Byron Williams: Does America have what it takes to end Black History Month?





[Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or visit his website: byronspeaks.com]

Under the right conditions, I would support the elimination of Black History.

I am quite certain that some are already asking themselves: "How can he possibly consider the elimination of Black History Month?"

This is not the first time I raised this possibility in a column so do me the service by at least reading the piece in its entirety before sending the predictable scathing rants via e-mail.

I recognize that it is a worthy tradition, but is it a tradition free from examination?

Black History Month began in 1926 as Negro History Week by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, as a way to bring attention to the positive contributions of black people in American history.

Woodson's achievements alone are of great historical value. The son of former slaves, Woodson worked in the Kentucky coal mines in order to put himself through high school. He graduated from Berea College in Kentucky in 1903, and then went on to Harvard for his Ph.D.
Woodson was concerned that one was hard pressed to find the contributions of blacks, positive or otherwise in American history.

In 1926 Woodson began promoting the second week of February as Negro History Week. In 1976, it became Black History Month. Woodson selected February because it coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas.

However, does the legitimate reasoning that necessitated the celebration of Black History Month still require that we maintain it today? Perhaps the more appropriate question, does America possess the collective maturity to end Black History Month?

I come to these questions with mixed emotions.

I suspect there are a number of African Americans who are quite comfortable with Black History Month remaining in its current state, which is becoming trite, stale, and pedestrian rather than informative and thought provoking.

My reasoning for supporting the elimination of Black History Month is that it renders the achievements of African Americans to an adjunct status in American history.

Among its many achievements, the Civil Rights Movement tested the elasticity of the Constitution. In doing so, it made America examine whether or not the Jeffersonian notion of equality had validity. Why are the names of George Washington Carver, Fannie Lou Hamer and David Walker almost exclusive property of the African American legacy?

Furthermore, does not the concept of Black History Month suggest that other marginalized groups have a month of celebration as well?

Thus, the solution would be to authentically integrate the achievements of African Americans as well as other marginalized communities into American history. Here is where I fear we do not possess collective maturity.

An authentic integration of American history would require that all communities be honest about its high and low moments. A genuine incorporation of history would therefore demand that America become self-reflective in ways that it has managed to avoid.

If the descendants of African slaves cannot receive an apology from the United States government for the obvious centuries of dehumanization, how can we realistically examine the mistreatment sustained not only by Native Americans, but also practically every group that has arrived on these shores?

Sadly, America is not at this place. Any attempts to authentically integrate black history into that of dominant culture, I fear, would create further marginalization. Moreover, there are warring factions on both sides of this debate that would become strange bedfellows in maintaining black history to its current, predictable, 28-day format.

There is a certain comfort that comes with being marginalized just as there is with those who are unwilling to view America beyond the superficial myth that has been conveniently constructed by poplar culture.

Those who superficially suggest the emergence of Tiger Woods, Oprah Winfrey, and Barack Obama is proof that Black History Month has run its course ironically make the case for its preservation, even in its current hackneyed state.

It is a mature nation that can look at itself authentically, not for the purposes of guilt, but rather to become better and stronger. When it is no longer necessary that February commemorate Black History Month, we may be well on our way to becoming that more perfect union.


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