Black History Month: The Debate Rages On - Higher Education

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Black History Month: The Debate Rages On

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One cannot log on to the Internet, listen to talk radio (of all political persuasions) come across a number of blogs and other forms of media without encountering a discussion on Black History month. Interestingly, for some reason, right after Martin Luther King Jr. day and right up to the latter part of February, the topic is one that captivates certain segments of the American public like white on rice. It seems that many people, across generations —  senior citizens to millennials — the entire political spectrum — far left to far right — have an opinion.

And yes, I have decided to weigh in on the debate as well.

As many people know by now, Black History Month was an event begun as a proposal by renowned Historian Carter G.Woodson in 1925 as an effort to showcase the talents, contributions, history and other facets of African-American life that had been largely obscured, if not entirely ignored by the larger mainstream public. Woodson was mildly successful in the fact that an event known as “Negro History Week” was established in 1926 to coincide with the birthdays of two legendary Americans — Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. This would largely be the extent of the celebration of the contributions of people of African descent for another 50 years, until 1976, when Congress, along with the enthusiastic support of President Gerald Ford, decided to expand the event to become what we know today as “Black History Month.” This would be a month-long exercise for Americans of all ethnic groups to acknowledge an often neglected group of people with a long, tormented, complex and distinguished history. This is how the event is perceived today.

As I see it, the most common types of groups associated with Black History Month are the following: traditionalists, fence-sitters and dissenters.

Traditionalists — These are the men and women who tend to be avid consumers of Black culture. They often faithfully attend events and programs showcasing African-American culture in all its forms. They are often well-versed and aware of the political, social, cultural and aesthetic issues facing Black people past and present. The level of passion for and dedication to Black culture is evident. These are the people who see Black History Month as a vital ingredient to ensure and complete the rich fabric of Black people. Their political ideologies range from staunch nationalists to passionate integrationists. Many Black professors and politicians are a part of this group.

Fence-Sitters — The motto for people in this category is, “Some of it I like, some of it I don’t.” These are the individuals who see a need for Black History Month, yet are wary of what they see as certain excesses and motivations (perhaps opportunism) of some men and women who claim to be spokespersons for the cause. Moreover, they tend to harbor a degree of skepticism about a culture (read mainstream White culture) that tends to relegate the contributions of a group of Americans to one month and then tends to largely ignore or dismiss their concerns for the remainder of the year. In fact, some find such a situation insulting. Actor Morgan Freeman falls into this category.

Dissenters — These are the people who believe that Black Americans have progressed to the point to where there is not a need for such an event. They see Black History Month as supposedly “divisive,” unnecessary, and in some cases, “racist.” They are also more inclined to believe that Black Americans are no longer suffering from residential, economic, educational and other forms of systematic discrimination. These are the people who subscribe to the belief that America is now in a post-racialist stage and that racial discrimination is no longer the social cancer that it once was. To be sure, there are a number of Blacks, including a notable number of millennials (those born after 1980), a few Black conservatives and some post racialists of all races who are representative of this category. There are problems with all three positions.

The truth is that many traditionalists tend to feel that any sort of rhetoric that tends to advocate an Afrocentric-oriented movement or theme is worthy of celebration, no matter how shallow or extreme. This mindset can be misguided in the sense that there are people who are not above manipulating, distorting and abusing the legacy of Black History Month in an effort to profit economically and in other ways. Moreover, excessive or deficient agendas that are embraced without careful and critical scrutiny can be damaging to any cause in the long run. This includes Black History Month.

While fence-sitters may believe that harboring a healthy degree of ambiguity is laudable, even practical, the fact is that their stance represents a lack of commitment. It also leaves the event under potential attack from right-wing conservatives and others with more sinister agendas who would like to diminish, if not outright dismiss any and all contributions to Black Americans and other non-Whites. Thus, such a position itself is indeed questionable.

Not all who represent the dissenter camp are racial bigots (though some are). In fact, many of these men and women probably see themselves as racially and socially progressive on a number of issues. Nonetheless, a number of them are the products of post-civil-rights, integrated schools and neighborhoods. Moreover, many are the victims of an acute and chronic lack of past history. Others are people who are simply in denial, whether intentionally or not, about the current state of equality in American society. For the younger segment of this group, I am more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Black History Month is an important event that deserves to be celebrated not just for one month, but for the entire duration of every year. The fact is that a number of other ethnic groups and events have been established and are deservedly being celebrated by our nation. They include: Women’s History Month — March; Hispanic History Month — September 15th to October 15th; Asian-Pacific History Month — May; Native American History Month — November; Gay and Lesbian History Month — October; Jewish Heritage Month — May.

America is a diverse and pluralistic society. The acknowledgment and celebration of different groups and cultures is an important, and indeed, necessary factor in a land that is becoming increasingly multicultural everyday.

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