Celebration or Placebo? the Annual Focus on African-American Heritage Generates Questions about Black History Month Observances

By Keels, Crystal L. | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, February 23, 2006 | Go to article overview

Celebration or Placebo? the Annual Focus on African-American Heritage Generates Questions about Black History Month Observances


Keels, Crystal L., Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Dr. Carter G. Woodson initiated Negro History Week in 1926 as a way to highlight the almost universally ignored contributions and history of people of African descent.

"I HATE BLACK HISTORY MONTH." SUCH READS THE TITLE OF A 2001 ESSAY POSTED ON WWW.EPINIONS.COM THE AUTHOR IMMEDIATELY ATTEMPTS TO ASSURE READERS THAT THIS IS NOT RACIST SENTIMENT. ON THE CONTRARY, THE WRITER INSISTS, THE ISSUE IS THAT BLACK HISTORY MONTH IS RELEGATED TO THE SHORTEST MONTH OF THE YEAR. AND ONCE THAT MONTH IS OVER, BLACK HISTORY GENERALLY DISAPPEARS FROM EDUCATIONAL AGENDAS. THE AUTHOR ALSO ADMITS THAT THE AIMS OF DR. CARTER G. WOODSON, THE SECOND AFRICAN-AMERICAN TO GRADUATE FROM HARVARD UNIVERSITY AND THE FOUNDER OF NEGRO HISTORY WEEK, WERE MORE THAN LEGITIMATE, BUT AT THIS POINT IN HISTORY, SUCH "SEGREGATION" OF BLACK HISTORY SHOULD BE OBSOLETE.

Yet the plethora of lectures, exhibits, film screenings and poetry readings that suddenly appear on university and college campuses across the nation every February suggest that Black History Month might be helping to fulfill Woodson's goal. Woodson initiated Negro History Week in 1926 as a way to highlight the almost universally ignored contributions and history of people of African descent.

But in recent years, questions have been posed about the relevance of Black History Month and related celebrations, particularly those in institutions of higher education.

"Over the years, I have grown increasingly disenchanted with Black History Month, even as I reluctantly participate in some of the festive activities," says Dr. Audrey T. McCluskey, associate professor of African and African American diaspora studies and director of the Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University.

"In 1915 it made a lot of sense, given the political disenfranchisement of Blacks and their invisibility in the public sphere," she says. "It seems anachronistic that in the 21st century we should be celebrating the 'contributions' of Blacks to this country."

McCluskey is not alone in her reservations about Black History Month. Dr. Nell Painter, the renowned Princeton University historian, told The Associated Press in 2005 that speaking invitations generally involve requests for the same old tired material. And a recent article, "Is Black History Month Broken?" featured on www.tolerance.org, reports that Painter is simply saying no to requests for Black History Month appearances. Others are beginning to do the same. In the same article, Dr. Mary Frances Berry, former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said Black History Month events do little to delve into the depths of information regarding Black achievement.

Dr. Sarah Willie, an associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Swarthmore College, concurs. "We need more than shallow motivational speeches. We need to go deeper. We need more and better information," she says.

LARGER-SCALE CHARGE

Some of the events that are listed under Black History Month celebrations are only loosely associated with anything Black or historical. Some in fact, are quite bizarre, says Dr. William Jelani Cobb, an assistant professor of history at Spelman College.

"Someone was doing a Wesley Snipes film festival for Black History Month," he says.

Black History Month celebrations at some schools have become little more than excuses for a party. For example, Central Michigan University is touting a concert by Atlanta rapper Ludacris as part of its celebration. Tennessee State University, an HBCU, featured the Miss Nubian Queen Pageant. A year ago, the Bronx Zoo got into the act, deciding to highlight its animals from Africa during February.

But despite some of the unusual events, Cobb is an advocate of Black History Month.

"It's an important tradition. Lots of people do interesting things. We need to celebrate the real dimensions of the history," he says.

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