It's an inevitable question as Jan. 31 rolls into Feb. 1: Do Americans still need to celebrate Black History Month? For a black person, questioning the tradition's existence may sometimes be considered akin to turning in your black card, jokes filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman in his new documentary, More Than a Month.
The film follows Tilghman, now 32, as he takes a yearlong cross-country trip in February 2010 on a one-man mission to end Black History Month, a concept that he finds puts black history in a 28- (or 29-) day box. Through personal reflection, research and interviews (from his forlorn parents, who are none too happy to hear about his plans, to Sons of the Confederate Veterans, who want to establish a Confederate History Month), Tilghman explores issues of race identity and how history is taught in this country.
More Than a Month tackles a question larger than why Black History Month exists; Tilghman wonders what it means that it still exists — and what it would mean if it didn't. The Root spoke with Tilghman about his own experience with Black History Month and why he wants to end it.
The Root: What has been your own experience with Black History Month?
Shukree Hassan Tilghman: I loved Black History Month growing up. It wasn't until I became an adult that I started to look around and [see] Heineken's "Celebrate Black History Month" ad on the bus. Like, all right, maybe that's cool, but in a certain way I felt that the continued existence of Black History Month was being condescended to in a certain way. That maybe the month was contributing to a perception that the history wasn't American or somehow not as important as some other American history. That's when I started questioning.
TR: What were people's reactions to the idea of ending Black History Month?
SHT: Some people react with straight-up anger. My parents, who are in the film, certainly did not react well upon hearing what the documentary was about. But I think by the end of the film … even if people disagree, the film is really a journey exploring this issue. It explores all different sides of the argument. And ultimately it becomes not so much whether or not we should have a Black History Month, but an examination of what it means to have a Black History Month in 2012.
TR: What do you think it means that it's 2012 and we're still celebrating Black History Month?
SHT: I think it means that we've let ourselves off the hook a little, especially as African Americans. We've allowed a situation to continue where we know there's a lack of teaching of African-American history. Not for every school district, of course, but generally speaking, we know there is a lack of this history, but we've allowed Black History Month to be a sort of Band-Aid.
We should question what that means now. I think it also means that the celebration of black history at any given time is important to people, or [the month] wouldn't still be around. I think it can actually be two things at once, whether one agrees with my previous statement or not.
TR: Why do you think the idea of ending it is so controversial?
SHT: There is a lot of attachment to Black History Month. I think it causes a strong reaction. At a time when people thought we had no history at all, that there was nothing to talk about, nothing worth writing down … out of that comes Negro History Week. Then it [becomes] Black History Month.
So there's a lot of emotion, and there's a lot of valid reasons to feel an attachment to Black History Month for what it is. I would just like to say that [ending] Black History Month is not counter to that mission; it's just a continuation of the same struggle.
TR: In the documentary, there's a scene where you have an epiphany about Black History Month while at Carter G. Woodson's organization, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. Can you describe that epiphany for us?
SHT: I finally came to a place where I understand what it means to have a history and why that's important. I have a clearer understanding of what Woodson's original intentions were. I've come to the conclusion that having a Black History Month is a way to be recognized, of course.
But what we're talking about is not ending it because it's passé or irrelevant or anything like that. It's because the ultimate goal is to not need a Black History Month. Black History Month is a tool to expose this history, but it wasn't created to be the panacea. It's sort of like giving someone a crutch for a certain amount of time. The goal is not to keep the crutch; the goal is to get rid of the crutch so you can walk.
TR: Do you think we've reached a point where we don't need Black History Month?
SHT: The notion that we wait till there is "a point" is a little backward. I think that you create a time. There is no such thing as waiting for a time and then doing something. You create that time; you create the world you want to exist in.
Visit morethanamonth.org for information about screenings in your area.
Anthonia Akitunde is a freelance writer living in Queens, N.Y. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Fast Company and The Root DC. Follow her on Twitter.