This is the sixth and final post in a series of entries from the UMass community celebrating Black History Month. Dusenbury takes on the debate about the necessity for Black History Month, paying particular attention to its role in educating American children.
By Jonathan Dusenbury, M.A. Student, Department of History
In my last semester as an undergraduate student at the University of South Carolina, I wrote a letter to the editor of the student newspaper arguing in favor of the continuation of the observance of African-American History Month. My letter was a response to a series of other letters to the editor that had questioned the relevance of the celebration. While there are good and necessary arguments to be made about the problematic nature of designating particular months for particular observances, I believed then, and continue to believe now, that African-American History Month plays a vital role in this country’s collective memory.
This does not mean that I am not aware of the problems associated with this celebration. Anyone who has spent one February in a public school knows that for many students, African-American History Month represents the worst sort of (what a professor once called) American “let’s hold hands and eat each other’s food”-style multiculturalism. Portraits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks adorn bulletin boards beside pink, Valentine’s Day hearts. Oral reports on the Civil Rights Movement and prominent African-Americans create a pageant of heroization and self-congratulation.
This is bad for two reasons. On the one hand, it allows “success stories” to become the model for historical and contemporary African Americans, contributing to the master narrative’s tendency to glorify “winners” and overlook those who did not or do not benefit from the American Dream. More perniciously, however, is that it allows Americans (especially white Americans) to believe that the work of civil rights is done. Slavery ended, African Americans were given the vote, and the Civil Rights Act made it illegal to discriminate. We can look back comfortably on the evils of our past exactly because they are in the past. They bear no relevance to our contemporary lives. Further, the most common argument leveled against African-American History Month is that, by condensing the acknowledgment of people of color’s contributions to American history and society down to one month, we are free to forget about all of it for the other eleven.
So, if African-American History Month is beset by so many problematic tendencies, why celebrate it at all? Why not scrap it?
To that, the only answer is that the problems associated with this observation are outgrowths of how it is celebrated. They are not inherent in the observation itself. The fact that I highlighted how the celebration is usually carried on in public schools speaks to a fundamental (and frightening) truth: K-12 schooling is where the vast majority of Americans get their historical knowledge. As someone with a background in secondary education, I believe in the integral role that our public schools play in inculcating historical understanding in students. I also recognize that administrators and policymakers have abdicated their responsibility to educate engaged and critically-minded citizens. African-American History Month as it exists today allows policymakers with a political stake in what their constituents know to promote the belief that all is well. (Or, if it isn’t, to look somewhere else for blame.)
How African-American History Month is celebrated is not unique to how history is taught in America, though its results may be more insidious. The master narrative of American history tends to heroize winners and present historical problems as things that have already been resolved. This frees Americans from critically considering the role that historical processes play in modern life. To upend this system requires the exact opposite of doing away with African-American History Month. Getting rid of this celebration won’t challenge educators (or wider society) to incorporate more essentially the experiences of people of color. It will be an excuse to return to a narrative of American history that completely excludes all but a few particularly prominent individuals from within the acceptable limits of what counts in history.
Our task as historians (and as the educators of future educators) is to push to incorporate the voices and experiences of traditionally marginalized groups within that narrative – to create a fuller narrative of how the present came to be. Far from doing away with African-American History Month altogether, we must strive to promote those twenty-eight days as a period to reflect on how America came to be what it is today, and to understanding the ways in which historical processes are influencing current events. Then we must expand beyond just one month, incorporating this framework for analysis into the collective memory and historical consciousness of all Americans. Only then can we start to question the relevance of just one month of African-American history.