is that black children do not deserve the optimistic and inclusive view of their own history to which white children are automatically entitled. If the concern really stemmed from a desire for fairness, these same critics would find it untenable that a student educated in the US could go their entire educational career without encountering James Baldwin, Richard Wright, or Zora Neale Hurston, but having read Mark Twain – twice.

If this were meant to create widespread equity, we might not be living in this dark timeline where Donald Trump, like a teenager who read only the back cover of a book before giving a report, was emboldened to speak of abolitionist Frederick Douglass as “somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognised more and more.”

Without an especially motivated teacher making deliberate decisions in view of cultural responsiveness, it is both possible and likely that these American figures are viewed as superfluous to American literature and history. They’re niche. They’re the original “race-themed” texts. Even teachers that initiate conversations on diversity and inclusion – and they certainly do exist, and I’ve worked alongside them in years past – do so despite it being only vaguely referenced in the core curriculum.

Would these lessons be taught more frequently without Black History Month as a reminder? Has America ever uniformly responded to the needs or desires of the disempowered and marginalised without their active prompting?

The ‘problem’ with Black History Month

The fact that conversations about the teaching of black history only emerge in earnest in February ironically serves to underscore the continued necessity of Black History Month as a frame for education. Black History Month is primarily addressed positively in some black communities and within the confines of the elementary school classroom.

Why, then, does it remain an issue for people who, by their own admission, aren’t actually joining in it? How many adults lead lives that include compulsory participation in this celebration?

How does it disrupt your status quo? Does casual Friday in your office suddenly become dashiki day? Is “the Star-Spangled Banner” usurped by “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” at basketball games?

The criticism suggests the issue is not the celebration itself, but instead a desire to disallow black children an understanding of culture and of black pride. Namely, that there are forerunners who provide a representational template for the lived possibilities of black excellence – one that defiantly refuses whiteness as its centre. It is the possibility of black childhood joy, unencumbered and rendered separate from whiteness, and not the idea of a Black History Month itself, that is being problematised. 

In this way, for many critics of the celebration, black history just simply isn’t real history. Those who decry Black History Month aren’t asking for more diversity within the classroom; they are asking for the continued centring of whiteness as the true American experience.

Black history as part of US history

Ultimately, claims that Black History Month should be removed in favour of a broad American history that speaks directly to and about “all of us” becomes synonymous with “All Lives Matter” – in practice, it erases black people from the narrative of US history and US futures within the context of our most vulnerable population, our children. When you don’t see yourself represented in the past, it becomes more difficult to imagine your future.

Of course, black history is a part of American history. But the teaching of American history in a way that is privileging white accomplishments and whiteness more broadly does not typically reflect this idea. In an ideal world, a separate month for black history would be redundant. But we are not living in an ideal world.

READ MORE: Race in the US – Writing through the tears

Until the limited view of history and of who gets to be an American undergoes a significant change, like saying “Black Lives Matter”, we need to specifically claim a space for black history.

When Carter G Woodson proposed Negro History Week in 1926, he explained, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” It is the last point, this danger of extermination, which endows Black History Month with a continued relevance. It is a time when the innocence of black children is most overtly acknowledged and cherished – an innocence that is unquestioned for white children.

Danielle Fuentes Morgan is an assistant professor at Santa Clara University. She writes about African American literature and culture, comedy, and the 21st century.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.