Last month the San Francisco Chronicle exposed the ineffectiveness of Black History Month. The article pointed out that when a picture of Frederick Douglass was presented to a group of elementary school students in Los Angeles, none of the black children had any idea who Douglass was. Even worse, the only children who ventured a guess were white students, and their guess was that he was Uncle Ben, the icon for a popular brand of rice.
How is it that most American school children, black children in particular, don't have any idea who Frederick Douglass is? If you were to show a picture of George Washington or Benjamin Franklin, most children would know who they were. However, the majority of the American population can't even name five major African American figures in U.S. history. Do you know who Frederick Douglass or George Washington Carver were? How about W.E.B. Du Bois? If not, you probably enjoyed an education in the American public school system.
The problem is the idea of Black History Month. It began in 1926 as "Negro History Week." Originally, its purpose was to recognize the importance of black history to America; however, the originators never intended the celebration to continue. It was their goal that black history would become an integral part of American history and would be observed throughout the year.
Instead, in 1976 "Negro History Week" became Black History Month, and now we are compressing 400 years of history into the shortest month of the year (which, incidentally, it shares with American Heart Month, International Boost Self-Esteem Month and, last but not least, Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month).
There are many problems with singling out a month to "celebrate" black history. Most notably, it reinforces white beliefs that black history is not worth popular recognition. In addition, by relegating black history to a particular month, the month of February has become especially susceptible to mass commercialization with large corporations making token efforts to promote black history in order to sell blacks more products.
Even here at Mills we are vulnerable to limiting ourselves in honoring black history. February is filled with sign posts on Toyon Meadow and lectures; however, once February has come and gone we do not see any signs acknowledging black history during the remaining 11 months of the year. Have you ever been to a lecture celebrating black history in November? Neither have I.
What is lost in this commercialization is the essence of Black History Month – which is to celebrate the contributions of African Americans in all aspects of our history. It is true that students benefit from Black History Month curriculum, but most people don't gain much of an appreciation for African Americans in February – or during any other month, for that matter. And there remains the problem.
We're kidding ourselves if we think that by designating February as Black History Month we're really doing anything to honor African Americans.
If we really want to honor the contributions of African Americans, we must teach black history side by side with the history of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, for only then will black history truly be acknowledged and celebrated.