The End of Black History Month
In the Obama era, what's the rationale for separating black history from American history?
Some, however, disagree. “The notion that it’s outlived its usefulness betrays some ignorance of what its purpose was in the first place,” said Howard Dodson, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the celebrated Harlem-based repository of black historical documents and artifacts.
“If you follow the logic of those who say Black History Month has outlived its usefulness, they’re also saying that institutions like the Schomburg have outlived their usefulness,” Dodson told me in February 2006.
The fact of President Obama necessarily calls into question the long-standing African-American preoccupation with life in that rearview mirror. His election doesn’t diminish or undercut the importance of black history as an index to the future; it does make the reflexive reverence of Black History Month seem like what it’s fast becoming: an observance with an existence that reinforces a sense of apartness, of separation, that Obama’s election directly contradicts.
To what degree do we tarnish the spirit of black American history by holding it apart from the rest of a society it was meant to interact with?
The issue of continuing Black History Month isn’t really a debate over its value or the worth of expanding it to a yearlong event or a decade-long event. It’s realizing the most important thing about history in general and black history in particular, is that it provides a springboard, a lesson plan for the future.
The election of Barack Obama called on America to rethink its idea of the national future, and, similarly, it called on black Americans to rethink their relationship with history and its true value. William Faulkner once famously observed: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” That’s a usefulness that can’t be outlived. That’s a relationship that can’t be fully, adequately contained in a month or a year or a century. African-American history is American history, and we live that history every day of the year.
Michael E. Ross is a regular contributor to The Root.