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Black History Month Matters

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February 7, 2013

This article originally appared in the Chicago Sun-Times on February 5, 2013.

By Harvey Young

I was not yet one year old when, in 1976, President Gerald Ford celebrated the 50th anniversary of historian Carter G. Woodson’s founding of Negro History Week by giving the week a significant upgrade. It became a month. In my lifetime, February has always been Black History Month.

Woodson hoped Negro History Week would prompt an honest, unflinching look back at the achievements and experiences of African Americans. He sought to challenge the absences or misrepresentations — such as the idea that African slaves enjoyed being slaves — in school textbooks.

To honor Woodson, who died in 1950, President Ford called on all Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Today, critics occasionally question the necessity and relevance of Black History Month. Noting African American history is American history, they say it should be studied all year and not limited to the shortest month of the year.

This critique misunderstands the purpose of Negro History Week and Black History Month. They were created not to urge people to think about African-American achievements for only seven or 28 days but to ensure their consideration for at least seven and, later, 28 days. Black History Month is an invitation to spend more time, not less, contemplating African-American contributions to American history.

Critics also assert that the historical accomplishments of one group should not be celebrated at the expense of all others. Why isn’t there a White History Month, they ask.

A rash answer might be that White History Month is every month. A more accurate response is that groups other than African Americans also have presidentially proclaimed months recognizing their ancestors’ roles in shaping American culture and history. The list includes Asian-Pacific Heritage Month, Italian American Heritage and Culture Month, Jewish Heritage Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month and Polish American Heritage Month.

Some point to the extraordinary success of select African Americans and conclude Black History Month is no longer necessary. According to Gallup, the polling agency, since 2008, Barack Obama is the most admired man in the world. Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Condoleeza Rice for two years have been the second, third and fourth most admired women (after Hillary Clinton). This suggests that the contributions of African Americans are neither overlooked nor neglected. So why continue to celebrate Black History Month?

The enduring relevance of Black History Month is its call to consider both the past and the present. It invites us to look back and contemplate the changes that have occurred between then and now. How far have we, as a nation, a state, a city, a community, come? How much further must we go to achieve equal opportunity for all?

Although the achievements of select individuals are widely admired, it is not yet time to proclaim that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream has been “fulfilled.” Considerable progress and social change have occurred since the inauguration of Negro History Week in 1926, but much work lies ahead.

Today, the unemployment rate for African Americans is nearly double the national rate. Blacks are incarcerated almost six times more than whites. Evidence suggests that black children are more likely to be physically punished by their teachers and that African Americans, of all ages, are more likely to be profiled by the police. Senseless, racially motivated assaults still occur with alarming regularity. Black History Month asks all of us to look in the mirror and assess ourselves. It carves out time on our calendars to celebrate our successes and urges us to redouble our efforts toward making a better, more egalitarian tomorrow. The enduring relevance of Black History Month rests in its future orientation.

- Harvey Young is an associate professor of theatre at Northwestern University.